Hades and the Power of Choosing Death

As a devout film lover, I’m naturally inclined to think of how an adaptation of different narratives would look like in the medium of film. However, when I played the 2020 video game Hades all I could think was “this could not exist in any other medium.” If digital media is media whose existence is only made possible thanks to computer technology, Hades may be one of the best examples of this in the medium of video games. The story isn’t anything exceptionally new, and it’s no secret that the main plot and subplots are all adapted from Greek mythology. However, by utilizing the strengths of the roguelike genre and giving the players choices that are only possible in a video game, Hades becomes a memorable and unique experience. By giving players meaningful choices, Hades remixes the roguelike into an experience they can feel connected to, creating a more powerful narrative experience.

Hades tells the story of Zagreus, the son of Hades, as he attempts to escape the underworld. With the help of his mother Nyx and the gods of Olympus, Zagreus defeats various enemies and bosses, passing through the different levels of the Underworld until he reaches the surface. Along the way he meets various allies that assist him on his journey, grows stronger, and eventually defeats his father. Of course, along the way the player is expected to die, like in any other game, but what’s unique about Hades is what happens when the player dies. Unlike the classic Mario and Sonic formula, death sends Zagreus all the way back to the House of Hades, resetting his progress. Even if Zagreus dies in his last possible encounter, he’ll sink into the River Styx and rise from the pool of blood, ready to make a new escape attempt. This, on its own, is not what makes Hades unique.

The roguelike genre has been around since the early 90s, when games like Hack, Moria, and, of course, Rogue (pictured above) innovated a new subgenre of RPGs (role-playing games). What separated the roguelike from the rest of the crop of RPGs is how death was handled. In the average RPG, a player advances through the story and deaths only set the player back to the beginning of a level or dungeon, at most. However, roguelikes make death all the more impactful by sending the player all the way back to the start of their randomly generated environment. The randomly generated chambers are a key part of the genre because they keep players from getting too used to their journey. Sometimes it’ll be easier to complete a roguelike just based on what the player finds each time on their run, while other times they’ll encounter an impossible series of chambers that sends them back to the start really quickly.

This is all present in Hades, from the ever-changing landscape of the underworld to the different boons the player can pick up as they go. I’d argue the most interesting part of this game is how uses those roguelike elements to bring out the story. As mentioned before, every time Zagreus dies he rises from the pool of blood in the House of Hades, where he encounters various figures from Greek mythology. By talking to these figures, Zagreus can advance not only the main story, but advance the subplots.

Among the many forms of currency used in the Hades, players can find Nectar, a yellow drink that’ll help him grow closer to the various inhabitants and employees of the House of Hades, the Olympian gods, and the occasional underworld ally. While keys, gems, and Titan’s Blood are all used to upgrade Zagreus’ abilities and unlock more weapons, nectar will unlock relationships. Just as the player can choose between a sword or a bow or a gun between each escape attempt, they can choose who to give this valuable Nectar, and it’ll drastically impact how players experience the story.

Just by attempting to escape and dying repeatedly, players will a lot of the major plot points in the main story, but using Nectar helps fill in the rest of the world. The main story is just focusing on Zagreus’ relationship with Hades and, eventually, his birth mother, but there’s a large cast of characters the player can choose to interact with at their own pace. This also means that players may minimize certain side characters’ interactions if they’re not particularly interesting to the player. Not to mention that there are certain character subplots and interactions hidden behind gameplay prowess, so even the player’s ability can alter the flow of the game..

Speaking for myself, I was immediately enamored with most of the gods and House of Hades employees and Underworld allies, so I chose to invest most of my playtime into growing my bonds with them. I recognized that it was going to take me a lot of attempts to beat the game, so I chose to invest in the relationships with these characters that I was caring about more and more. By the time I’d beaten Hades for the first time, I’d even completed a subplot that focused on reuniting Orpheus and Euridice. It’s interesting to note that this subplot required the player to utilize all of the previously mentioned mechanics of the game.

The player has to die a few times to even meet Orpheus, as it requires hiring him through the House Contractor. Even doing this requires the player to make a few escape attempts to unlock the House Contractor, then a few more to defeat the Hydra to get a diamond; the Hydra is the boss at the end of Asphodel, the second level of hell, so this is going to take a few more deaths. Along the way the player may meet Euridice in a random chamber in Asphodel, where Nectar can allow the player to grow closer to her. Given that the player can only give Euridice one bottle of Nectar per encounter, it’s necessary to die a few more times, find some more nectar, and then gift it to Euridice. Additionally, the player must do the same for Orpheus after unlocking him in order to grow closer to him. After all of that, countless deaths and interactions with both mythological figures later, the player can finally unlock a contract that will allow Orpheus and Euridice to visit each other… by paying a few diamonds to the House Contractor. This of course requires the player to make it to the second level of the Underworld a few more times to defeat the Hydra and finally make it back to the House of Hades to pay the contractor and finally reunite the two lovers. I, personally, managed to do all of that without beating Hades (the final boss AND the game) a single time.

Of course, there are other people, like my cousin, that invest all of their resources into the abilities and weapons. He wasn’t as focused side characters so he defeated the final boss before even unlocking Orpheus. This type of Hadesplaythrough absolutely prioritizes Zagreus’ story with his father while sidelining the secondary characters. The most impressive part of the narrative created in Hades is its flexibility, a flexibility that presents the player a satisfying story no matter what characters they chose to prioritize. There are some plot points that will inevitably come up, such as Zagreus’ conversations with his father before his fight, but everything else is paced by the player’s decisions and gaming abilities.

Roguelikes can often feel disconnected from reality, just a series of choices in a maze that won’t really mean anything once you die. They can be great fun, but the choices in Hades subtly make audiences care more about what happens. In real life, humans have the agency to develop relationships with people they are drawn to, they can prioritize friendships much like players can prioritize relationships in Hades. This makes nectar the most valuable resource as it is the form of currency that allows players to bond with the characters they like the most. When this effort is rewarded by building bonds with their favorite characters, it creates a uniquely engaging experience. While some games go too far in the other direction and make it seem like the characters are just a series of toys the player can play with and put away without consequence, Hades’ characters are three dimensional and have their own lives. When I was helping Orpheus and Euridice I never felt like I had total control over their entire lives, but I had the agency to show them I cared. Hades gives players the power to progress the narrative and then presents them with obstacles to overcome in order to progress the relationships with their favorite characters.

This is what makes Hades so impossible to imagine as anything other than a video game, it could only exist in this setting where a player’s decisions and gaming capabilities affect the outcome. All of the variables and repeated deaths advance the story, but players can affect just how the story advances. On the one hand, the player’s decisions affect which parts of the narrative are explored and how deeply they’re explored. On the other hand, the player’s capabilities how quickly they reach the end of the game. Throughout all of that the player’s many inevitable deaths will advance the narrative. These three variables make Hades what it is and ensures no two playthroughs are the same. Players are given enough power to make their own choices, but enough obstacles that it makes the choices feel meaningful. This makes the choices impactful and, therefore, the narrative they uncover more personally resonant.