“Hades” by Supergiant Games deftly solves this problem, all while being a single-player, character-focused family drama. Like many great stories, its premise is simple. You are Zagreus, prince of the underworld, and for reasons yet to be discovered, he wants to leave his literal hell of a home. Hades, the temperamental and emotionally abusive father of “Zag,” is determined to impede his son’s escape by setting up a series of security checkpoints.
It’s in the rogue-like genre, which means the player is expected to die over and over again. Conveniently, Zag is a god, so he resurrects back home to try again and again, getting a bit stronger and smarter each time. But it’s in death that the game’s narrative begins to sing.
Home for Zag isn’t just the beginning part of the journey. It’s his literal living quarters, where his family, including stepmother Nyx and mentor Achilles, hang out, eat, sleep and chat. And every time, the player is rewarded with new pieces of dialogue, character interaction and even getting to observe dialogue scenes between two other characters. Failure and starting over in rogue-like games are part of the experience, but the reasons usually remain utilitarian by nature. Re-equip your character with new abilities you might’ve gained, level yourself up to get a bit stronger, pick a new weapon and try another run.
In “Hades,” failure is a progression of the story. Every setback is a chance to move forward as a playable character, and as the protagonist on this hero’s journey. Every recurring boss battle has new dialogue, revisiting past gameplay sessions, remarking on your new equipment or abilities and sometimes even switching them out for new characters (with similar move sets).
And the game is constantly throwing rewarding decisions at you. They say that video games are, at their core, a series of decisions made by the audience that leaves them feeling good, excited or rewarded. “Hades” often gives you a choice of one or more doors, each emblazoned with the expected reward. This could be “darkness,” a currency that goes toward Zag’s passive buffs, like making him hit harder from behind an enemy, or recovering more life in every room. Sometimes you’d run into Charon, the speechless merchant who sells powerups and items to help you along your run.
Other runs might have you bump into even more characters. It was always a delight finding the cheerful Sisyphus, at peace with his plight pushing a boulder for eternity. I’ve been giving him a bunch of nectar, an item that gives the game a dating simulator flavor. Each time you give a character nectar, they may give you a special item, or their relationship with you deepens, revealing more character moments, backstory and background.
As you journey through the underworld, the gods of Olympus, including Zeus himself, decide to lend some help in the form of temporary powerups and abilities that last for a run. Even they remark on your progress. If you just left a particularly tough fight with a sliver of your health, you might get a gentle ribbing from your uncle Poseidon. If you choose one god’s powers over the other, the jilted one will let you know their feelings in no uncertain terms.
Zag’s reasons for leaving the underworld are best left for the player to discover. But even when the player is finally successful, the game throws you another narrative hook. Journey’s end rewards Zag with only more questions, giving the player yet more reasons to escape the underworld one more time.
Rogue-like games simply aren’t known for writing like this. “Dead Cells” from 2018 by developer Motion Twin was a seminal hit because of its expertly interlocking game mechanics. “Hades” has this, and an ongoing narrative with complex character relationships and drama. Yes, it’s obvious that Hades and Zag don’t exactly have the best father-son relationship, but the voice acting performances and writing give hints at something human, something relatable. There’s enough tension and tough love in there to keep you wondering: What exactly happened between these two?
This month’s release is a product tuned and sculpted after two years of early access feedback and work. During that time, Supergiant Games have added more characters, more dialogue and more weapons for players to unlock and find.
I can’t help but think about the questions that keep me playing “Hades,” and how, in contrast, “Avengers” drops the ball. In “Avengers,” there is nothing but a promise for more story content. There are only hints and clues, scattered across the code for eagle-eyed fans and programmers to hunt for. But the questions it raises are driven more by marketing than any real drive for continuity and narrative. Which supervillain might show up next? How will Hawkeye move? Live service games seem to keep players hooked by deciding what we might want, while leaving when we might get it to luck.
“Hades” is the rare game that understands the player’s journey. Rather than telling us what we might want, “Hades” gives us characters to fret over, relationships to ponder. It trusts us to care about Zag’s personal and haunting questions about himself that are not only worth asking, but most importantly, worth answering. “Hades” has quickly become one of the best games of the year. We need more games like it.