There are few video game genres that are as punishing as the roguelike. Built into the genre is death as a feature — losing your progress and beginning again, albeit with more power, is what the roguelike is all about. A lot of people find that pretty polarizing, me included. Why would you want to play a super hard game that pushes you back to the beginning when you fail?
Instead of seeing that failure as a learning point, I could only see it as the loss of progress. I spent all this time and energy to get there, and now I’m back at square one. And that’s why it’s taken me so long to start Supergiant Games’ Hades. I saw colleagues fawning over it, heard people praising how different it was. When someone would suggest Hades was the roguelike for me, I recoiled. Yes, I wanted to see what the hype was about with the hot Greek gods and goddesses, but was it worth subjecting myself to what I thought would be excruciatingly hard gameplay in a genre that doesn’t give me any satisfaction?
Well, no — until I gave into the allure of Hades and tried the game out. After all, it’s part of my job to try video games, even ones I don’t think I’ll like. As it turns out, I do like Hades. A lot. And not only the parts of it that involved the game’s RPG elements. I like all of it, even returning to the underworld once I’ve been killed by one of Hades’ powerful foes.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, I’m not the only roguelike-averse person to latch onto Hades. In fact, that seems to be by design: Supergiant Games wanted to create a game inspired by the genre, a game that was more accessible as a whole.
“You’ll feel taken care of when you play,” Supergiant Games wrote in the Hades FAQ. “Rogue-like games are known for their steep difficulty, and indeed, Hades can present a considerable challenge. However, one of our foremost design goals on the project was to make the thrills of rogue-like games accessible to more players.
“To that end, and knowing that challenge is relative from player to player, the game offers a wide range of difficulty modifiers as well as permanent progression systems ... alongside plenty of characters to interact with when you’re not trying to battle out of hell.”
That approach seems to have worked. The chatter about Hades is coming from all angles — people who love the genre and people who hate it. For those that hate it, it often comes down to the punishing factor of the genre.
“For me, death is a fail state, a sign that I’ve done something wrong and need to correct it,” Tori Schafer, a game developer, told Polygon. “For roguelikes, it’s a mechanic that’s supposed to encourage skill growth in order to proceed. The mere thought of dying again and again and never actually ‘progressing’ in a tangible way was enough to put me off the genre, and I avoided games within the genre.”
Roguelikes, Schafer said, don’t have the “neat little steps” that more linear games do — once you beat a level, you move on to the next. Complete a quest, and move on again. “Roguelikes just don’t work like that,” Schafer said. “It’s one giant step that you keep trying to take and just keep failing to take. I just dread the entire concept.”
“I saw on Twitter that everyone was talking about how good the story and characters were,” Schafer continued. “And that you could date characters? And the protagonist was bisexual?? And I was just getting sadder and sadder, like, ‘Ah, this game I really like the sound of is in this genre I absolutely hate.’”
The appeal of the story — fantastic storytelling is what Supergiant Games is know for — was enough to draw in Schafer, me, and plenty others. But when she realized there was a “God Mode” to assist players, she decided to try it out.
With the help of God Mode, a settings option in Hades that reduces enemy damage taken by 20%, Schafer and I learned to love Hades challenging gameplay. God Mode really is the perfect option; it doesn’t make you invulnerable. (Every time you die, damage resistance is increased by 2%.) Damage dealt is the same, just that I’ve got a buffer that helps keep things moving along. I like that it doesn’t otherwise change the experience, and that once I feel comfortable in my skill level, maybe I can turn it off.
“When I started I was really bad at it, but it wasn’t frustrating, because every time I died I unlocked more of the story,” Lily Reeves, a roguelike hater who loves Hades, told Polygon. “Hades rewards you for being good at the game, but it doesn’t punish you for being bad at it. I don’t know if I’ve ever played a game where the fighting feels so satisfying.”
“Supergiant has a knack for taking an existing genre, and making it something new,” YouTube creator FrothyOmen told Polygon. “They’re great at ‘finding the fun,’ and do a good job at applying the difficulty without being oppressive. The voice acting and music are excellent, and the game does a great job of pulling your mind away from your inevitable failure very quickly after it happens.”
Ryan Gilliam, Polygon’s resident roguelike expert, told me that Hades isn’t all that different from a standard game in the genre, either — just that it’s packaged in a unique way, with all those RPG elements. Hades does allow for more agency, however. “The thing it doesn’t have, which I don’t really miss, is a huge swing in play style from run to run,” Gilliam said. “Basically the run determines what is good and what your priorities are as a player, but not the weapon you’re using, like in Dead Cells or something like that. You have agency in all that in Hades.”
This approach is likely why it resonates with hardcore roguelike players, as well as people who hate the genre. It’s not dumbed down to make it more accessible — it’s just a damn good game with options, a good story that organically ties into its gameplay, and hot characters.
“The story in Hades couldn’t be done in any other genre. As a narrative designer, I’m always thinking about how gameplay and story grow off of each other, and this is a great example of that,” Schafer said. “The excitement of getting further and further up through Hades, and the frustration when I die, and the excitement when I unlock a new skill and weapon. Those are all shared by the protagonist in a really organic way. And I’m sure when I beat the game I’ll be just as excited as Zagreus is.”