Playing Hades is a frenetic experience, with screen-filling blobs of attacks from both the player and enemies that crowd the screen to such a degree that an outsider is unlikely to understand much of what's happening at any one moment. Accomplishing this typically means mashing on all sorts of different buttons on your controller of choice, a symphony of fingers working in chaotic motion to accomplish one goal: defeating the last boss, Hades.
But players, as always, have found another option: not pressing a button at all. Dubbed the "AFK build," players have started competing with one another to come up with more fatally efficient ways to walk into the final room of Hades and beat it—without touching a button.
"From the start, the goal of Hades was to have runs with 'high dynamic range'" said Hades designer and Supergiant studio director Amir Rao in an email to VICE Games, "to go from one run where you're interweaving rapid attacks, to another where you're 'plotting' your way to putting down your controller and let the Olympians take care of everything, is perfectly in theme with the game."
While much of the damage you cause in Hades comes from directly attacking an enemy, you spend much of a Hades run earning new and supplemental powers that cause second and third order effects, whether it's lingering damage over time, slowing their speed, or watching a lightning bolt bounce between every enemy present in a room. By the end of a run, your screen looks like madness because all of those many effects are interacting with one another.
The first instance of an AFK build that I was able to find was published eight months ago, when Hades was still in early access and the developers were rapidly tweaking the game. The video, called "how to demoralize your dad," showed the player appearing in the final room of Hades, a room of despair and anguish for early Hades players still trying to come to grips with the game's difficulty, and slowly chipping away at the boss' lengthy health bar.
In the video, uploaded by YouTube creator bjorii, the player barely survives. They have just the tiniest sliver of health left over when the final blow is struck against Hades. It's pure luck.
"Dang, that was humiliating…" wrote one person in the video comments.
One of the most popular AFK build videos was published in August by Hades streamer Haelian, who told me the idea for even attempting it was a suggestion from their viewers.
"I was actually very skeptical at first if it was even possible," said Haelian.
The key to a lot of AFK builds is an upgrade (dubbed a "boon") called Vengeful Mood, where "revenge" effects, which cause damage when an enemy attacks you, trigger without taking damage. This allows players to cause damage to the boss, no matter what they're doing, or if the boss is focused on them. (Subsequent AFK builds have found it's possible to take down Hades without this upgrade, so long as your "revenge" effects are powerful enough.)
"I really had no idea how it was going to go walking into the Hades fight since I had never attempted this before," said Haelian. "You could say I was really not confident since I was prepared to take over in case it looked like we were going to die."
Back in February, Haelian attempted something similar, where they stacked a bunch of revenge upgrades, but in that case, they actually ran around the room to make sure the boss was being hit with as much damage as possible. Holding a controller? Psh. That's for newbs.
The ironic part: Haelian managed to pull off an AFK win in their first attempt.
Perhaps the funniest part about watching AFK builds runs is what players do when it comes time to watch things play out and hope for the best. Raamon "Jerds" Vaccaro is another Hades player who's been messing with AFK builds, and one time, ate from a bag of chips.
"I actually did a bunch of theory [crafting] in bed the night before," said Vaccaro. "I went through every boon that existed and listed them in priority order."
It paid off.
The tricky balance of game design is figuring out what players can and cannot do within the confines of the game world. This possibility space expands when a game is in early access, because players become part of the development process and push back on those spaces.
During the early access phase of development, Hades developer Supergiant noticed players rarely picked up the upgrades that caused enemies to be hurt when they were attacked.
"As you can imagine, these boons initially had a relatively low pick rate, because no one wants to get hit!" said designer Amir Rao. "Over the course of our Early Access, we balanced to a place where there are several revenge boons that get picked up as much as any other boon, because they synergize with your 'attack strategy."
The goal, then, became to design boons that allowed players to turn defense into offense.
"Thus 'Vengeful Mood' was born," said Rao, "which makes all of your revenge effects go off automatically every few seconds. So we 'designed' a strategy that could be used without needing to attack. One of the interesting aspects of rogue-like games is taking what you're given and trying to turn it into something workable, so Vengeful Mood is a good example of us trying to empower that type of play specifically."
Pulling off an AFK build is no easy feat, and requires deep understanding of the way the various systems interact in Hades, including randomness. There is no way to guarantee anything on a Hades run, except to try and mitigate risk and enhance luck. But if you can harness those systems, extraordinary things can happen. Rao said that's the goal.
"You are a god, after all," said Rao, "and having those 'breakthrough runs' where you discover some unexpected combination of powers that carries you through a clear is part of the joy of the game."