The character Zagreus from Hades wear Ancient Greek-style clothing and carries a sword
Zagreus, your character in Hades

In Hades, as in life, death is inescapable. In the former, however, death is something you end up looking forward to. It takes a while to get used to; getting killed is usually the one thing you try to avoid in video games. It means you’ve failed, and that you have to start again. But in Supergiant Games’s 2018 offering, you can’t win the game unless you die again, and again, and again. Dying’s the whole point. It’s what makes you stronger.

After all, your character, Zagreus, is immortal. He is the son of Hades and he lives in Hell, but he wants out. That’s the premise. You grab a weapon, leave your chambers and run towards the surface. You fight your way through the worlds of Tartarus, Asphodel and Elysium, as your dad sends hordes of enemies to try and stop you. If Greek mythology is your thing, you will recognise many of their faces, from the Erinyes and the Lernaean Hydra to the double threat of Asterius and Theseus. If it isn’t, don’t worry: you’ll become acquainted with it soon enough. God, you’ll get acquainted with it.

You will be killed by the Furies and killed by the three-headed monster; the king and his bull will kill you and send you down the river Styx, and you will wake up back where you began and you will start again. If it sounds tedious, please understand that it isn’t. Hades has won a dizzying number of awards and demand was such that it was eventually released on every single major gaming console.

It was so successful, in fact, that Supergiant announced in December that a sequel is coming in 2023. In Hades II, chthonic nymph Melinoë will attempt to defeat Chronos, the Titan of Time. In doing so, she will have to die again, and again, and – you get the gist. The game is predicted to be one of the biggest indie releases of the year.

Playing dead

It is an unexpected turn of events. “Roguelikes”, as this genre of game is called, have been around for many years, but this is the first time one of them has hit the mainstream in such a way. What do I mean by “roguelike”? Well, it’s complicated. I can tell you that the name comes from Rogue, an ASCII game released in 1980. I can tell you that the term was popularised in Usenet discussion groups in the early 1990s. I can tell you that any attempt to describe the concept fully and in a way that wouldn’t anger anyone would take the rest of this essay. Instead, and at risk of making many enemies among the genre’s purists, I will sum it up this way. A “roguelike” – or “roguelite” – is, to most people, a game that involves “permadeath”, i.e. losing means having to start again from the very beginning.

It is an unusual format. Video game files usually save at the beginning of a level or an encounter with a villain, meaning that dying is an annoying but relatively minor setback. In order not to be mind-numbingly repetitive, each roguelike “run”, as the attempts to go through the game are called, is subtly different. Enemies appear in a different order, there are different rooms, or different weapons, upgrades and rewards to pick from. These are the basics.

A scene from Hades shows Zagreus navigating a green land

As you can imagine, the games are often as rewarding as they are frustrating. You can play better than you ever had, then make one tiny mistake, one slip-up, and you are back at square one. This is presumably why roguelikes took their time to reach more casual gamers, who will only tolerate so much frustration in their pursuit of victory.

Hades was a game-changer because it acknowledged its own reality. Zagreus knows he has died; when he crawls out of Styx, characters welcome him back and affectionately mock his failure. As a result, new subplots and lines of dialogue can only be unlocked by dying a number of times. Losing doesn’t feel like a failure because it isn’t one; it is the only way to progress.

It feels like a beautiful and heavy-handed parable, and a reflection on the very nature of roguelikes. As a more casual gamer myself, I was entranced by Hades and, once I finished it, sought out other games like it. I found Dead Cells and Slay The Spire.

In the first, I was an amorphous creature able to capture decapitated corpses and use them to fight my way out of a mysterious island, using whatever weapons I could find along the way. In the second, I flitted between being a monk, a soldier, a huntress and an automaton. Using “defence”, “attack” and “skill” cards, I faced enemies until I was able to escape from the tower I was held in.

Both games are more traditional examples of their genre. The character I am playing does not know they have been doing the same thing over and over again, or if they do, it doesn’t matter to the story. Instead, in them, I am Zagreus: the burden of knowledge falls on my shoulders. I may get the occasional upgrade but, on a fundamental level, the only thing that matters is my endurance, my willingness to fall, stand back up and go again.

One way out

The only way to win is to become a better player, and the only way to become a better player is to keep playing until I know every inch of the game like the palm of my hand. I can only win by being able to predict the patterns of the various enemies, by knowing when I should attack and when I should retreat, by doing things without thinking because I have done them so many times already.

I also need to know and understand myself as a player: which weapon am I best at wielding? What are my weaknesses? How can I best make use of my strengths? It is a deeply personal – and occasionally emotional – endeavour. Like romantic love, roguelikes force you to witness, understand and cherish what is in front of you, what is within yourself and how the two interact with each other. They make you reckon with the importance of seemingly small details and the flaws you wish you didn’t have.

They also offer hope in a way that love doesn’t always, because they allow you to forget it all and start again. We’ve all longed to play god with our own lives, to go back to an interaction we had minutes or months ago and perform as a better version of ourselves. It is a desire that these games can fulfil. If you die at the hand of a monster who unexpectedly hit you twice instead of once at the start of a fight, you can dust yourself off, go back and move away as he prepares to hit again.

Finally, there is joy to be found in their familiarity. There is a point you reach with roguelikes, after 30, 50, 70 runs, when the game begins to feel like home. Everything is predictable and there are no surprises anymore. It feels like watching a movie for the hundredth time when stuck at home with a cold, or listening to your favourite songs if you are feeling stressed. Sometimes, nothing is as soothing as a controlled environment.

Given the dark and gory nature of many of these games, it can lead to some amusingly absurd moments. I watched the trailer for Hades to jog my memory before writing this and sighed with warm nostalgia at the sight of Charon, who ferries souls into the Underworld. What can I say? We’ve spent a lot of time together, he and I.

Many other people did too; well over a million of them, in fact. Perhaps that is because they also found the real world, in all its stressful unpredictability, a bit hard to deal with. Retreating into a world of endless, sometimes hypnotising repetition can be a balm to the soul.

I like to think that they have also read about Hades II and Melinoë and look forward to getting to know her, as if she were a friend or a lover. If you’re one of them, there’s only one more thing I can add: I’ll see you all in Hell.

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.