A love letter to Hades, Supergiant Games’ new father-fighting simulator
It’s a cool breezy night here at the Temple of Styx and we’re back for another electrifying round of your favorite game show and mine, FIGHT… YOUR… DAD!
As the first entry in a spicy new genre I’m prepared to call the father-fighter, Hades lets us join Zagreus, the immortal son of the eponymous lord of hell, as he works out some daddy issues the only way the Greek gods know how: trading mortal blows and expensive gifts until someone consents to stay dead. It seems that Hades’ erstwhile squeeze Persephone has wearied of the old man’s sparkling wit and sunny disposition, and lit out for the surface, leaving her godling son to absorb an endless torrent of divorced-old-man whining and backhands, and the underworld in a state of lockdown. Living or dead, mortal or divine, nobody gets out.
Fortunately, Zag’s not the only one who thinks Dad’s being a little unreasonable about this. The cousins and uncles on Olympus have sent letter after letter, and Hades won’t even look at them. We get that he’s pissed about being assigned the underworld, but that’s millennia ago now. At some point, you have to move on, fix up the house, find a hobby. Zagreus did – learned to fight at the knee of Achilles himself, and was that ever a mistake on his father’s part. Kick a boy around for thousands of years and then have the greatest warrior who ever lived train him to kick back? Maybe this is why they say all fathers subconsciously raise their sons to destroy them.
No telling where he got the weapons, though – that must have been the Fates. Some of them haven’t been seen since Hades and his brothers sealed away the Titans. Some were already lost before that battle began. Most immortals won’t lay a hand on the powers Zagreus is stirring up, and most wouldn’t defy the Lord Hades to his face, but having found some kind of direction for his endless life, the boy moves through the underworld like a wave, like lightning, like an arrow in flight, wearing the blessings of his Olympian relatives and bringing change to this unchanging realm wherever he goes. Perhaps it’s because everyone else has a place here, of a kind – Mother Nyx has the old man’s trust; Thanatos a sacred duty that never ends; even Cerberus sits at the throne’s right hand. Zagreus has never once, not for a day in a thousand years, been allowed to forget that he is unwelcome here.
There’s a term for games that are ridiculously demanding and yet satisfying to play – it’s becoming a little dated now, but we used to call that “Nintendo hard.” These days, Nintendo focuses on expanding gaming’s fanbase beyond its existing demographics, and there’s nothing wrong with that; anybody shit-talking a game for being accessible or “casual” is a little boy trying to keep the other kids out of his clubhouse, and destroying his own hobby so he can feel superior. There was a time, though, when Nintendo was known more for making games that wanted you fucking dead. There’s an appeal to that, if the game is well-designed, as the wild success of games like Dark Souls can attest. But the game must be well-designed – it can’t be hard because it’s obtuse, badly balanced, responds sluggishly or unpredictably, communicates poorly or lies to the player. That’s the kind of hard that makes a gamer quit, not the kind that makes her grit her teeth and reload from the last checkpoint.
Hades is Nintendo hard, in the most beautiful way. So much of this is gamefeel – the experience of maneuvering around the world, the responsiveness of the character, the speed and elegance of the animation. Rewarding progress with power is one thing, but starting a player off limping feels punitive in a roguelike game where you’re always restarting – and Zagreus never feels weak. He fights like a god from the first step he takes, and grows more powerful from there, and the challenge scales accordingly. This scaling isn’t just bigger numbers, either. Too often, “New Game Plus” just means another zero tacked on the end of all your stats, and the only difference between “Normal” and “Hard” is that enemies have twice as much health in hard mode. And you can do that, in Hades, if you want – make the numbers bigger if it embiggens your… enjoyment.
But you can also cause the Hydra that spat fire at you from the sidelines to hop right out of the lava and chase you on its dangling neck-stump, if that sounds more fun. Face Theseus and the Bull in Elysium’s arena enough times, and you’ll realize that raising the difficulty here actually makes Theseus easier to hit – he jumps into a chariot to charge you, but doesn’t carry a shield and block all damage from the front anymore. This is active, thoughtful game design, and it requires active, thoughtful play in response. You often find yourself wrecking shop through Tartarus and Asphodel, only to discover that your build is atrocious when facing a single, huge enemy, or you have no good strategy for dealing with armor. You have to adapt to what you find and when you fail. You fail more often than not.
And yet failing never feels like a waste of your time. Only got as far as Asphodel before you stood in the fire while picking your nose and contemplating your build? (I’m in this picture and I don’t like it.) It’s fine, you got a fistful of gems that you can use to change the draperies in the hallway for the fourth time this week. I change ’em every time the option comes up; hearing Dad bitch about it is worth ten gems a day to me. Even if you only made it to Meg before she spanked you (which you love, and you know it), so long as you ran into Sisyphus, you’re doing meaningful work out there in hell.
The most wonderful thing is, often that work is just bringing a little joy to someone who sure as hell doesn’t deserve it. That’s the Supergiant special sauce – their complicated, flawed, heartfelt characters – and there’s not a single one in Hades I don’t want to cuddle all night long. Except maybe Dad. Fuck you, Dad. But everybody else… I can’t tell who’s been in Zagreus’s bed and who hasn’t (my current ship list includes Meg and possibly all her sisters, Thanatos, Achilles, and Dusa, don’t judge me), but everyone I meet feels real, and like their life is bigger than just our interaction in this moment. They make bad choices; they’re emotional and shortsighted; they don’t always do what I want them to do. Sometimes I work very hard to help someone… and nothing changes, it doesn’t help. That’s sad, and frustrating, and most game devs haven’t got the courage to do it, because the Skinner box of “Do Hard Thing > Get Reward” is so fundamental to gaming.
Not every game needs to be a slot machine, though. Gaming can offer many kinds of experiences, nuanced with emotional and mechanical challenge, and Hades is one of them. It appeals to me as a profoundly absurdist experience: there is no win state, no possibility of escape. The only control you have in this universe is the ability to choose, to try when you know all too well you can’t succeed. It’s an irony wrapped in an irony – an unfinished game more beautiful and involved than many finished games; a journey that you can start a thousand times and never, ever finish; a fundamentally pointless and futile fight that, by its very existence and our choice to participate in it, rejects that futility. We know where this story ends… but we’re gonna tell it again. Smash that button and start over, because somewhere deep down inside, you and Zagreus believe the same thing: despite all the evidence of your eyes and the blood you’ve shed, despite every soul in the universe who insists it’s impossible… we’re going to win one day. Never know when it’s going to be. Just have to keep trying.