Over at The Washington Post Gene Park has written about the roguelike Hades, calling it a ‘masterclass in storytelling.’ If so, it would mark a pivotal step forward for a genre that has had much success when it comes to mechanics and the dynamics of gameplay, but has struggled with a narrative that can meaningfully interact with those mechanics. But Hades actually adapts a common feature of role-playing games—namely, the social hub—and integrates it beautifully into its core gameplay loop.
Roguelikes on the Rise
More and more, roguelikes are becoming a mainstream genre. Titles like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Slay the Spire have introduced players to the iterative playstyle of roguelike games through relatively accessible designs and gameplay loops. All three were commercial as well as critical successes, introducing swaths of players to cycles of building a loadout for a character, playing a run-through of the game, and revising that loadout for the next run. In fact, Slay the Spire gave rise to one of my favourite pieces of criticism on the genre, “Slay the Spire is my favorite game to lose” by Jeff Ramos over on Polyon.
Where these games have traditionally struggled is with integrating the narrative into the iterative mechanics. Dead Cells doesn’t dwell much on the perpetual rebirth the player-character goes through. In Slay the Spire when you reach the peak of the eponymous tower, you stab at the demonic heart that resides there before keeling over and ascending the spire all over again. These games excel mechanically, but fall short of integrating the narrative and allowing the story to reinforce the gameplay. Hades takes a different approach.
The Mechanic and the Message
In Hades you play as Zagreus, an obscure member of the Greek pantheon of gods and demi-gods, who also happens to be the son of Hades, lord of the underworld. Zagreus is trapped at the lowest level of Hades and seeks to escape the realm to discover the true origins of his parentage.
Hades builds its core mechanics around the underworld, and the cycles of death and rebirth a god such as Zagreus would find there. With each attempt to escape the underworld, Zagreus climbs up through the various domains, from Tartarus to Elysium. His father, Hades, is convinced his son is acting in vain, certain that he will not find his way out. Meanwhile, the gods of Olympus voice their support for Zagreus and offer him boons to aid in his escape.
Perhaps better than any other roguelike, Hades builds the iterative loops of the genre into the core of the narrative and vice versa. Each death returns Zagreus to the lowest levels of the underworld, where his father waits ready to chastise him time and time again for his foolhardy endeavour. As a god Zagreus of the underworld, and one associated with rebirth, Zagreus cannot die and thus finds himself using his immortality to learn and grow as a warrior and a student of the underworld, so that he might one day escape. But where Hades really shines narratively is in its hub.
The Mechanic and the Message
Many games feature hubs or spaces where player-characters return to time and again. One of my favourite game series, Deus Ex, utilizes hubs to great effect, allowing players a persistent space that reflects the changing conditions of the game and its narrative on a fixed set of characters. Hubs work well to provide that ‘lived-in’ feeling of a game space as they tend to organically grow and change, often times in relation to player actions and choices, over time.
The hub in question here is Hade’s Palace, that place Zagreus returns to after each death. The palace resides in Tartarus and features numerous gods, demi-gods, and demons who persist there. This includes a throne upon which Hades sits, a tavern for the denizens of the underworld, and a trophy room with rare mythic artifacts.
While most roguelike games have players returning to a starting area, they are rarely so rich with characters and emergent narratives. Various gods inquire after Zagreus and what he’s seen and encountered as he tries to escape his father’s realm, while others mock his progress (namely, Hades) or surreptitiously support his cause (such as his surrogate mother, Nyx). As the game progressions, these relationships change and evolve, and motives go from being opaque to a little clearer with each playthrough. This not only has the effect of rewarding the player upon their death, but it feeds on the cycles the player is going through, the Sisyphean task being undertaken, grounding this mythical struggle in a world that feels designed to tell this kind of story.
While there are various ways to integrate narrative into gameplay, Hades takes the hubs and persistent spaces found in other games, and enlists the iterative cycles of the genre to peel back, layer after layer, a story that becomes clearer with each and every playthrough. It might not work for every roguelike, but here with the source material and the conventions of the genre, the mechanic and the message are perfectly aligned.