There was a moment several hours into playing Hades that I could feel the frustration mounting. The game's beautiful third area, Elysium, has an especially troublesome boss, in that you're tasked with facing two of them simultaneously. Their tells are tricky, and every time I faced the duo felt like an act of desperation. Even if I made it to the other side, there was no sense of victory or pride. Instead, I limped to the final area, so thoroughly beaten down and weakened that attempting the game's final area seemed pointless. Death awaited.
There's no way to practice against these bosses independent of playing the rest of the game. If you want to spend 10 minutes getting your ass whooped by a giant minotaur and prick with a spear, you need to put in the effort of making it to their arena for the opportunity and privilege. The stressful anticipation leading up to that moment is, of course, a huge part of what makes these games tick. A shot at progress requires risking time and emotional investment, all so that you can screw it up and be forced to start at the beginning again.
But eventually…something changed. I don't know when it happened, and can't articulate a precise moment when I went from someone who was chafing against some of Hades' harder moments into a bulldozer who pulled off eight wins in a row and triggered the game's credits.
Every night, I'd sit down to play a single run of Hades, and ding—another win.
It no longer mattered which weapon I was using, because I'd become proficient with all of them. It no longer mattered what build I had intended to craft, because I could find a way to make them all work. You know how characters in The Matrix can just download knowledge to their brain and become immediate experts? Well, I had suddenly become a Hades expert, except no one had given me a heads up about it. It would have been nice to get a certificate.
The difference is there was no singular moment when this clicked. No moment of revelation marking the confidence to walk into a room with swagger. But the change became plain when I'd arrive at that tough boss fight on Elysium and be carrying on a conversation with my four-year-old daughter while quietly and dispassionately taking out those two bosses.
This was a radically different feeling from a few weeks prior, when I was sweating profusely on the couch before taking out the game's final boss for the first time, unable to jump in the air and shout how incredible I felt because we were in the middle of watching a TV show. (“Watching.”)
The dialogue even started to reflect this shift, with the bosses expressing exhaustion at having to fight me again, knowing how it was probably going to end. The script had flipped, and one of the many, many very smart things about Hades that other games are sure to rip off is how the game's literal script changed to reflect the player's increased skill over time.
I have trouble coming up with a more satisfying moment in a video game this year.
But achieving silent mastery is one of my favorite parts of playing video games, especially in games that make high demands of players. It's also rare I want to make the commitment, because it rubs up against my desire to spend the precious few hours I have to play video games making progress. Progress in a game like Hades is not always seen. Sure, you're upgrading various traits on runs that go awry, but often, there's no way to look at your two hours spent playing Hades and write down what happened and how you tangibly improved.
You just have to trust that it's happening, and later, there will be a payoff for it. There was. Eventually.
The last time I remember feeling this way was spending nearly 100 hours with Spelunky. This is ironic, of course, because I credit encountering Hades with completely distracting me from spending any time with Spelunky 2, a game I've been looking forward to for years.
But while Spelunky and Hades play differently and one is more punishing than the other, my experiences were similar. A lot of hours in Spelunky cursing in anger, building a collection of mental calluses and an encyclopedia of knowledge for my brain and fingers. I would try to talk through my observations and reactions while streaming, but a lot was invisible. It took dozens and dozens of hours to beat King Yama, the game's secret boss, but when it was all over, I was also able to knock out the "speedlunky" achievement, where you beat the game in under eight minutes. 100 hours of experience distilled into a singular accomplishment: knowing so much about how a game works that you can fully navigate it in eight minutes.
There's more for me to do in Hades, technically, though I'm not sure if I'll pick it up again. A weight fell off my shoulders when the credits rolled, as if I could stop staring the game in the eye, asking for respect. I no longer feel the same pull as I did even a week ago, when I had next-generation consoles in the house, and I'd still be dedicating my free time to another Hades run. It was over. I'd climbed this particular mountain. Now, it's time to find another.