One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
Stroppy teenagers. Authoritarian dads. Absent mothers. Intrusive family. Oh, and myriads of monsters, mythological creatures, divine powers, mythological weapons, snark, flirtation, style, and the best tunes this side of the river Styx. Who’d have thought that the underworld could be this much fun?
Hades by indie studio Supergiant Games (I’ve previously written about their stylish, soulful Transistor) is a so-called roguelike. Roguelite? Never mind the semantics, though there is many a gamer that could argue about the right genre assignation until the end of the current pandemic and the beginning of the next. Basically, what Hades does it this: it puts you in the shoes of Zagreus, the son of Hades – yes, the tall, dark, saturnine (savour the irony of that one!) ruler of the underworld of Greek mythology, and Zagreus, well, he’s had enough. Enough of his stifling home, enough his overbearing yet aloof father, and most importantly, enough of not knowing who his mother is and why she left. So, as any self-respecting teenage godling would do, he decides to leave, to make his way through Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and the Temple of Styx, fighting the Furies (one of which, Megaera, being his ex-girlfriend, which makes things a tad awkward), the Hydra of Lerna, the legendary hero Theseus (who is, frankly, something of a conceited jerk) and his sidekick, Asterius the Minotaur – and finally Big Daddy himself: Hades.
So, to get back to that rogue-thingy. Games that have descended from Rogue generally feature cyclic gameplay, with players making their way through randomised environments, fighting enemies and overcoming obstacles, until they die and – whoosh! – are returned to square one. It’s really the perfect setup for Zagreus’ story of adolescent revolt and escape: he needs to get out of his own personal hell through an underworld filled with gods and monsters, and whenever he falls to their blades or claws or lightning bolts he, the immortal son of a god and a goddess, finds himself returned home, to try to escape another day. All of this translates easily, even elegantly, into game design – but one of the things that Hades does beautifully is loop this back into the world of Greek myth – and of teenage rebellion. Remember someone else who was tasked with a nearly impossible task, and whenever he failed, he had to start at the beginning again? (Incidentally, Sisyphus himself is in Hades, hanging out in Tartarus with his buddy Bouldy, and the good man has mellowed somewhat since his days of angering the gods and generally being something of a git.)
Supergiant Games has a track record of making games with an amazing sense of personality and style. Hades is probably their best-designed work: its various systems come together to create one of the most moreish games I’ve played in a long time. More than that though – and to explain why this is a They Create Worlds post – Supergiant has once again used the considerable writing and art talent at their disposal to create a small but immensely vivid world. The cycle of Hades is clear: you live, you fight, you die, rinse and repeat. But returning to the House of Hades, emerging from the blood-red Pool of Styx, doesn’t feel frustrating. You get to catch up with the members of the household: you stop by your stepmother Nyx, you flirt with the abrasive Megaera (who may be the one who just cut your escape attempt short) or indeed with your stepbrother Thanatos, you pet one of the three heads of Cerberus, you have a chat with the flustered, shy, eminently sweet Dusa, a floating snake-haired head who works as a maid and keeps Hades’ house clean. I’ve done, oh, 50 or 60 runs so far, but every time I return after having been struck down by an animated skeleton or the dead spirit of a Greek warrior (or I just stepped in lava like the clumsy oaf I am), they have something new to say. And it’s not just mechanical: these are characters that develop and grow on you. Sometimes you might catch Megaera and Dusa having a private catch, sometimes you might find Hades and Nyx arguing, so these all have personalities even outside their interactions with you.
Hades recreates the old myths in clever, timely ways, while maintaining their timelessness. Supergiant’s take on the Greek pantheon is very 21st century, but it still captures the very human conflicts at their core. Zagreus is a modern teenager trying to escape an overbearing father, but he is not a shallow cliché. As he finds his mother, Persephone, and realises that he may be able to return to her but he is unable to stay permanently, he comes to realise that things may not be as simple, as black and white, as he first thought. Hades, his father, is his antagonist, but he may not be the bad guy in all of this. The game starts off as clever, quippy teen drama, but it deepens into something surprisingly poignant. I haven’t finished Hades yet, but even while writing this I long to return to its world and to this colourful cast of characters. Will I finally manage to bring Eurydice and Orpheus together again? Where will my budding friendship with Dusa take me? Is Cerberus a good boy? (Yes, he is.) With Hades, Supergiant Games show yet again that in order to create a virtual world, you don’t need dozens and dozens of square miles of 3D landscape, you don’t need hundreds of NPCs. You need confidence in your own creative voice – and then a dysfunctional family and a household made up of a handful of heroes, losers, gods and monsters is all the world you need.