A screen shot from the video game Hades.
Screen shot courtesy of Supergiant Games
Games

How 'Hades' Made a Genre Known For Being Impossibly Hard Accessible

Developer Supergiant Games explains how they built a game around death that people can't stop playing.
October 5, 2020, 12:00pm

Hades, the exceptional roguelike from Supergiant Games that recently exited early access, has proven pretty popular—it has sold more than a million copies. That part isn't surprising. What's surprising is how many people seem to be enjoying Hades, despite not being the type of players who would normally sign up for a roguelike. The genre, by nature, is meant to be punishing and repetitive, and that's understandably a turnoff for some people. 

When I asked people averse to roguelikes why Hades was clicking on Twitter, there were some common threads: "the focus on narrative and characters," "death isn't a fail state," "I constantly feel rewarded," "just feels good to control," "everybody's hot," and "I don't know." 

These are not usually the descriptions applied to games in this genre. Hades is unique.

Supergiant creative director Greg Kasavin recently told VICE Games the internal phrase for describing Hades' internally while the game was in development was "narrative roguelike."

How to tell stories in video games has been a challenge for the medium since day one and without a one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of games have, for better and worse, taken cues from Hollywood. But with roguelikes specifically, the repetition and randomness means the story being told often has less to do with characters and plotting than the player's actions throughout a run. The decisions they make, the arc of their journey, becomes the story.

"From the start of development," said Kasavin, "we put special focus on the moment of death in Hades, knowing it would be something players would see frequently. We wanted to make sure it wasn't unduly frustrating and demoralizing to the extent we could, since the goal of a roguelike game is to be interesting enough to be worth playing repeatedly. We wondered, could we make the moment of death something players almost look forward to, rather than dread?"

One of the many rewards games dole out to players for making progress—beating a boss, reaching a new area—is more story. But it wasn't obvious how to do that within a roguelike. In most games, all players will experience the same thing. That's not true in roguelikes.

"In the case of roguelike games," said Kasavin, "one of the key features is that you make more progress by taking advantage of your knowledge from past failed attempts. So we figured, this needed to be core to the narrative. If the player doesn't forget their deaths and learns from them, so should the protagonist."

After a botched Hades run, characters might offer congratulations for making it further, or give you shit for dying to an easy enemy. There will usually be new conversation trees that provide backstory and insight into character relationships, and you can offer gifts to different characters that open up new subplots. Or, if you choose, you can ignore all of this! The story is optional, but for many, seems to dull the frustration of death. In death, there is "progress."

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Another phrase key to Hades' development, according to Kasavin, was "every run counts." In traditional roguelikes, the player is accruing knowledge about how the world functions. This additional knowledge leads to their progress, rather than, say, having more health. So while "every run counts" in any roguelike, that progress doesn't physically manifest itself.

Hades flips things around by sending players back to the beginning, while still advancing the story and providing an opportunity to invest in upgrades that will make your life easier on the next run. In theory, it's possible (but very hard) to beat Hades on your first run. Supergiant is expecting you to die—a lot. This is true even if you flip on the game's easier difficulty setting, "god mode." In god mode, players earn a little more damage resistance every time they die. It stacks, but it keeps the loop that's crucial to making Hades work: you keep dying. 

"Eventually you'll be able to get farther than you could before, "said Kasavin. "To us this was a good solution because it preserved the idea that dying is a central part of the game and story."

This is an unscientific analysis, but according to Steam's achievement tracking, only 8.1% of players have beaten the original Spelunky. Just 4.0% have seen the end of FTL, another popular roguelike. Games like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, which have more in common with Hades because they offer players a chance to upgrade their character and become more powerful, fare a little better. With Rogue Legacy, 22.2% have beaten it, while 37.3% made it to the original conclusion of Dead Cells, before they added a few more bosses.

As of this writing, Hades' completion percentage stands at 27.5%. And while I can't point to anything specific in the data, my social circle is filled with people who typically bounce off games like this, yet have found themselves compelled to keep going, all the way to the end.

"The game does not have any systems designed to drive repeated engagement, meaning there aren't daily login bonuses or any of that stuff," said Kasavin. "We wanted players to keep coming back to this game only for intrinsic reasons such as wanting to see more of the story pan out or trying new ability combinations."

Modern roguelikes like Slay the Spire and Dead Cells were inspirations for Hades, but when I pressed Kasvain to think about his first experiences with the genre, the 1984 black-and-white Macintosh RPG Gemstone Warrior came to mind. While not technically a roguelike, the game had players traversing an exceptionally confusing map that felt random. 

"I played a lot of arcade games growing up," said Kasavin, "and those were also structured around short, difficult play sessions, same as roguelikes. But the difference is that most arcade games felt quite scripted. For example, in Final Fight you can eventually memorize pretty much all the enemy spawns and surprises. But in Gemstone Warrior, it kept me on my toes. I didn't own the game, [and] think I played it in a computer lab at school. But I kept thinking about it, and still do from time to time."

Though Supergiant officially calls Hades a roguelike, Kasavin pointed out that he personally believes the game falls into one of the genre's subcategories: roguelite. Video game genres are fickle and hard to pin down—what exactly is action adventure, doesn't every game involve "role playing"?—but roguelite tends to mean it's less punishing and more accessible. 

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"To me personally, though, the distinction is not that important," he said, "as I feel genre definitions evolve. The example I like to bring up is that, pretty much anyone would consider Halo a first-person shooter—yet the game has many third-person vehicular sequences. We didn't carve out a separate genre definition to distinguish Halo from 'pure' first-person games like Half-Life, and accept that they're basically close enough. If we get too granular, genre ceases to be useful, as there would be too many subgenres to keep track of."

Hades is a roguelike, but it's also a really good action game where death is a mechanic. 

And what of the idea that people love Hades because it's horny and the characters are hot as hell, which several people brought up? To be honest, Kasavin dodged the question a bit.

"I've been really pleased to see our cast resonating with so many players out there," he said. "Credit goes to our art director Jen Zee, who has created the look of all the characters in all our games since Bastion. I'm honored to work with her, and one of my absolute favorite parts of our projects is collaborating with her on our characters. Even having some idea of what to expect from her designs based on our initial conversations and the characterization details I provide, I'm still consistently blown away by what she comes up with. Jen inherently enjoys creating beautiful characters that ignite the imagination, so was excited for the concept of this game, and its potential to include both these iconic Olympian characters like Athena as well as lesser-known but compelling characters like Thanatos. Ours is a story about Greek gods and legendary heroes—we wanted them to live up to their storied reputations."

The bottom line is that it's hard to break into genres you're unfamiliar with, and we all carry preconceived notions about what we like. But certain games can act as gateways to experiences you might have otherwise ignored. Climbing a roguelike mountain is hard, but Hades has found a way to convince a lot of people to climb its mountain. That's not easy.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).