Monday, January 4, 2021

Hades: Hell is Kind


Hades is my game of the year for 2020. Honestly, I like it more than any game that came out since 2015's The Witcher 3, and even then I think there's a good argument to say I like Hades more. And I'll be very surprised if anything comes out in 2021 that I like more than Hades. I love this game, and I'll love it for a long, long time because not only was it entertaining and inspiring, it helped me realize something about myself that feels like a key to my whole personality--something that's been part of me for years but I've never been able to explain until now. Until Hades.

If you haven't played it or heard about it, let me very briefly explain Hades. Hades fits in the genre known as "roguelikes," meaning it roughly follows the pattern of the game released in 1980 entitled Rogue--you have to beat the whole thing in one shot, and if you lose, you start all the way back at the beginning. If you want to get technical, Hades is a "roguelite," which is a slight variation of the roguelike that allows some persistent progression--some character and game unlocks do carry over in between attempts so that the game is progressively easier over time. Roguelikes have been an especially popular genre among smaller indie titles for several years now. Some of the most popular titles from recent years include Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, The Binding of Isaac, and Enter the Gungeon. (I'm sure I've offended someone by leaving off some obvious example--like I said, there's been a lot of them over the last several years.)

Complicate the Narrative

Where Hades stands apart from the crowd is how it blends the basic roguelike systems with an overarching narrative. The story premise of Hades is that Zagreus, the secret son of Hades and Persephone of Greek mythology, wishes to escape the underworld and find his mother in the world above. The player takes on the role of Zagreus trying to fight his way out of the underworld. Every time the player dies to any of the traps or enemies along the way, he is retaken by the river Styx back to his father in the underworld and has to try all over again. Giving a story backbone to the player's many attempts to complete the game isn't actually all the unique to the roguelike genre--Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells also quite prominently use the repetition mechanic as a narrative element--but Hades goes all in on the concept in a way that's unlike any other roguelike I've played. The several characters who populate the underworld--Hades, Hypnos, Cerberus, Achilles, Megaera, Nyx, etc.--are all quite aware of what you're doing and have literally hours of dialogue ready to comment on your attempts, your progress, your successes and failures, and seemingly hundreds of possible events that might happen along your journey. In Hades, it's not just that the game world is aware of your attempts to escape it, it analyzes your attempts, understands your attempts, and reacts to the specifics of your attempts in often surprising ways that make you feel watched and understood much more than most videogames. This ranges from basic tricks like Hypnos commenting on what specific enemy or trap killed you on your last attempt, to complex narratives spanning dozens of runs about your growing relationships with certain characters you meet along the way, and the inter-relationships between that character and several other characters throughout the underworld, and how your actions are shaping not only your individual relationship with each of them, but the relationships between the other characters and the nature of the underworld itself.

This blend of game mechanic and narrative goes down to the bone of every aspect of the game. Everything is interconnected. When you unlock new weapons, they're not just game tools, they're parts of the history of the gods, with little hints about the overall narrative of this particular version of the underworld and Olympus and everything in between. When you unlock upgrades during your run, they're not just mechanical, they're boons from the gods on Olympus who have taken pity on your plight and want to find ways to help you escape the underworld. When you unlock permanent upgrades to improve your chances in future runs, they're not just mechanical, they're also revealing aspects of Zagreus's deeper personality, and they're secret gifts from Nyx, a subtle, complex stepmother character with an extensive story arc of her own that will take players several dozen hours to unravel. Even the tiniest details like menus and UI are themed and reinforce the emotional struggles that Zagreus and the player share as they attempt time after time to escape the underworld. The overlap is so well done, that Zagreus's scripted outbursts after he stepped yet again out the Styx often exactly matched my own thoughts--"Stupid witches!", "I was so close!", "I'll get you next time, Theseus!"

The blend of narrative and mechanic in Hades is unmatched by any other game since the ending of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. As someone with a special interest in the overlap of narrative and gameplay and how they can mutually reinforce each other (that is the original premise of this entire blog, after all--"complicate the narrative"), this already makes Hades 100% my kind of game. But at this point even that is an afterthought for why I love this game so much. The real reason I am so emotionally attached to this game isn't the narrative or mechanics, it's the way the characters treat each other, and the way the game treated me.

Hell is Kind

Back when I wrote about my favorite games of 2018, I wrote about Celeste, which I called "the best coach I ever had." I wrote a lot about how wonderful and empowering it was to have a very difficult game seem to actually care about me getting through it. Hades learned a lot from Celeste in this regard; it also went out of its way to let me know that while it was pushing me, it believed in me. (Interestingly enough, Celeste and Hades share another distinction: they are both indie games that managed to be nominated not just for Indie Game of the Year, but overall Game of the Year at the Game Awards.)

Like Celeste, Hades has a pressure-release valve for you if the game gets too overwhelming. Celeste had Assist Mode, and Hades has God Mode. In the game menu, God Mode can be turned on at any time, and the description in-game reads, "Instantly makes you tougher, more so whenever you die. Death is not so big a deal in the Underworld. Try this if you find you're struggling, want focus on the story, or any reason."

I actually never used Assist Mode in Celeste, and I never used God Mode in Hades, but in both games, having the option there totally changed my mindset about the game's difficulty. In other difficult games, the especially difficult chokepoints are discouraging and get me thinking about how I've wasted my time so far because I just don't care enough to push through this particular barrier. I'll probably just give up the game and move on. In Celeste and Hades both, the knowledge that if I really did feel defeated, I could adjust settings and let myself move forward to continue the story let me enjoy the difficulty and know that no matter what I'd get to see what happened next. Ironically, knowing I wasn't forced to push through the difficulty helped me actually push through it.

Zagreus, on the other hand, has no such reassurances. To him, it's a total unknown if he even can escape the underworld, and then even if he does, he has no idea what's out there beyond his father's realm, and what will happen if he does manage to find his mother. However, Zagreus has a lot of other things helping him keep up his fight, and most of those things are other people.

Hades has an extensive cast of characters, and every character is expertly realized both in writing and performance. One of the core mechanics of the game is to collect and give gifts to the various characters of the underworld as a way to deepen Zagreus's relationships, and as the player makes this possible, the player and Zagreus are both rewarded with new gameplay tools, new conversations, and new story scenes that more fully map out this particular interpretation of the Greek pantheon. In all of these stories and all of these relationships that the player can help Zagreus develop, there remains a core thread of a single trait--the one thing that kept Zagreus going, and the one thing that hooked me on Hades for over 150 hours: kindness.

The characters of Hades are varied, unique, individual, and interesting, but they are all, in the end and in their own way, kind. Many, many, many, many, many pixels have been arranged in the service of extolling the sexual appeal of this game's characters, but the actual best parts of this game are when it's being the least sexy. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that some of my absolute favorite moments of Hades were certain lines where these godly characters were beautifully, relatably, heart-breakingly human. Everyone in this game cares about Zagreus, and they all want to see him succeed. There's been a lot of jokes about how this game succeeded in 2020 because it's about escaping hell, but I think the real reason this game succeeded in 2020--and would've succeeded in any year--is because it gives you friends to encourage you on your way. 

One of the biggest megatrends in all media is to reflect back the dark, gritty realities of life. People can be terrible. We're the real monsters. We are the virus. Blah blah blah. Sure, that's all true, and a lot of that brand of media is capital "I" Important. But at the same time, most of it can burn, for all I care. Life is hard enough all by itself--2020 proved that all over again for us--so why waste your time with media that tells you the obvious truth in an unpleasant, disheartening way? Yeah, a lot of times things don't work out. All too often, people treat each other worse than they deserve. But in most cases, those are choices, informed by a poor understanding of reality and possibility. I honestly think the world desperately needs more discussion and more portrayal of the right choices, not the wrong ones. Hades gives some beautiful, fully earned moments of right choices. Some of these character moments hit me like a glass of water in the desert because in any other book, game, or movie, these characters would be too Cold or Cynical or Damaged to ever really say how they feel. Let people heal. Let people change. It's just as real and just as possible as the dark gritty stuff, and it deserves much more of our work to preserve and emulate than all of the terrible things we've done to each other. 

Let history remember our faults; let fiction inspire our godliness.

What We Owe to Each Other

As these moments kept happening throughout my 150+-hour journey through Hades, I started to reflect on how much they were affecting me, and I eventually started to examine when else in my life I've had this positive of a reaction to media. I realized that in all of my absolute favorite media, the same trend exists that exists in Hades: kindness to someone who is vulnerable in some way. It's a consistent pattern in my favorite works of every medium--they all portray people willing to be kind to someone else when they are vulnerable. Very, very briefly, let me give you some examples:

A Knight's Tale is my favorite movie of all time. The story of a poor boy who dreamed of competing on big stages where he wasn't allowed, and the story of all the people who decided to believe in his impossible dream and help him achieve it. Every single time I watch the movie, when Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer leans into Heath Ledger's William Thatcher and says, "That's your name, Will. Sir William Thatcher," I tear up. Without fail. William was vulnerable, weak, and alone, but people decided to care about him. They didn't have to, and they could've just ruined him instead, but they didn't. They chose kindness.

The Squire's Tales is a series of books by Gerald Morris that retell Arthurian legends for a middle-grade audience, and the second book in the series in particular contributed some bedrock foundational elements of my philosophy on life. The whole series is full of quotes that have stayed with me and helped form the man I am today, but one of the earliest ones that I think about often is a moment where King Arthur, knowing his wife has been unfaithful with Lancelot and with a tear rolling down his cheek, asks his nephew Gawain, "Am I a fool to love her, Gawain?" His reply: "If so, it is a divine foolishness." That moment of vulnerability from such a mythically powerful king, and the gentle kindness its met with, opened my eyes as a boy to a more complex adult world than I previously understood, and I decided then and there that I wanted to be like this particular Arthur, and this particular Gawain.

Parks and Recreation is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Parks and Recreation takes some of our country's least considered people--small-town parks and recreation department employees--and gives us reasons to care about them. Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec is a lot like William Thatcher from A Knight's Tale--she has dreams much bigger than she "should", and she would never reach them on her own, but the people around her choose to care about her, and some pretty amazing things happen for her as a result. And she, in turn, cares about each of them, and returns the favors often.

The Good Place did the absolutely impossible and turned discussion of ethics into four of the greatest seasons of television ever produced. One common theme of the show is the question, "What do we owe to each other?" It's a question that reflects this broader idea of ethics about how morality can be based on the simple fact that we are all equally human, and as such, we probably owe each other some basic decencies. The whole show is an examination of what it means to be a "good person," and it's full of specific examples of individuals making the choice to care about each other even when they don't have to or it would be easier not to.

Call it cheesy, call it simple, call it what you will, but these are the pieces of media that have brought the most joy to my life. My own moments of giving and receiving kindness in vulnerable moments are some of the most precious memories I have. And now, thanks to years of meticulous, dedicated, beautiful work by the wonderful humans that make up Supergiant Games, I add Hades to this personal, precious list. This is the art that inspires me to be the kind of person I want to be. Because of that, I will always be grateful for these works.

I sincerely hope that another game comes along soon that I enjoy and appreciate as much as Hades, but I'm not counting on it. Hades is my game of the year for 2020, but it'll be more than that for years and years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment