Mechanics as Storytelling: Hades’s Persistent Story

It’s difficult to pick a mechanic from Supergiant’s Hades that isn’t already part of the game’s story. Pretty much everything that could be considered overly gamey is explained through dialogue and lore. The permanent upgrades from the Mirror of Night are a result of Zagreus becoming more attuned to the Underworld and himself. The achievements and quests on the Fated List are prophecies from the Three Fates, who reward you for fulfilling their predictions. Even your weapons naturally get stronger when given Titan Blood because they were originally used against the Titans.

Since every single mechanic in the game already seems to have a role within the story, let’s focus on exactly that – the story. It’s one of Hades’s major contributions to its genre as it manages to convey a coherent plot within the roguelike structure. In fact, the story and the roguelike mechanics are inextricable from one another as plot points and character development are one of the things that remain persistent throughout runs. Let’s examine the ways in which Hades uses its persistent story to – well, tell a story.

Roguelikes and Storylines

Historically, roguelikes haven’t featured much in the way of narratives. Sure, they have characters and lore much like many other games, but roguelikes tend to put gameplay front and center above anything else. Titles like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne each pop to mind as games with a lot of lore, but it’s generally only accessible to those willing to dig deep into the games (or their wikis).

Rogue Legacy is one game that explained its story more coherently than most. In it, you play as your descendants after you die – hence the Legacy part of the title. Even so, there’s still more of a focus on gameplay than persistent story as other characters like the Enchantress and the Architect don’t actually change over the years despite your repeated deaths.

Death is Inevitable

Hades handles its story a little differently. First of all, you begin each run in the House of Hades, which you are trying to escape. Whenever you die on your run, you go where all the newly dead go – right back to the House of Hades, to be processed and placed by the God of the Dead. It’s an elegant way of explaining how the roguelike system of repeated deaths works in this world as while death may be inevitable, it isn’t the end for Zagreus.

Each time you die, you’re treated to new opportunities to engage with characters around the House. You can talk you your disapproving father, Hades, your wise mentor, Achilles, your enigmatic stepmother, Nyx, or any number of other characters. Some will only show up under specific circumstances, such as Megaera who needs to be defeated in Tartarus before appearing, while others are present almost all the time Additionally, you can only speak to each character once on each escape attempt, meaning that you’ll need to leave and die again before unlocking new dialogue.

There is No Escape

With most roguelikes, beating the game is a reward in and of itself. You may be treated to a special cutscene or cool new upgrades depending on the game, but generally the prize to be won is just the satisfaction of mastering the game’s mechanics and overcoming the challenge. Some have secret endings and areas for those who have the time and skill to seek them out, but the goal is still largely the same – completing the game.

Hades shifts things bit. Here, there aren’t any secret endings to achieve. You’ll come to realize that the reason for this is because this game, unlike others in its genre, has a story with an endpoint. Escaping the Underworld is not the end of Zagreus’s journey and you’ll need to get him out several more times if you want to see the whole narrative unfold. The story becomes the goal in Hades, with each successful escape getting you closer to the true ending.

Persistence and Perseverance

The story of Hades is one of persistence. Zagreus manages to change to status quo of the world through his sheer determination and will to do so. It only makes sense that a story about persistence would be told in a persistent manner. The steady progress you make through the game, slowly unlocking more abilities and skills and weapons, is reflected in the story itself as Zagreus repeatedly makes efforts to get through to people, even those who don’t seem to want his help at first.

Ultimately, this story couldn’t have been told any other way. Persistence after death is the hallmark of the roguelike genre and the defining feature of Hades’s plot. Even after dying for the hundredth time, Zagreus will still strike out into the Underworld – and so will we, if only to see more of this incredible story.

Further Reading

The Art Of Hades | Kotaku

Meet the voice cast of Hades, including one of the dogs behind Cerberus | PC Gamer