Developer Supergiant Games’ magnum opus, Hades, was released in September 2020 to nearly universal acclaim . The game features Zagreus, the son of Hades, as he fights his way through the ever-changing dungeons of his father’s realm in an attempt to escape—for reasons we won’t touch on here. With every death, you’re sent back to the beginning with the ability to upgrade yourself with items earned during your run, where you can talk to friends and engage in the story before making another escape attempt … knowing that the next run will be different than the last.
This property—the procedurally generated dungeon that changes with every playthrough—makes Hades a “roguelike”.
Roguelikes is an increasingly popular genre, and for good reason. With good gameplay, the theory is that repetition provides endless opportunities to enjoy the engine and a grand array of challenges. The appeal of this falls in line with Raph Koster’s seminal work on game design: “A Theory of Fun for Game Design.” When talking about why we find games fun, Koster spends some time discussing the brain’s ability to recognize patterns and the importance of giving us new patterns to play with, saying: “There are many ways we find fun in games … But learning is the one I believe to be most important.”
After noting that we get bored when the game ceases to present us with new information, Koster also explains: “Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present. But they have to navigate between the extremes of deprivation and overload, of excessive order and excessive chaos, of silence and noise.”
This is true of roguelikes as well. It is their greatest weakness. No game can be truly random. If it were, it would simply be mindless chaos. Roguelikes must have patterns, as Koster says: “people are really good at pattern-matching.” No matter how complex a roguelike’s algorithm, players will eventually understand the underlying patterns and lose interest. To avoid this, some roguelikes, (such as Dead Cells), constantly add new content to shift the pattern.
Hades takes a much different approach. It keeps the game fresh by relying on story and characters to change the game’s emotional context.
There are many incredible things about Hades: the slick gameplay, the fantastic voice acting and the stellar soundtrack—thank you yet again, Darren Korb. But above all, we have the story and characters.
Hades puts the character-focused story at the forefront of the player experience. Each member of the cast feels wholly unique. The more you get to know them, the more you learn about the state of the world and the relationships between these people. For instance, we connect with Demeter’s sullen superiority toward the other gods and Thanatos’s mixed emotions toward Zagreus, who is torn between wanting to help him, knowing the damage he’s doing, and not wanting him to leave.
Where other roguelikes may have a good story, Hades focuses on its story, and every gameplay element serves that purpose. This focus on story provides an emotional element to the game that’s absent in many roguelikes. You may enjoy the hell out of your runs in Dead Cells, but you aren’t attached to the characters or the world.
Hades combines this focal point with the format of a roguelike to do something interesting. Instead of simply getting your heart pumping and giving you some upgrades, every run in Hades opens new stories and character opportunities. Whether it’s by meeting someone new, encountering a conversation between old allies (or enemies) back in the House of Hades, or simply learning more about someone you already know in the middle of a run, your knowledge of the story and characters is always changing.
This is not a secret. The game’s entire mechanics are based on character relationships—deepening them with chats and gifts can unlock rewards and story details. Two major items in the game have no purpose other than acting as gifts to the other characters (outside of “recycling” them, of course). Yet, the game also uses the fact that story can be done separately from gameplay to constantly give you new details without having to worry about damaging balance or gameplay.
This ever-changing, always-evolving cast—due in large part to the gradual pacing of your relationships with them—begins to feel like real people. You get attached to these characters and the stories that surround them. Given the quality of the writing and voice-acting, this occurs quite naturally.
The result is that, in every run through the game, the emotional context changes. Rather than wanting to try for a new record, you’ll go on runs and even make unwise strategic decisions, just to learn more about the cast.
Where other games are plagued with the curse that, eventually, players will grok the underlying patterns of their game and begin to lose interest, Hades stays fresh by sidestepping that problem entirely. While it is a phenomenal example of a well-done roguelike on a gameplay level, its biggest strength is that it doesn’t simply rely on gameplay to keep you guessing and maintain novelty—it allows the story to keep you totally engaged at the same time.