It's very apt that Sisyphus is one of the first characters Zagreus, the game's protagonist, meets. There's an uncanny resemblance between Sisyphus' eternal punishment of lugging a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, and Zagreus' attempts at ascension out from the realm of Hades. Both objectives are ultimately fruitless, leaving the men exactly where they started. But while Sisyphus has no choice but to push the boulder back up, the player, through Zagreus, opts to return to this cycle.
Hades is a roguelike. What that means is that it's part of a sub-genre of game, a descendant of the original game, Rogue, from the 1980s. In Rogue, players entered a dungeon and on each death, would have the dungeon completely reset and their progress drop to zero. If you're having trouble imagining this, think of it as something like Pac-Man, where eventual failure leads you back to square one. But unlike a classic rogue, in a roguelike, players get to retain some form of permanent change, that makes subsequent attempts easier. So for example, maybe in your first attempt (or run, as it's often referred to), you die in 1 hit. But in that run, you unlocked better armor, so in your subsequent runs, you will die in 2.
There's something deeply masochistic about roguelikes. They are an inevitable uphill climb, mired with a steep difficulty curve and punishing enemies. Players force their characters into a monotonous loop of pain and suffering, only to repeat the process again in hopes of different results.
That's the cycle of the roguelike, until eventually the player becomes so adept at combat, that the penultimate step of death becomes avoidable and the player beats the game, only then to probably re-enter this vicious cycle in hopes of a faster time, better build, or just purely out of a burning desire for self-flagellation without the whip.
For these reasons, roguelikes are almost cult-like in their influence, with a slightly smaller audience of gamers devoting hundreds upon hundreds of hours into perfecting their skills, to completely mastering the game. So the question becomes: for gamers not ready to sink in hundreds of hours, how can you keep them coming back? What can make players return to Hades, beyond its electrifying gameplay and the adrenaline rush that accompanies each enemy encounter?
Undoubtedly, Hades is an incredible game, just in terms of its combat and movement system. It's fluid, it's fast, it's fun. But there's something much deeper than that, that makes the game special (and why I return the #HadesFanArt on twitter every week). Hades manages to bake into its very central design, a relationship system that is intensely personal and deep, with a whole cast of rich characters.
Of course Hades isn't the first game to have rich characters and evolving. But what makes Hades so special is that these relationships can be built by doing only one thing: dying lots and lots of times. After every death, Zagreus finds himself back in the central game hub. Before launching into the treacherous labyrinth of Tartarus, you can choose to speak to anyone in the hub, such as Orpheus, Achilles, or even Hades himself. However, you can only speak to them once. For once you have that first conversation with them, they will only speak to you again when you re-enter the hub, through the River Styx. Which only happens when... you die. So what does that mean? To hear from Achilles ten times, you have to die ten times. And Achilles has some great stories to share.
Similarly, while you race through the pits of the Underworld, you'll encounter messages of support from the gods of Olympus. They'll encourage you, criticize you, and occasionally, reveal a little bit about why Hades is so angry all the time. Each time you talk to a god, you get a better understanding of who they are, and where they stand. But you can only talk to them once per attempt. So the only way to talk to them again? You guessed it. To shuffle off that mortal coil.
None of this would matter if the characters were stale, or uninspired reimaginations. Because we have seen Greek mythology adapted time and time again, far past the point I thought it could still be done in an interesting way. But the team at Supergiant manages to make these characters feel vibrant despite their familiarity. Part of that is the new takes on these old characters, like Sisyphus' jolly demeanor or Achilles' almost sage-like manner. And beyond that are the character designs, each crafted with such vibrant detail and curiosity. Just look at them. How can you not want to spend more time with them?
But as you already know, there's only one way to meet them again.
Unlike other roguelikes, Hades doesn't just provide you with new combat options after each try. It rewards you with crafted moments between characters, all brought to life by a cast of voice actors. And those moments will keep coming. I've played the game almost 70 hours and have not heard a single line repeat. That's because Supergiant has packed in more words into this game than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. And that isn't empty volume. It's dense characterization that makes the game a blast to play even when you suck. And that won't last long. Because, if you're anything like me, you're going to get addicted not just the game's rapid fights and grueling boss battles, but to its world as well. You're going to want to find out who has lied to who, who made what deal and why, and why the heck Hades is growling all the time. There's a reason this game, only five months since launch, already has an immense cult following, not just of avid gamers but of artists as well. This world and its characters are so immensely evocative that you can't help but return to it.
Hades is an illustrative example of what can be done with video games, when gameplay seamlessly integrates with plot and characters. Because video games, like any other art form, are at their most powerful when they take what is unique about their medium, things like interactivity, gameplay, the notion of the player, and bring them together with good storytelling. So, whether you're a gamer looking for the next grind, or someone who has always wanted to try out the medium, I can't recommend Hades enough.