By Shannon Kong
“Again”. You, as Zagreus the son of Hades, emerge from the Pool of Styx at the House of Hades after yet another unsuccessful run. Hypnos, sleep incarnate and de facto receptionist of the House of Hades, makes another witty remark about the way you just died. But you laugh with him, knowing that the next time you emerge from the pool, Hypnos will still be there to greet you with another piece of unhelpful advice. In Hades, failing and dying are engrained in the gameplay experience in a way that doesn’t punish the player, but rather presents an opportunity to explore, build relationships, and most importantly: to try again. To fail in Hades is to progress, and the game masterfully utilizes its roguelike structure to encourage the player to treat failure as a necessary component of the gameplay experience, and to navigate through randomness and unfamiliarity in a way that enhances both the game’s combat systems as well as the narrative journey.
Combat Variety, Skill vs. Chance, and Perceived Strength
The combat system in Hades is a roguelike hack-and-slash dungeon crawler in which Zagreus uses a chosen weapon and a combination of Olympian boons, weapon upgrades, and other combat enhancing mechanics to fight through procedurally generated rooms of monsters in order to escape to the surface. As you clear each room, you get to choose what type of reward you’ll receive after clearing the next room; you could collect another Olympian boon to further strengthen the effects of your abilities, take a break at the shop to purchase upgrades with gold, chat to one of the few underworld deities that you’ll encounter along the way, or even pick up currency that you’ll use back at the underworld hub. Due to the sheer amount of upgrades to choose from, every run will always be unique and different to previous runs, ensuring that the gameplay loop feels fresh no matter how many times you’ve gone through it. Although the list of rewards and their specific benefits may seem long and daunting for many players, the game simplifies the process of choice in such a way that it both gives the player a strong sense of agency to design their own run, but also ensures that the player isn’t overwhelmed and can instead focus on the actual combat experience. After completing a room, the game would present at most 3 ‘doors’ for you to choose from, corresponding to the different types of rewards you could potentially receive. Additionally, when you pick up a boon, a Daedalus hammer, or enter the upgrade shop, you will be met with a tab that only presents three choices for you to choose from. In doing this, the game asks you to ignore the long list of boons that freaked you out the first time you opened your codex, but instead to make a simple and swift decision between choices 1, 2, and 3. On top of that, the combat system is designed to indicate which boons or upgrades you’ve used in previous runs, so that you may decide to choose an upgrade you knew to work, or to roll with something entirely new.
However, such a combat system could be thought to create an over reliance on chance or ‘luck’ to succeed in a run. A streak of unlucky rewards could lead to you having too much health but not enough damage to comfortably clear each room, or being one hit from dying with an incredible set of upgrades desperately hoping for a way to restore your health. Nevertheless, Hades’ roguelike structure forces the player to treat failure as a natural process of the gameplay loop, and encourages failure as a means to experiment and reconsider one’s strategy; in turn this teaches the player to become skillful at handling ‘chance’. Each time you fail a run, you would most likely find yourself wondering “was that extra boon worth it?”, or “should I have used the other Daedalus hammer upgrade?”, or “when should I dash back in to hit the enemy?” But as you continuously go through the loop and fail again and again, you begin to be able to answer these questions, and better understand how to maximize damage output with specific weapon aspects while staying healthy, how specific monsters and bosses move and act, which boons synergise well with other Olympian boons, and so on. The long lists of upgrades and erratic enemy movements start to become recognisable and predictable; that is to say, the roguelike structure of Hades turns the unfamiliar into something familiar. As Greg Kasavin, creative director of Hades, explains: “Your knowledge of the game world is shared with Zagreus, right, so you’ll both be like, ‘Oh, it’s this boss again,’ and we really wanted to harmonize the player experience with the narrative experience.” Even when the game presents the player with too many centaur hearts or simply a series of Olympian boons that don’t synergise well with each other, the player would be able to recognise and accept a failing run, and dedicate their attention to advancing relationships with the underworld deities or collecting more currency to spend rather than struggle to finish the run. Kasavin also said in an interview: “Life is a bunch of randomness that you try to exert control over. You wish that you could just script your life in which case you would just script it perfectly. But you can’t, so the best you could do is just try to navigate, and so roguelikes are about navigating the unknown and trying to prevent randomness from killing you.” Through recognising and learning from failure, the player is able to utilize the chance components of the game as a practicable skill to inform the choices they make in the game and further enhance their gameplay experience.
Going back to the discussion of variety, one of my personal criticisms of Hades’ combat system is in how it doesn’t incentivize the player enough to actively experiment with different build paths. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Despite being a completionist myself I often found myself gravitating towards certain boons and upgrade combinations that I knew worked in the past – I knew they “weren’t broken”. The extent to which I ‘experimented’ often came down to selecting specific upgrades in order to “try them out once” or progress certain side quests and dialog events or just for general achievement purposes, but the fact of the matter was that I simply found them lackluster compared to boons like Athenas’, Artemis’, or Demeters’. What I think this criticism sheds light upon is the fact that the game plays upon each players’ conceptualization of what is ‘strong’ or what is ‘good’ – what we perceive to be strong. Hades’ single-player nature makes it such that our perception of what is strong is ultimately influenced by our preferences and our playstyles; whether we like to keep distance between ourselves and the enemies or be right up in their faces, or whether we prefer to burst down the enemy’s health over whittling them down with status and damage-over-time effects. That isn’t to say that certain boons and upgrades are wrong or not worthwhile, there are plenty of people that love a specific boon, upgrade, or weapon aspect that others may deem weak or difficult to work with. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that when we look at the Hades player base as a whole, each player would offer wildly different weapon aspects and builds that they found to be strong and comfortable to use, so ultimately while build diversity on the individual level may not be great for every person, there is a substantial amount of build diversity across the entire playerbase.
Immersion and Reflection
On the flip side, what Hades’ roguelike structure enables from a narrative perspective is a greater degree of immersion. As I mentioned before, characters such as Hypnos have specific dialogue recorded to respond to key parts of your previous or current run; such dialogue may respond to how you died in the previous run, your weapon choice for the run, or an Olympian that you received a boon from earlier in the run. What ties these quirky lines of dialogue together is that they are (for the most part) choices that the player actively made as part of their run. So when such lines of dialogue appear, an extra layer of immersion is added because it makes the player question whether the character is speaking to Zagreus, or the player directly. Immersing the player in such a way harmonizes the player’s experience with Zagreus’ experience throughout the narrative. When you grow stronger and better at the game, so too does Zagreus grow stronger and more capable of escaping; when you encounter failure he also (by default) encounters failure. These instances of player-to-character harmonization are strung together by the bits of dialogue and interaction that you get at the end of every run, and brings you through each step of Zagreus’ physical and emotional growth, ultimately making the emotional moments of Zagreus’ story feel more personal.
Additionally, due to the large cast of characters that Hades has adapted over from Greek Mythology, the roguelike structure of the game allows the player to explore various branching narratives and ponder on the question of “how do you reflect on and make peace with choices that you made when death is not the definitive end?” For many of the characters that you meet in the underworld, Supergiant’s adaptation of their personalities and ideals probably do not match up with what we would envision them to be. For example, Achilles, famed for his strength in battle and near-invincibility, shows an incredibly humble personality and often takes on the role of a mentor and a source of support for Zagreus. Sisyphus, who is tasked with rolling a boulder up a hill for all of eternity, has appeared to make peace with his punishment; he presents a cheerful demeanor whenever he greets you, and he even went as far as to call his boulder – the physical manifestation of his punishment – “Bouldy”. This juxtaposition between our expectations and the reality we are met with emphasizes the idea that people can change; we can reflect upon the actions that brought us suffering and punishment, and improve upon ourselves in such a way that we can seek forgiveness and reconcile with others. Hades’ roguelike structure complements this idea as it allows the player to witness each characters’ emotional growth and story in bite-size chunks; by continuously interacting with these characters the realization of their dissatisfaction, their efforts to change their circumstances, and their reconciliations are presented to the player in such a way that feels gradual and not rushed.
Overall, Hades is a beautifully made game that emphasizes the importance of failure and perseverance in achieving one’s goals. Through repeated encounters with failure we can grow familiar with things that we were previously scared of, we can learn to adapt and adjust our strategies in ways that give us better likelihoods at success, and we can seek the support of others and eventually grow alongside one another. Finally, Hades tells a story of escaping. Whether it be escaping our literal physical spaces, or escaping the very mindsets that have kept us discontent, Hades shows to us that with enough time, effort, and reflection, we can always take steps forward and better ourselves. It was an absolute pleasure playing and writing about this game, and I would highly recommend this game to people regardless of their experience or interest in roguelikes.
know. “Hades Creative Director Interview.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Dec. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmpmLF7xi6g.
King, Jade, and Jade King (650 Articles Published) . “Greg Kasavin on the Success of Hades, Diversity in the Pantheon, and Zagreus in Smash.” TheGamer, 25 Mar. 2021, https://www.thegamer.com/greg-kasavin-on-the-success-of-hades-diversity-in-the-pantheon-and-zagreus-in-smash/.
Hades. Windows PC Version, Supergiant Games, 2020.