By Neil Merrett
Hades, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Supergiant Games
Oh, life is bigger,
It’s bigger than you and you are not me,
The lengths that I will go to,
The distance in your eyes,
— Losing My Religion by REM (1991)
There is a compelling argument to the idea that humanity’s approach to storytelling is cyclical. That is to say that each new tale is a slightly reskinned approach to telling universal themes and tropes that permeate through the narrative history of our species the world over.
The writer and journalist Charles Dickens’ centuries old tales of injustice, triumph and heartbreak were originally published in a serialised format in an attempt to publicise the ills and aspirations of a faintly recognisable UK. They are commonly regarded as the soap operas of their era.
Meanwhile, the Greek gods, with their incredible abilities that are eventually brought low by monsters, beasts, hubris or basic human fallibility were the precursor to the modern superheroes that adorn our cinema screens and televisions as a meditation on power and responsibility.
Hades by Supergiant Games is a prime example of bringing these different storytelling approaches together. However, rather than telling a tale of Greek mythology in the guise of epic poetry or anime, gaming provides an interactive approach to telling these stories.
This is an approach where you primarily smash apart the underworld to help your character make sense of his family and purpose outside of the confines of a complex, messy upbringing.
Hades is not the first ‘Rogue-like’ game to capture the imagination of gamers. It’s focus on a long slow grind to victory has been a key feature of a growing number of games for decades – perhaps most famously utilised in the Souls series of games that combine fantasy with absurdist philosophy.
Hades, Dark Souls and Slay the Spire represent a type of gaming where failure is not itself the end of the game, but the next stop in learning and conquering its mechanics – trying to be better, stronger or luckier next time round.
Their focus on returning to the start, burdened with the knowledge and hindsight of past mistakes is again a common narrative theme running through everything from the works of Stephen King, to the 1962 avantgarde French sci-fi movie La Jeté and even the Mighty Max animated TV series.
One of Hades’ greatest innovations is to build a rich narrative around the constant repetitive grind that is shaped in both small and large ways by the player’s progress and actions as Zagreus ‘Prince of the Underworld’.
Jordan Oloman, writing for NME, noted that Hades was perhaps the most quintessential game about failure and second, third and 45th chances.
Olomon noted that all rogue-like games make earning in-game capital and currency a central part of the playthrough experience with the hope of levelling up and somehow being able to paint over your weaknesses the next time round.
He said, “[It urges] players to try again so they can earn more resources and feed the machine. It creates this very fast feedback loop, where you’re hammering the button to restart out of pure frustration, dooming your next attempt as you regress into a tilted downward spiral.”
“Hades flips this fiscally-focused design on its head and makes the intermission the most important part of the game.”
Afterall, what is death and rebirth in Hades but another part of the day to day mundanity of the mythological underworld of Tartarus – “the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology”.
The frustration of failing to topple a boss on their last gasp of life during your umpteenth confrontation sees your character rising from a bloody bath tub with the option to use your latest haul of currency and souls to power up your abilities and weapons for the next time.
Hades takes this mechanic and advances its story depending on your recurring interactions with its vast cast of gods, lost souls and the damned.
The first time of defeating a boss for instance will permanently transform your relationship with them and your interactions. Others may just obstinately refuse to even acknowledge falling to the player lest the very dynamics of patriarchy be upended – a not so fantastical phenomenon.
After a punishing and fruitless run through the game’s randomly selected series of isometric dungeons – a player might still take some solace in aiding the slow and painful reconciliation of a former muse and their beloved musician/mark.
Likewise investment in The House of Hades – the only home the main character has even known and the place where you start each new quest – can improve not only the player’s chances of success, but the lot of the game’s supporting characters. It is possible to pet the dog, validate the domestic help, or try to decipher the central dysfunctions of your in-game family.
Over time, your fiercest rivals are transformed into more nuanced, complex figures that find themselves punished and tormented by the player’s gradual success. As one of the characters points out after dozens of defeats at the hands of Zagreus, is the player a more skilful or accomplished warrior for defeating them endlessly, or the logical end-product of being rewarded with stronger abilities and powerups for their constant failures at the game?
In a reimagined tale of Greek legends and cautionary tales, it is no surprise that mythological figures like Sisyphus and his best friend – an inanimate boulder called ‘bouldy’ with a crudely chiselled face – show up to provide counter arguments on the theme of perseverance.
Like any self-respecting Greek tragedy – there is a timeless tale to be told of the ‘hero’ whose wants and desires overrule and undermine the needs of those around them. Even when they may have supported and nurtured the character that seems intent on hurting them.
Interactions with characters come not only from violent combat with blade and fist, but also in terms of how you decide to pledge your allegiance in taking offerings from the pantheon of Greek gods that can lend you the literal power of the heavens and seas – depending on your preference.
It is perhaps the nearest a game has ever got to a soap opera, where the fairly simple overall plotline of a desperate escape from the afterlife is punctuated by the daily struggles of its wider community of spirits and jaded heroes. Let’s not forget the murderous furies – think of Mitchell brothers repurposed as the humanoid counterparts of murder and rage.
‘Someone has to shield you from the world‘
This soap opera theme is extended to the choice of a primary ‘antagonist’ in the form of the game’s titular character – who is not just a lord of the underworld and final boss. He is more notably Zagreus’ former employer, an apparent source of the player’s in-game misery and tribulations – also known more commonly as a father.
To play the game is to slowly see the ‘Lord of the Underworld’ less as a fiery dealer of death, but something imminently more understandable. A being worn down by the harsher realities of existence and eons of chasing down dreams and desires.
Children might aspire to see a world outside their daily lives, a place of sunlight and opportunity, but only with age can they understand the coldness and wildness that lies outside. If you have only known disappointment and heartbreak, is it not better to stay safe among the warm glow of home and the fire lakes of Asphodel.
Hades as a character is typical of the game’s focus on humanising its gods via the visual appeal of a Saturday morning cartoon and the character building of a soap opera.
In fact, a central theme of the game is that stripped of their otherworldly powers and portentous names, the gods are ultimately as egotistical and fallible as the humans they overlook – squabbling siblings and insecure parents desperate to retain their relevance among those that serve them.
From a visual and stylistic perspective, this humanisation takes a truly diverse approach to littering the game’s cast with a vibrant array of human colours to reflect the metaphorical overlords of the world.
As Ash Parrish wrote for Kotaku, the game’s approach to diversity is not only a recognition of the broad appeal of gaming around the world, but also the global concept of gods.
She said, “Hades’ pantheon of Greek gods is diverse. Athena is a dark-skinned Black woman. Dionysus is south Asian. Hermes is east Asian. Eurydice, my favourite, is a Black woman crowned with a beautiful afro made from the branches and canopy of a tree.”
Parrish also spoke to Greg Kasavin, the creative director at Supergiant Games, who argued that Zeus and his offspring are rulers of all the heavens, and not just Greece.
Kasavin wrote. “Poseidon rules all the sea and land. They sprang from the Titans, who sprang from primordial Chaos, the source of all creation. So it stands to reason that the gods represent all the people of the world, at least indirectly.”
In the end, it is fitting that those who wield power over us should be human just like their subjects – for this is the true notion of power and those who rule us.
These gods are also central to the notion of choice in the game – by asking you to decide which deities to ignore or venerate in order to gain the abilities and powers we hope to successfully get that little bit further into the sunny uplands of Greece. A place where the grass is literally greener – if perhaps no less complicated.
Some dungeon chambers might literally give you the direct choice of taking a blessing from one of two gods. A personal preference of selecting Poseidon as a means of offering the best rewards will force you to face the wrath of the Lord of War for spurning them.
Greek Mythology – perhaps more than any other attempt to understand the heavens – recognises that the powers that control our lives do not manifest themselves in supreme beings. Instead they are recognised in the wider world around us.
They are present in the elements that sustain and sometimes destroy us. They are reflected in our empathy or hatred of neighbours and those further afield, or in the majesty of wine or perhaps the unpredictable chaotic nature of human beings themselves.
Hades hammers home that the so-called gods that would control our lives are ultimately fathers, sisters, employers or those simply in the right place at the right time.
It is vital then that we are careful in terms of who we venerate and worship, whether they be family, friends, or our leaders.
In a week where most of the western world has been focused on the notion of power and those that will control our destinies, Hades offers some form of catharsis around the power of persistence and belief being sometimes able to overcome injustice and deeply entrenched systemic failings. A hope that eons spent doing and defining things as having to be a specific way are not the permanent state of humanity, but chapters in the everchanging day-to-day tribulations of men and women the world over.
A decent, time-honoured soap opera to tell of humanity’s never ending struggle.