Jacob Hamill is an amateur blogger and prospective graduate student with a background in history, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. He is interested in how these subjects intersect with art and entertainment and is currently trying to teach himself how to play mahjong.
Hades (2020) is a Greek mythology-themed roguelike video game developed and published by Supergiant Games. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who is hellbent on escaping the Underworld and joining his relatives on Mount Olympus. The Underworld, however, is meant to keep souls in, so Zagreus must fight, chamber by chamber, through his father’s realm, to reach the land of the living. As a roguelike, Hades is structured around dying and restarting, so you are expected to die, repeatedly. Roguelikes can be defined as randomized dungeon crawls with little to no story, where the player endlessly struggles to master the dungeon’s layout, contents, and systems before they die and the dungeon regenerates anew (Moss, 2020). Like its roguelike cohorts, dying and regenerating is the central experience of Hades, yet, unlike many roguelikes, Hades centers this mechanical experience in its narrative.
Simply put, death is progress in Hades. Conversations develop, new characters appear, and even major plot points are revealed across dozens of failed runs. Death is not just a mechanical tool used to make the player consider the consequences of their decisions, death is a narrative tool, experienced and remarked upon by Zagreus. According to Greg Kasavin, Hades’ creative director and writer, “If the player doesn’t forget their deaths and learns from them, so should the protagonist” (Klepek, 2020). What’s more, Hades’ narrative does not end once you achieve victory and set foot beyond the Underworld because, as the game tells you every time you die, “there is no escape“. Zagreus is bound to the Underworld and can only exist in the land of the living for a brief amount of time until he dies and is returned, once again, to the game’s beginning. He is fated to continuously fight through the Underworld, only to taste momentary success.
Yet Hades is not a simple story of determinism. Zagreus’ struggle against his divine fate depicts the limitations and consequences of human choice, and through the endless cycle of dying and restarting, Hades asks us to question the power fate holds in our lives and how much control we have over it. Hades uses its roguelike structure to convey these themes through the notion of consequence persistence, or the inability in roguelikes to undo decisions that lead to the player’s death — a concept indispensable to the roguelike’s identity. The exploration of fate and free will is a frequent motif of Greek tragedies, dramas grounded in the same mythological past as Hades. Hades’ use of Greek myth is more than surface aesthetic; the game is rooted in the long history of refiguring Greek mythology to explore contemporary ideas and anxieties. Examining how Hades leverages its genre to refigure Greek myth shows how video games can use their defining elements to renew the cultural power of Greek narratives and also provide insight into the context, desires, and aspirations of mythology’s reimaginers and their audience.
The term “roguelike” literally means games like Rogue. Rogue was developed in 1980 by UC Santa Cruz students Glenn Wichman and Michael Toy. In Rogue, the player explores a dungeon in search of a magical amulet, fighting off monsters and collecting treasure. Rogue was character-based, as opposed to text-based adventure games like Colossal Cave Adventure (William Crowther, 1976), and featured procedurally generated dungeons and permadeath (Moss, 2020). In the following decade, there were a number of open-source games inspired by Rogue, like Hack (Jay Fenlason, 1982), Moria (Alan Koeneke, 1983), and Angband (Astrand and Cutler, 1990). A niche community of developers and players grew around these games, so much so that in 1993 a new Usenet hierarchy dubbed “rec.games.roguelike” was created to group these games together for ease of discussion (Zapata, 2017).
Roguelike elements were slowly incorporated into commercial games during the 1990s and 2000s, but the genre itself remained incredibly niche until the early 2010s when it crossed over into the mainstream with the rising popularity of downloadable indie games (Moss, 2020). Around this time the distinction between “roguelikes” and “roguelites” began to grow. Roguelite games are perceived as less punishing and more approachable than their roguelike forebearers because they in some way alleviate the sting of permadeath (Klepek, 2020). This distinction is interesting because early definitions of the roguelike did not include many of the design features we would consider inherent to the genre today. In the FAQ created for the roguelike Usenet hierarchy, there is no mention of permadeath, procedurally-generated content, or punishing difficulty (Zapata, 2017).
When asked about permadeath in modern roguelikes at 2016’s Roguelike Celebration, Rogue’s co-creator Glenn Wichman said, “permadeath wasn’t implemented in Rogue as the ultimate trial of player skill…It wasn’t meant to be a signifier of permanent, painful failure…More important to the roguelike genre is simply the inability to undo decisions that lead to death” (Francis, 2016). In an interview with GameSpot, Greg Kasavin echoed Wichman’s sentiment, saying “On one hand, you might push towards a certain build, but the randomness is going to fight against you. That decision-making part of roguelikes is super interesting…difficulty has nothing to do with any of that” (Garst, 2020). By modern definitions, Hades would be considered a roguelite, but its approach to death shares the same design philosophy of Rogue’s co-creator—that death is not a “signifier of permanent, painful failure” and more of an example of “consequence persistence” (Francis, 2016). The notion of consequence persistence, core to the roguelike genre, is similar to the exploration of fate, the freedoms and limitations man has thereof, by classical Greek tragedians like Sophocles and Euripides.
These classical authors and Supergiant’s team are, although millennia apart, pulling from and reinterpreting the same mythological past. While reading the works of Homer and Hesiod, Greg Kasavin came across the god Zagreus (Wiltshire, 2020). There are few details about Zagreus, one being that he might have been the son of Hades, but this lack of information made him an interesting blank slate, allowing the team to invent their own story. “The repeating roguelike structure slotted neatly into the idea of him running away after a fight with dad, failing, and finding home again”, says Kasavin (Wiltshire, 2020). It is no coincidence that the Greek mythology theme fits so well into the existing roguelike formula. Drawing from the same mythology for inspiration, Hades and Greek tragedies are in conversation with each other. They are bound together by the same themes of fate and free will, which, in the case of Hades, are conveyed to the audience through the unique systems and structures of the roguelike genre, specifically the concept of consequence persistence. In Hades, this could be favoring one god’s boons over another’s or selecting a weapon upgrade that alters your playstyle for the remainder of the run. These undoable decisions create unforeseen consequences in future chambers, ultimately leading the player to death or victory.
The purpose of mythology is complicated. People naturally want to understand the world around them and their connection to said world, so they create stories to explain that which is unexplainable. But mythology’s purpose is not just to provide an answer, myths also explain how the present grows out of the past. They assert causation as well as sequence, and in doing so, myths reflect the needs, aspirations, and power structures of the societies in which they were created (Martin, 2016, pp. 39-41). From an anthropological view, myths can be described as stories that help explain a culture’s worldview, or their interpretation and perception of reality (Stein & Stein, 2016, pp. 29-32). What we think of today as Greek mythology was actually a range of beliefs that stemmed from rituals and oral traditions that were eventually written down, and have been reinterpreted, rationalized, and allegorized for centuries.
Today, we no longer rely on myths to help us understand why the seasons change or why earthquakes happen, but there are still things that remain beyond our understanding. Death is an inevitable experience, yet what happens after we die remains a mystery. The ancient Greeks believed something left the body upon death, the psyche, and the final destination for the psyche was a realm beneath the earth — the Underworld (Burkert, 1991, p. 195). The Olympians respect the sanctity of death and while the Chthonic gods oversee the dead in the afterlife, they themselves do not control death.
Death is the domain of the Fates. Born from Nyx and Erebus, children of Primordial Chaos, the Fates control the thread of life for every mortal, and even the gods themselves are subject to the Fates’ power (Graves, 1957, p. 48). The Fates do not directly play a large role in Hades‘ narrative, but the idea of fate does. The Fates are closely linked to Chaos, the unfeeling, uncaring expanse predating the universe, as is Zagreus’ fate to fight through but never escape the Underworld. The entry for “darkness,” a material created by the Underworld, reads within the game’s codex, “Born of Chaos, the Underworld is a domain of pure and utter darkness…Those born of darkness must remain in darkness; this is one of the Underworld’s indelible laws” (Hades, 2020). The codex entry suggests that Zagreus’ inability to truly escape the Underworld is not because of celestial powers conspiring against him but rather because of the nature of an inscrutable universe. The connection between fate and this abstract force beyond the power of the gods, as well as the extent of free will, is an idea prevalent in Greek tragedy.
Tragedy is a form of drama that emerged during the 6th century BCE in the open-air theaters of Athens. Ancient Greek religion had no set dogma, sacred text, or religious class. Writers and thinkers could build on older stories, change them, and reinterpret them without needing their audience to accept these new interpretations as fact (Martin, 2016, pp. 15-16). The ancient myths that tragedies were based on presupposed that man, struggling in vain, was at the mercy of heavenly beings or predetermined fate. Tragedy’s fixation on human nature, however, asks us to consider what freedoms man has in the course of his fate (Agard, 1933, p. 121), and explores the consequences of human choice, as well as the failures and achievements of human freedom (Agard, 1933, p. 126). Often, the characters in Greek tragedies fall to their predetermined fates not because of divine intervention or power, but because of their own choices — or what Rogue’s co-creator might describe as consequence persistence. After all, by Greek tragedian standards, “what is to be is unforeseen and so uncertain, we can only act on our own best judgment or most urgent desire, hoping our decision is the lucky one” (Agard, 1933, p. 122). This is an essential freedom of mankind (Agard, 1933).
Greek tragedy forms the bedrock of Western literature and its thematic focus on death, fate, and free will has captivated and influenced authors for centuries. According to Lorna Hardwick, a professor of classical studies and an expert on classical reception, “Myth acts as a conduit, moving across and between the borders of fiction, imagination, religious practices and social norms… Refigurations of myth signaled shifts and conflicts in ways of looking at the world” (2017, p. 12). Classical Greek writers were reacting to and inserting new ideas into familiar myths. In a similar way, we today refigure Greek myths and tragedies to explore new ideas and current anxieties. When new media reimagines classical mythology, there is a co-authorship occurring between ancient writers, modern authors, and the audience, resulting in new ways of looking at the world grounded in a familiar mythological past (Hardwick, 2017).
So how does Hades fit into the history of refiguring Greek mythology? The theme of fate and the extent of free will is the connective thread. If roguelikes are designed around the experience of dying and restarting, then permadeath is a mechanic that makes players think about the decisions taken, what has led them to death, or consequence persistence. Procedurally generated content ensures that no two runs are exactly alike, making the weight of our decisions ever more impactful.
In Hades, you cannot control what happens from run to run, what powers you are offered, or what enemies you face. But when you clear a chamber you are often given the option to choose what the reward for clearing the next chamber will be, indicated by symbols above doors to new chambers. We can choose which path to take, what upgrades to accept or decline, where to spend our money, and these decisions can lead the player to have either a successful or unsuccessful run. Primordial Chaos theirself will offer the player special powerups that each come with a negative effect, for a certain number of chambers, before it transforms into a powerful blessing. Not knowing what lies ahead, the player must weigh how much that negative effect might inhibit them in the next few chambers. Will taking on this negative effect now lead to death, ending the current run, or will the eventual positive benefit overcome an unforeseen obstacle? Perhaps the negative effect of Chaos’ boon causes the player to take more damage than they would have, so they end up spending money on a healing item instead of a powerup or upgrade. To what degree is a failed run in Hades the result of the game’s randomness or the consequence of a player’s choices?
Zagreus’ stubbornness motivates him to repeatedly fight his way through the Underworld and this stubbornness eventually leads him to discover that he can never really escape his father’s realm. Despite knowing this, he continues to fight against this fate. We come to learn that Zagreus’ quest to join the Olympians is a ruse; he is actually searching for his long-lost mother, Persephone. Zagreus was born stillborn and, although the goddess Nyx used her power to give Zagreus life, it was too late, Persephone had already left the Underworld in grief. Zagreus wants to reunite with her, to find answers, but because he is from the Underworld, “those born of darkness must remain in darkness.”
This divine fate is inescapable, but instead of accepting this fate at face value, Zagreus, in all his persistence, exerts his free will within the confines of his fate to shape a preferable outcome. This is another freedom the tragedians believed man has: “We are not free to escape our destiny; but we are at least free, knowing the consequences, to decline the possibility of avoiding them by compromise. We can choose to save our own integrity” (Agard, 1933, p. 124). And, this is exactly what Zagreus does. He never truly escapes the Underworld, always dying after a brief amount of time in the mortal realm, but in that short window, he is able to convince Persephone to return to the House of Hades and reunite his family. By doing so, he earns his father’s respect and is given official approval to continue fighting through the Underworld to test the realm’s security.
Zagreus must continue trying to escape the Underworld because otherwise, quite literally, there would be no more game to play. But Zagreus’ continued struggle is also the same struggle we face in our daily lives. Just like Zagreus’ innate connection to the Underworld or what a player encounters from run to run, there are things in our lives we have no control over—a pandemic, an election, our precarious employment—but we can at least embrace these circumstances and we are free to exert our will within the choices available to us, to shape a more desirable world.
Agard, W. R. (1933, November). Fate and Freedom in Greek Tragedy. The Classical Journal, 29(2), 117-126. JSTOR. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
Burkert, W. (1991). The Dead, Heroes, and Chthonic Gods. In Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (pp. 190-215). John Wiley & Sons.
Francis, B. (2016, September 19). Rogue co-creator: permadeath was never supposed to be ‘about pain’. Gamasutra. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
Garst, A. (2020, October 17). Hades Changes What It Means To Be A Roguelike. GameSpot. Retrieved October 26, 2020.
Graves, R. (1957). The Greek myths. G. Braziller.
Hades (Switch version) [Video game]. (2020). San Francisco, CA: Supergiant Games.
Hardwick, L. (2017). Myth, Creativity and Repressions in Modern Literature: Refigurations from Ancient Greek Myth. Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, 40(2). Gale Literature Resource Center. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
Klepek, P. (2020, October 5). How ‘Hades’ Made a Genre Known For Being Impossibly Hard Accessible. Vice. Retrieved October 25, 2020.
Martin, R. (2016). Classical Mythology: The Basics. Taylor and Francis.
Moss, R. C. (2020, March 19). ASCII art + permadeath: The history of roguelike games. Ars Technica. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
Stein, R. L., & Stein, P. L. (2016). The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft (Third ed.). Routledge.
Wiltshire, A. (2020, February 12). How Hades plays with Greek myths. Rock Paper Shotgun. Retrieved October 25, 2020.
Zapata, S. (2017, November 13). On the Historical Origin of the “Roguelike” Term. Slashie’s Journal [Blog]. Retrieved October 28, 2020.