I don’t want to tell you why Hades is so good

, | Game reviews

[Editor’s note: Among the many things that I found deeply confusing in the 70s was the commercial for Life cereal. Two boys are given a bowl of Life cereal and told it’s healthy. Of course, they want no part of it. They’d rather have Sugar Pops or Froot Loops. But then one of the boys gets the bright idea to give the cereal to Mikey, because “he hates everything”. The other boy enthusiastically agrees.

I do not understand their reasoning. Why would they give it to Mikey if he’s just going to hate it? What do they hope to accomplish? I know what the commercial is trying to accomplish. It’s trying to sell viewers on the idea that Life cereal is so good that even kids who hate everything will like it. But I don’t understand the character motivation of the two boys. The fundamental premise of the commercial, the inciting event for the dramatic reveal, is flawed. Nonsensical, in fact.

I bring this up because it explains why I told Bruce Geryk that Hades was “not for him”. It’s not because Hades isn’t good. It is. It’s excellent. But I told Bruce Geryk that Hades wasn’t for him because I’m not someone who would foist off a bowl of Life cereal on some kid who hates all cereal. I would no more tell Bruce Geryk to play Hades than I would give Mikey a bowl of Sugar Pops or Froot Loops, much less Life.

But Bruce Geryk, ever the surly contrarian, ignored my comment about Hades being “not for him”. What’s more, he didn’t just play it; he played it a lot. He emailed me about it a lot.  He even wanted to review it, which accounts for what you’re about to read.  So while I’m still deeply confused about the choice the boys make in the Life cereal commercial, I can at last understand their surprise and delight by the end of the commercial: “He likes it!  Hey, Bruce!”]

I spent enough time as a freelance video game writer to become thoroughly acquainted with the concept of “taking it to the next level“. I think there was a time when this phrase was used in earnest, probably around the late 90s or early 2000s, to denote some thing that developers were trying to achieve, which usually translated to “better graphics”. I haven’t been paying attention to video game marketing recently, but I can’t imagine that in this era of post dash post dash irony that anyone would still think to use it in a serious way. For one developer’s PR department, though, that theory should be revisited.

In the interest of full disclosure yada yada, I was a freelance writer for Gamespot back when Greg Kasavin was the editor-in-chief. Greg now works for Supergiant Games and is the creative director for Hades, the game that I didn’t know was coming out until the day it was out. I bought Bastion, Supergiant’s first game, out of a general sense of solidarity with people taking a huge risk of developing and marketing their first game. I don’t think I played it much, because even before I bought it, it didn’t seem like a game that was particularly for me. Since that’s a very broad category, I wasn’t expecting anything different when the Steam store told me that Supergiant had released this game called Hades. I hadn’t heard about it, hadn’t seen any trailers or previews, no beta footage (or as they call it now “Early Access”) and thus had no expectation other than that it was likely another video game for someone who likes fewer and fewer video games these days. But I have been playing some roguelikes, and Slay the Spire has logged an embarrassingly large number of hours on my Steam account. So I fired Hades up out of general curiosity.

Sixty hours of gameplay later, if you believe the Steam statistics, I’m thinking about what it is about Hades that has me so captivated. The thing is, I don’t want to tell you any of it. The reality is that anyone reading this review on this site likely has some knowledge of what Hades is, or what it is trying to do, but if you are someone coming to this with no advance knowledge about Supergiants’ most recent game, and the idea of a real-time roguelike interests you then you should go to wherever your browser has the little “x” that closes the window and go to the Steam store and buy Hades. None of the rest of the stuff I’m going to say matters, because you’ll find it out on your own, just like I did. And you’ll find out that for once, Supergiant really did “take it to the next level.“

If I were to tell you some things, I’d tell you that Hades takes its cues from a number of excellent games. When he was at GameSpot, Greg Kasavin always struck me as a canny guy who knew what made some games work and others not. So as the creative director on Hades, I am not shocked at all that the most effective elements of Diablo (pacing, animations, loot chase, voice acting) all play a prominent role in Hades. Nobody ever said you couldn’t use other people’s good ideas—otherwise Blizzard herself would be out of business. But what people won’t forgive so easily is if you don’t bring anything else to the table. And in Hades’ case, there is much, much more to feast on.

If you insisted I tell you more, I would say that you use different weapons that play differently, and there are even more differences based on the choices you make as you play. I hope I haven’t said too much. All these differences, all of Hades’ generous and sprawling variety, depend on a tight combination of pacing, writing, and voice acting that shows an absolute mastery of multiple aspects of game design. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to track your progress, develop a story, examine your play statistics, and slowly reveal the best kind of game design: one that doesn’t rely on anything in particular to carry it at any given time, because all of its elements are firing on all cylinders.

Still asking questions? Hades success is very much indebted to its pacing. Game pacing is difficult in the best of circumstances; it’s impossible without extensive testing, consideration, and willingness to change things for the sake of player experience. This is all easy for people like me to say, with our monocles and berets and copies of the Chicago Manual of Style, plus maybe some Foucault if really pressed. “It’s all about the player experience.” “Design is law.” You can talk all day. But when the player starts getting frustrated at the lack of progress, or insufficient game cues, you might find yourself in a tough spot as a designer. How you get out of it, or if you even do, says a lot about your skill with design and production.

Part of this is the ingenious way the game uses the conceit of roguelikes to explain its inherent contradictions. When I get killed in Slay the Spire, or FTL, or Angband, there isn’t some explanation for why I have to start at the beginning again. Except for the real-life one where I lost, and need to “reload” the “game.” Hades examines the idea of the roguelike as a design construct, and then fits the whole thing into a setting where playing the same content over and over is actually part of the story. It’s brilliant. Furthermore, its extensive voice acting takes advantage of this to comment on events that have happened, which makes the experience intimate through familiarity and specificity. It anchors its story in this setting so that even though you’re playing over and over, you experience progression in the story, through its writing.

What? You want to know more about the writing? What I can tell you is that the story (and boy, is there a story) is one of the better examples of game writing I’ve seen. Not in the sense that Orhan Pamuk is going to pick it up and say, “Wow, this is great literature!” That’s not what game writing is supposed to do. Instead, the writing in Hades is snappy, usually brief, and does a great job of pushing the game along, which is exactly what it needs to do. Some people might suggest that at times the game is a little stingy with its story bits because it wants to drag them out. That’s the closest you’ll get to a criticism from me of this game.

That’s all I’m going to tell you. If you don’t know anything else about the game, you can thank me later. What I am thankful for is that I’ve been paying so little attention to the gaming release calendar that I experienced something akin to the days when I would go to Babbage’s, grab a promising box off the shelf, take it to the counter, put down my hard-earned money, and take it home with the highest expectations. Of course, things are a bit different now: Valve will refund my money even after I’ve played the game, unlike Babbage’s; and the financial burden is quite different from when my main source of funds was my part-time job in college. However, the feeling of delight in discovery is very much the same, perhaps even greater now that it happens less often. The best possible thing that could happen from this review is that someone in a position similar to mine reads it, buys the game, and experiences the same discovery and joy. Even if they don’t, though, Supergiant succeeded with me, and I’m tickled that it happened.

(Read Tom Chick’s counter-review here.)

  • Hades

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • ...you should go to wherever your browser has the little “x” that closes the window and go to the Steam store and buy Hades.