How Hades Makes The Case For Failure

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How <i>Hades</i> Makes The Case For Failure

In a medium that is often at odds with itself and what it means to balance linear narrative, replayability and player agency, Hades stands out. It’s a game that deftly maneuvers around the repetition inherent to its genre and gives it narrative purpose. While so many other games lose steam due to poor story pacing or repetitious combat, Hades’ careful balance between its narrative ambitions and rogue-like structure offers broad support to both the story-based and the more systematic aspects of its design. Hades doesn’t just buffer the frustration of failure. It makes the player look forward to it.

In Hades, Prince Zagreus, son of the god Hades, is attempting to escape his father’s domain by fighting through the halls of the Underworld. After learning of his mother’s identity and her abandonment of the realm, he decides to leave and make it to the mortal world to find her. Complicating his exit is his father’s wrath, which turns every denizen of hell, and the very configuration of the domain, against him. As Zagreus tries to leave, he must face a difficult and unpredictable path each time.

But while he advances through each layer of the Underworld, he is also supported by his Olympian family members, who are eager to help their distant relative escape. Lord Hades hid his son’s birth from them, and even now, a shroud from his guardian Nyx obscures Zagreus from their vision. They bestow Blessings and Trinkets on Zagreus, appearing sporadically as he makes his way to the surface. At times, Zagreus’ persistence is pitiable; every return to House of Lord Hades marks yet another failure. But with every new escape attempt, he becomes more resilient and closer to the family he never knew.

Hades puts an admirable amount of effort into imbuing its fail state with value. Many games accept the player’s potential death as such a given that they don’t bother to offer the same narrative tricks that we use to cover up other design conflicts. While failure may not be inherent to all game types, in general, games have evolved around a basic structure of offering a skill-based challenge. Naturally, the trial and error process of getting through a game level can be repetitive. As the medium has grown, one inadvertent godsend has been the roguelike genre, which, while originally conceived of as an exercise in mastery, has the side effect of also being unpredictable enough to fight monotony. By using modular design elements to randomly generate environments, it eliminates the player’s ability to memorize their surroundings. But while it has an unpredictability factor that keeps the gameplay fresh, there’s still an abundance of recurrence that threatens to derail the player’s attention. When an atmosphere is not created with intent, its details become easy to brush off or ignore. I’ve always been a procedural generation cynic, seeing it as a shortcut that asks the player to attribute their own meaning to an environment rather than derive it from a specifically curated space.

But I can’t maintain that same cynicism with Hades. By pairing its rapid try and fail state with incremental narrative, the format flourishes. Instead of the clumsy barrage of information that usually accompanies the first few hours of a game, new information is given in small bits. For example, in the Codex, gifted to you by Achilles, details of the people, enemies, and places around you are unveiled only after you’ve met them a few times. These digestible portions are helpful in getting a grasp on the diaspora of Greek mythology. It’s much easier to understand the excruciating minutiae of Olympian drama when it’s relayed in such succinct encounters. The game is also impressively responsive to the player’s actions in earlier runs, or even the previous dungeon room. Gods always seem to know who you’ve been talking to, and will reference recent events, even as you pour countless hours into the game. This specificity accounts for the numerous permutations of events, even as the game hours extend well past the double digits. If you persevere, you are rewarded not just in greater mechanical depth, but in a deeper narrative world as well.

This inherent repetition is also used to reinforce the game’s themes of familial alienation and futility. Zagreus, in the absence of parental nurturing, only finds the conditioning and refinement he needs in the Underworld, where he ironically tries to both impress and escape his father. While there, he also finds help and support from his Olympian family members, which contrasts with the absence of his mother and father. Not only does Zagreus’ ignorance of the Olympians make sense from his perspective, but it also mirrors our own. As we meet everyone from Achilles to the primordial Chaos, it affords a context that makes a contemporary understanding of the myths more accessible, parrying the “lore dump” aspect of worldbuilding and Greek mythology both.

This balance between progression and narrative makes failure desirable: at times, you almost want to lose so that you can get back to the House of Hades and learn more about Olympian family drama. The retention of crucial character improvements meanwhile (which can only be purchased with the hall’s contractor or at Zagreus’ bedroom mirror) reinforces the cyclical gameplay as a positive. “Of course I couldn’t pass the halls of Elysium before,” you tell yourself, “I didn’t have the right Blessings. I didn’t have that particular trinket yet.” And even if you neglect AI patterns, or fail to learn which weapon suits you best, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting better at least on a base level. Gemstones and Darkness fragments let you buy survival perks and features that make each escape attempt a little easier. Certain things, like learning how to strategize the acquisition of Blessings, only takes time. As a result, the narrative and rewards temper one another. The prospect of learning more about Zagreus’ world makes it easier to accept the cycle of defeat.

Structurally, Hades can’t be solely credited with this technique. Growth mechanics exist in many forms, and negotiating a relationship between narrative and systems is a classic challenge in game design. The game likely draws from PlayStation 2 era JRPGs like Shiren The Wanderer or Baroque, where players run through procedurally-generated dungeons to gain the skills and items they need to succeed, and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, whose narrative shifted after every death. And many games have used their death state to narrative effect, either as a metaphor, an interesting game mechanic, or even, paradoxically, a progression barrier. In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Senua loses her final battle against the Norse goddess of the Underworld as a metaphor for grief. In Super Time Force, players go through each level shadowed by the ghost of their every prior run. In Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, players cannot progress to the game’s finale without dying at least once. In terms of design philosophies, Hades retreads old territory.

Nonetheless, it’s satisfying to see Hades demonstrate such an awareness of its formula. In many ways, games are not unlike stage production: much of what the audience sees is sleight of hand, disguising technical shortcuts that would otherwise disrupt their immersion. Hades is a tremendous example of addressing both a genre’s conventions and pitfalls, and using them to a game’s advantage. Like Zagreus making incremental gains, layer-by-layer, in the halls of the Underworld, the goal posts for roguelike game design have once again moved forward.

Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.

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