I have spent scores of hours playing Hades, Supergiant Games’ first foray into the twin worlds of roguelike RPGs and early access games. Many other writers have expressed their thoughts on this game, usually praising its exciting gameplay loop, community engagement, and the stunning art and music that we have come to expect from Supergiant’s team.
All of this praise is well deserved. Hades has tight controls, a bevy of unique weapons, and an innovative ‘boon’ system that offers a near-perfect balance of random elements and strategic control to each run. The art, under the masterful direction of Jen Zee, sucks you into an incarnation of the titular underworld that is simultaneously vibrant and dour. Darren Korb’s stellar soundtrack only heightens the tension and emotion as the player guides our protagonist, Zagreus, through each level of the dead realm.
But, like I said, other writers have duly and admirably covered these aspects of the game, among many other topics. That’s why I’d like to focus on the astounding writing and world building — in particular, how writer Greg Kasavan skillfully ‘humanizes’ a cast of gods, mythical beasts, and half-remembered wraiths.
Supergiant’s games are very good at making you feel alone. That might be an odd sentiment to read if you haven’t experienced the company’s art — but I’d bet that the statement rings true to many people who have played any (or all) of Supergiant’s 4 games.
The feeling of isolation makes a lot of sense, given the settings of each game. In Bastion, you control a young man who is one of the only people to survive a cataclysmic event. Even though you spend the whole game having your ears massaged by Logan Cunningham’s silky-smooth portrayal of Rucks, the narrator, the Kid himself is on his lonesome out in the perilous ruins of Caelondia.
Red, the mute protagonist of Transistor, is similarly isolated in Cloudbank, left alone to make her way through the city without succumbing to the overzealous janitorial services of the Process. Even though her companion (often labelled Blue, Boxer, or Breach by fans) speaks to Red through the eponymous Transistor, she is the only actor with direct agency — a fact that is made abundantly clear upon the game’s ending.
In both Bastion and Transistor, the story is told largely through environmental details and the stunning vocal performance of Cunningham, who delivers 98% of the dialogues (monologues?) in each game. A cynical player, therefore, might chalk these games’ masterfully-crafted settings up to being little more than products of necessity, spawned from limited resources — though this would be a disservice to the astounding work of the Supergiant team.
This same accusation could hardly be laid against Pyre — Supergiant Games’ third outing — however. Pyre features 12 different voice actors portraying 24 different characters in visual novel style. Even with this massive cast of characters, the game still radiates an aura of isolation.
A large aspect of this atmosphere, as with Pyre’s predecessors, comes from the environment in which the game takes place. The player controls the otherwise-unnamed Reader, who is cast out of society for the high crime of literacy and left to die in the purgatorial Downside. The Reader joins a group of exiles calling themselves the Nightwings, to do the only thing that will allow them to escape their hellish punishment — play magical 3-on-3 basketball against treants, sea worms, and punk-rock dogs.
Pyre is awesome.
Throughout the game, the protagonist (and player) forms tight bonds with the other Nightwings and makes incredibly heart-wrenching decisions in pursuit of their desired freedom. The themes of family, loss, sacrifice, and community are not necessarily subtle — but their forthrite presentation does nothing to diminish the highly-effective, highly-emotional narrative arc.
However, despite this focus on community and companionship, Pyre still exudes an atmosphere of solitude. Instead of being (mostly) alone in an accidental apocalypse, the exiles are outcasts from a society — each ejected for their personal infractions and with their own reasons for seeking redemption and return to the Commonwealth.
Essentially, Pyre explores the idea of loneliness by giving you a tight-knit group of companions and placing you against a society that has abandoned you.
Hades takes this idea and steps in a different direction — Zagreus is isolated in a society that actively tries to embrace him.
Hell is hot, but the people are cool
Supergiant’s creative designers have achieved the amazing: they have revitalized and recontextualized a mythological realm whose history stretches across millennia of human imagination.
There have been literally countless depictions of the Hellenic underworld and its chthonic denizens since humans first looked in wonder at the mighty Olympus. In many of these stories, Hades is a desolate dimension ruled by the ghastly god of the same name — in postmodern reflections, it can be a bastion of order against the chaos of the worlds above, with Lord Hades as a judicious administrator.
The (under)world that Hades introduces is — in a word — warm. Aside from the rolling lava fields of Asphodel (the second layer through which Zagreus treks), this warmth is largely metaphorical, born from the writing and environmental design.
Each time Zagreus falls in battle, he is revived at the lowest level of the underworld and casually strolls out of a bloody wading pool. Despite being at the base of hell’s pit, the site of Zagreus’ resurrection resembles a supernatural DMV more than any sort of tortuous hellscape. Lines of shades patiently pace up to the throne of Hades to face his judgement and learn their eternal fate. The player can eavesdrop on the conversations between the deceased, hearing a mix of nervous excitement, confusion, and fear — as well as each ghost’s (often humorous) cause of death.
It is instantly obvious, upon your first visit to the House of Hades, that Zagreus is a familiar face to the long-term residents. Even if you — somehow — miss the fact that Zagreus is the half-chthonic son of Hades, it is clear from his interactions with the environment and characters that Zag is well-known and loved in the underworld. It is in these interactions that the aforementioned ‘warmth’ is most clearly felt.
Every single time I die in Hades, I dash out of the blood pit and immediately start scooting around the House of Hades, going into every corner of the great hall in search of the bright exclamation marks over characters’ heads that indicate a new conversation. A lot of these interactions don’t necessarily offer much to explain plot details or take the characters into a clearly deeper level of friendship — but they are integral to crafting the potent atmosphere of community that iterates upon the fantastic writing from Pyre.
In fact, this atmosphere is so gripping, I don’t really get that mad at dying in Hades. Sure, I dashed a stupid time after wasting my casts and got curbstomped by the legendary hero Theseus — but at least I get to hear the perpetually-chipper God of Slumber playfully poke fun at Zagreus for the failure. I created a weak build — using my worst weapon, with the pact of punishment set way too high — and met a premature end in the lava pits of Asphodel? I may be frustrated, but I set that aside when I remember that I can give Cerberus his duly-owed snuggle and mess around with the dead bard Orpheus.
Although not all of the characters in the great hall of the dead are necessarily lovable, I love them all. There’s a comfortable ease that accompanies Zagreus’s conversations with the denizens of the House of Hades, which makes it even more satisfying to explore his relationships with the other dramatis personae.
By conventional storytelling standards, it would make sense for things to be tense between Zagreus and the underdwellers in the House of Hades. After all, the chthonic prince is a rebel against the all-important order of the underworld — and his actions seem to make life and duty more difficult for his fellows. Despite this, Hades makes it clear that Zag is beloved by the society from which he is trying to escape — and that he, in turn, adores the myriad personalities of the underworld.
Trapped in a cultural Limbo
Everything about Zagreus, in design and personality alike, screams that he is split between worlds. His heterochromatic eyes, one an infernal red and the other an Olympic green, are just one example.
Every interaction with the other Chthonic socialites seems to highlight this split in some way, even if that highlight is, ironically, subtextual. Zag’s divided heritage is never a secret — at least, not to the player and many of Hades’ characters. He is set apart from the underworld society in two ways: by his parentage, and by his station.
Zagreus is only half-Chthonic, as his mother hails from far above the callous depths of Hades’s realm. By virtue of his heritage, he is kin to the gods of Olympus that offer him aid during the course of each run, but he doesn’t fit into Olympian life any better than he fits into the underworld. Zeus and his ilk might wholeheartedly wish for Zagreus’s succes and provide their godly boons for his use, but the stellar tonal work of Kasavin makes it abundantly clear that they exist in a world that is inaccessible to Zagreus, both literally and emotionally.
That’s not to say that the deities and Chthonic denizens actively deny Zagreus their trust and affection. Indeed, almost everyone around Zag reaches out to him emotionally and tries to bring him into their respective fold — but their support cannot fully bridge the gap between them and the hellish prince. Zagreus experiences emotional isolation as a result of his dedication to learn the truth of his heritage and escape his father’s domain.
Why should anyone care?
Video games, like any other medium, serve much the same purpose today that mythology has for thousands of years. They can help us explore and understand human nature through tales that are larger than life – and few game development studios have so used this power as effectively and consistently as Supergiant Games. Through innovative usage of the interactivity of video gaming, Supergiant allows the player to explore complex ideas of relationships, duty, loyalty, regrowth, love, and more.
This is no easy feat – but it is easier to accomplish when the characters through which the player acts are inherently sympathetic. In each of Supergiant’s 3 prior games, the protagonist’s humane value is immediately apparent. In Bastion and Transistor, the Kid and Red face nearly insurmountable odds but persist nonetheless – making it easy to empathize with their struggles and celebrate their successes. In Pyre, the Nightwings are equally relatable, as they are fighting against systemic injustices and striving to reform a society that cast them out.
It’s much harder to place yourself in the position of a god. Much of Zagreus’s life is unrelatable to the player – particularly his princely might and constant resurrection. Because the infernal prince is so powerful within his own world, you must be able to connect with him in other ways to really care and wish for his success. Hades removes the stakes – and to some extent, the struggle – that make the protagonists of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre so compelling as a necessary sacrifice for the roguelike game design. With each failure counting for so much less, narratively, it’s vital that Supergiant found a way to allow you to connect with your avatar in a different way.
When creating a game that features a deity as the primary, controllable character, it is imperative that the writers take care to ‘humanize’ the god or goddess. In some cases, most notably the God of War series, this humanization comes through family and tragedy. Everyone has dealt with loss at some point, so creating an all-powerful character laid low by the death of their family creates an instant empathic bond between the player and their avatar. You might not be able to truly sympathize with Kratos as he enthusiastically enacts his vengeance on multiple different pantheons, but you sort of get him when taking into account the tragedy that befell him and his loved ones.
This is why it’s so important for Zagreus’s mission to be so relatable. By writing Zag to be uncomplacent with the chthonic society, Supergiant effectively creates a connection between the character and any player who has ever felt out of place in their own life. Zagreus doesn’t hate the denizens of the underworld – indeed, he is very close with several of them – but he yearns to understand himself and his origins by escaping Hades’s controlling grasp. Almost any player can instantly relate to this desire for change; born not of hate, but of self-understanding. The infernal prince loves the other gods, heroes, and creatures that live in the House of Hades — even the ones that begrudgingly try to murrrder him — but is driven to discover the truth about his heritage despite the protests of those around him.
Compared to the familial motivation that permeates so many other mythological stories, Zagreus’s drive is far more relatable on a wide scale. His goal is not to escape from an oppressive regime, nor to find a group of people on the surface to whom he can relate. Rather, he seeks to understand who he is and where he came from — a journey of self-actualization. In a game where the mechanics are not designed to be overtly immersive, this relatable characterization is imperative to creating a gaming experience that sucks in the player and inspires them to undertake the challenge of escaping the underworld time and time again.
All this to say, Hades offers us a stellar example of why proper storytelling can be a powerful tool for creating a bond between gamer and game. I’ll be honest, the gameplay of Hades didn’t immediately click with me. It took a few dozen runs of getting trounced before my hands, mind, and reflexes adapted to the particularities of the system. But never, in those sometimes-frustrating runs, did I ever consider putting down the game for good — because the immaculate storytelling had grabbed me and refused to let me leave. If the storytelling had been less engaging, I probably never would have kept playing Hades. I would have chalked the small successes that I had achieved in the game then let it languish on my hard drive for a few months before uninstalling it and booting Pyre up for a fourth play through.