“Hades” by Supergiant Games tackles replay value in a way that addresses almost every possible need from a player, with an addictive gameplay loop and a perpetual sense of reward, both extrinsic and intrinsic, in the powers you gain and in a narrative that evolves even after failure.
It wasn’t until my 30th run of “Hades” that I finally noticed that Zagreus couldn’t sit. He had an excuse every time. It’s not comfortable. There’s no time to rest. Supergiant wrote these lines to give depth to their creative limitations. They didn’t animate Zagreus sitting down, but they anticipated that players will try anyway, and left them with those audio responses.
“We really enjoy those games where every aspect of them feels kind of purposeful,” said Greg Kasavin, a writer and designer at Supergiant Games. “When one gets a haircut, you go to work and someone says, ‘Hey, nice haircut.’ It feels good that someone notices something like that. So we’re filling our games with the equivalent of that moment. Like hey, we noticed that you noticed this, and we’re acknowledging that.”
Arts critics often appraise their favorite works thusly: There wasn’t any wasted space. That’s how “Hades” often feels, and it’s no surprise that Kasavin is a former games critic. He’s also the former executive editor of Gamespot.
“Hades” has garnered buzz as a top contender for the best game of 2020, an already crowded field that likely includes big-budget hits like “The Last of Us Part II.” It’s no small feat for the team of 20 at Supergiant Games who worked on “Hades.”
The buzz comes from the game’s ability to weave several story threads despite the supposed limitations of the repetitive rogue-like genre, in which playing the same short game over and over again is the whole point. While some games might attempt some narrative justification for its gameplay, “Hades” is unique in its all-encompassing commitment to evolving character arcs, even after your 100th death.
The game never seems to run out of something new to say. Every return trip to Zagreus’s home after a failed escape attempt nets you new conversations with a recurring cast of mythological Greek characters, all fulfilling an archetype in a family drama. Think “Arrested Development” in hell, except it’s a 2D video game with more than 20,000 recorded lines of dialogue. For comparison, “Skyrim” had more than 60,000 recorded lines.
“I think it’s one of those things where if we knew that was going to be the price at the beginning, we probably would’ve glanced at it and said, ‘oh hell no,’” Kasavin said. “But I think that’s true of any worthwhile creative endeavor. You always underestimate how much it’s going to involve, like climbing a mountain. You don’t look at the top of the mountain from the very base, you just kind of go through it.”
Big-budget AAA video games invest in high-fidelity visuals and graphical textures, but Supergiant Games decided to lay story textures. The studio also limited interaction to maintain narrative cohesion and immersion. For example, the player can never talk to another character more than once per return visit. After a character like Achilles or Hades says what they need to say, that’s the extent of the interaction for that moment.
This removes the possibility of any mishaps like you see in “Skyrim,” where a character would repeat the same dialogue ad infinitum. It makes the characters in the game feel more real, and less like the fruits of engagement, left for players to squeeze dry. It also gives the writers some control over the pacing of the story beats and character arcs.
“It was just really important to me personally that you don’t run into a moment any time soon where these characters run out of things to say, because that’s the moment where you as a participant in the story discover the limits of the character,” Kasavin said. “It was also a commitment to our idea of giving the game a narrative context throughout a rogue-like experience game. It’s an infinitely replayable game, so ideally it should have infinite content. But someone does have to write that stuff, and we have to stop at some point."
“Hades” is also the first game from the studio that doesn’t feature original characters. Instead, it covers the well-worn Greek mythology. But beyond Kasavin’s lifelong fascination with it, Greek myths gave the writers some room to further develop the family dynamic of the cast, without needing to explain every facet of their life. We all know who Zeus and Aphrodite are.
“The idea of adapting something was a scary creative challenge, even though on the face of it, one might assume that it’s sort of easier, since these characters already exist,” Kasavin said. “But most importantly, we did feel we had a point of view on Greek myth that we hadn’t seen represented significantly in modern media. My opinion is that most modern media based on Greek myth is kind of inspired by other modern media based on Greek myth.”
Ultimately, Kasavin and the team could dig into the pettiness and childishness of the old gods, while also easily onboarding players into the game’s mechanics, due to broad familiarity with what the gods do.
“There’s a reason these characters have fascinated people for thousands of years, and my hypothesis is that it’s not because of lighting powers or water powers,” Kasavin said. “It’s because they’re this really messed up family. If the gods aren’t perfect, then what chance do any of us have?”
It’s funny to hear this about the gods in “Hades,” a game that many critics are describing as very nearly perfect. There was a lot of anxiety over the creation of “Hades,” even when it came down to its core story premise in Greek myth, since so many other games and stories cover it. But Kasavin said the team felt committed to its unique vision.
“You have to believe that you’re working on something that will have a reason to exist, eventually,” Kasavin said. “If it just feels like it’s an inferior version of something that’s already been done before, for me, it’s very hard to be motivated to work on something like that. We just have to find that angle that feels like we haven’t seen it before, and that’s exciting to us."