Greek mythology is a fountain that has been tapped often for narrative inspiration to tell stories across many mediums. From Ubisoft’s Greek-inspired Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to Zack Snyder’s 300 adaptation, the tall tales of gods, men and monsters has worked in the favour of many looking to add a bit of artistic panache to their work. But far from the self-serious poetics of Homer’s epics is a game that gets the fun and oddity of Greek mythos precisely right.
For California-based game developer Supergiant Games (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre), the snide, often pretentious thundering gods of Olympus and the malevolent forces of the underworld become works of cartoonish caricature as universally acclaimed Hades points grinningly at our favourite Greek myths with one delighted remark to make: “Isn’t all this a bit silly?”
The resulting achievement for Hades in all of its fun-loving, winking glory is a swathe of accolades to single it out, finally, after over two years in early access, as one of 2020’s best video games—if not one potentially one of the best of the decade. What made this hell-fighting roguelike an object of higher mythic standing? Read on to find out.
Riffing the Myth
Instead of epic tales of superbeings clashing in godly feuds, Hades’ story gives a knowing wink to its audience as its protagonist, Zagreus, is little more than a moody teen fed up with the overbearing control of his parental figure—a phase that we all have regrettably faced once upon a time. However, instead of turning to the sad-rock melodies of My Chemical Romance, this emo teen resolves to strike back against his father. The only caveat? His father might just happen to be Hades, the god of the underworld.
In true roguelike fashion, Hades places players in the dungeon-crawling underworld and forces them repeatedly to attempt to escape through scores of enemy monsters and bosses from Greek tales. However, this view of the underworld affords itself all the bizarre fun and oddities of its mythic figures and the very nature of the roguelike medium itself.
“Roguelike” is a game genre that pushes players through a set of repeating rooms/dungeons in which they fight, knowing they will likely die again and again. The challenge, therefore, is to learn from each run and to build up your character and your skill each time so that eventually you can make it all the way to the end. The reason, however, that Hades has been far more successful than others within its genre stems from how the game actually works your repeated deaths into the narrative. It uses the typified roguelike mechanic to keep unravelling the story around you, even if you don’t beat the game.
Each time Zagreus comes stumbling out of the blood pools of Hades, respawned anew from death, he is met by a colourful cast of characters, all of which are armed with some witty remark or snide comment to make about his last time out. In this way Supergiant has masterfully built out a system whereby players gradually become more invested in each character as time goes on. Even if the gameplay was not such a damn blast, the narrative staying power of wanting to return repeatedly to the familiar faces at home, learning more of your own story and theirs, would be enough to keep the game afloat.
It helps that each character is exceptionally well backed up with Jen Zee’s beautifully artful character design and brilliant voice work, which helps to distinguish the distinct personalities of each character. Zeus is a dick. Death is an edgy emo teen. Aphrodite is a godforsaken thirst trap whom we would all “simp” for (admit it). This is the way Greek myth is supposed to be.
Rather than the self-seriousness of a godly tale like God of War, Hades looks to the peculiarities of these bickering superbeings and the nonsense of their stories. Throughout the game Zagreus is aided by the gods of Mount Olympus with powers and upgrades to help him escape. But their aid is no selfless act of righteousness. Rather, Hades makes it quite clear that the gods are only there for some petty gamble amongst themselves. Their aid is only as a snickering diatribe against their lowly brother/uncle/cousin Hades, and even in this they rarely get along with each other. As Zagreus takes on the powers of one god, the others make snide remarks about his choices and at times attack with a vengeful wrath should, heaven forbid, Zagreus ever opt for another god’s power over theirs.
Greek myth is laden with stories of the gods doing world-altering things out of petty jealousy, bickering or just plain boredom. Hades gets right to the kernel of this view of the gods and uses it to fill out the finer details of the game and how its characters are driven, even extending to how some of the gameplay mechanics naturally come about. It is an excellent marriage of narrative design, game design and programming, and is much of the reason why Hades feels as brilliant as it does. All aspects of the gameplay make sense in terms of the narrative and vice versa. Every detail of the game is filled out by a backend truth from myth, and it does so much to really enrich the experience of Hades overall.
A Rich Tapestry
Hades has swept up awards across multiple categories. That is a testament to how well executed every part of Supergiant’s game is. All aspects of the game work together beautifully to round out what is a near-perfect experience, which is certainly worthy of all the accolades it is receiving.
For one, Hades comes to life through its characters precisely because various departments bring them bursting out from multiple angles. As mentioned, the incredible art direction of Jen Zee gives every character a distinct style that succinctly conveys their personality through imagery only. On art direction alone Hades could very easily be a text-only game and still get across all of its personalities perfectly, but Supergiant goes a step beyond with the brilliance of its voice work. Logan Cunningham has received due praise and awards for his voice work on many of the game’s characters, including Hades, Poseidon, Achilles, and the growling ferryman, Charon. Composer Darren Korb lends his talents not only to the game’s incredible soundtrack but also to voicing its protagonist, Zagreus. Like Korb, many of the voice artists are Supergiant devs wearing different hats for their roles. Even so, rather than feeling like a cheap option, the voice work on Hades is exceptional. Supergiant might as well be showboating with how talented their team evidently is to be filling out multiple roles with seemingly godlike ease.
Korb’s soundtrack fills out the game with an effervescent beauty to round out the experience that much more. Boss encounters are made even more epic by the hard riffing guitars and bassy beats underscoring them. The sense of melancholic loss between lovers Orpheus and Eurydice is overwhelming in their harp ballads and dulcet vocals to each other. The soundtrack underlines and furthers the narrative and gameplay beats of Hades perfectly, making for some truly unforgettable gaming moments.
Hades excels in its artistry. Even without also just being a damn fun game to play, Hades delivers a wholly satisfying artistic experience in its own right. Every aspect of its design is so lovingly and intricately crafted that once can only stand by in admiration. Supergiant has always been exceptional for the emotional and artistic endeavours of its games, but in Hades, the company has something truly special beyond their other works.
Death is . . . fun?
Let’s get to the actual gameplay. The premise of roguelikes necessitates endless repetition and constant death. It is a battle of endurance to keep going. For many players, that endurance test may be a turn-off. Few people find it fun to constantly have their ass handed to them. Therefore, the completion of the challenge is the reward. You beat the hard thing; you are great.
But Supergiant wants to keep its players engaged throughout. Roguelikes often struggle with steep player drop offs. What promise is there to keep coming back to the game if every run you fail on ultimately ends up feeling pointless? With this in mind, the internal key phrase in Supergiant’s development was “every run counts.” As creative director Greg Kasavin explains it:
From the start of development, we put special focus on the moment of death in Hades, knowing it would be something players would see frequently. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t unduly frustrating and demoralizing to the extent we could, since the goal of a roguelike game is to be interesting enough to be worth playing repeatedly. We wondered, could we make the moment of death something players almost look forward to, rather than dread?
Returning to the hub world after death in Hades feels like far more than a punishment. Characters get new narrative information, and items and upgrades can be bought with resources accrued across your run. Not only do you naturally progress your character to make future runs easier, you also progress through the story and develop character relationships. The punishment of death becomes a brief respite and an opportunity to delve deeper into a well-written story. It is a perfect example of game design entwined naturally and brilliantly with narrative design.
Added to that, Hades’ most impressive aspect is that even after 20+ hours, 30+ hours, even 40+ hours, the game still seems to offer up new content, be it story or gameplay. Even after “beating” the game for the first time, you’ll quickly realize that you’ve only really just started. Hades runs deep in narrative and gameplay opportunity, and quite amazingly it still holds its freshness even 50 hours into play. There are always new challenges to add to the game and new combinations of godlike abilities and weapons to try, plenty to keep players engaged and having fun.
The depth to which Hades’ progression also feels seamless and naturally rewarding is also excellent. Without one singular ability upgrade now making Zagreus feel overpowered, the power and weapon upgrades do well to flow into the sense of your own skills developing too. The balance is struck just right to keep progression feeling natural and iterative. Even after your tenth completion, you’ll still breathe a sigh of relief after the final battle and look forward to the next.
Like the endless lives of the gods of Olympus and the underworld, Hades holds an endless fount of fun and opportunity for challenges. It is truly something special.
In a year in which Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II seems like the natural choice to sweep the accolades, this little princely “god that could” in Hades is giving the Sony flagship hell in the 2020 awards season. For the next year to come, I know which game I’ll likely still be playing—again and again and again.