Hades: Random Musing

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Supergiant’s Hades over the last few months, but I don’t intend to do a full series of posts about it. I feel like it’s been getting enough attention lately that reiterating every little thing about it would be unnecessary. But I do have a few stray observations I’d like to get down.

First, others have observed that Hades bears a lot of resemblance to Slay the Spire at the large scale, despite being a completely different genre: Spire is a turn-based deck-building game, Hades a fast-paced action-RPG. But both games are all about battling your way upward, through three main layers of guarded rooms followed by a smaller fourth containing the final boss, in one-sitting sallies where you’re expected to fail most of the time, Roguelike-style. Now, I said before that one of the notable things about Slay the Spire is that it manages to make each layer of its hierarchy of goals — beating the first tier, beating all three main tiers, doing the same with the three main classes, unlocking the final encounter and actually slaying the spire — feel like a real victory when you first manage it. Well, Hades does this even harder. When I escaped the underworld for the first time, I thought “Yeah! I beat the game!” When I escaped the underworld enough times to complete the main plot, and the credits rolled, I again thought “Yeah! I beat the game!” In both cases, it was accompanied by story elements that made it clear that I wasn’t really finished. Even when the credits roll, anyone familiar with the myth of Persephone knows that we’re only halfway through that story. I’m currently trying to help her complete it. I wonder what happens then? The game has got to run out of story eventually.

Speaking of familiarity with myth, I hadn’t heard of Zagreus (the player character) before playing the game, and somehow it didn’t occur to me to look him up and find out if he had any precedent in myth until I was very far into the game. Now, there’s a minor sub-plot in the game where Zagreus and Dionysus prank Orpheus by telling him that they’re really the same person, and spinning tall tales about this combined person’s exploits. Later, Zagreus tries to come clean, but Orpheus refuses to believe him, calling it false modesty and continuing to spread his lies through song. The point is, reading the opening lines of the Wikipedia article on Zagreus retroactively made that at least 20% funnier. I suspect there are subtler mythology gags that I haven’t even noticed.

One thing this game has really impressed upon me is just how many different gods of the dead there are in the Greek pantheon, and how many psychopomps. I assume that this is the result of different traditions merging: This group says Hermes takes your soul to the afterlife, that group says it’s Charon, these other guys say Thanatos, but now they’re all part of the same group so someone comes up with a big retcon in which they can all be right simultaneously.

The game has multiple kinds of in-game currency, and the interesting thing about them is that they’re mostly but not entirely separate. There’s gemstones, which mainly buys cosmetic enhancements to the main house, and shards of pure darkness (which is somehow purple), which you use to upgrade your character, and nectar, which you gift to other characters to improve your relationship, and titan blood, which upgrades weapons. To some extent, these are convertible, but I found I generally wanted to use my gems as gems rather than using them to buy some other resource, even though I didn’t really care much about changing the house decor for its own sake. But the weird part really comes in with the diamonds. Diamonds are normally gained by defeating the level 2 boss, which you can do only once per sally. You only ever have a few of them at a time. I’ve found two main uses for them: buying out the contracts that Hades made with certain characters, and some of the more expensive pieces of furniture. The former affects story (and can have mechanical rewards as a side effect), the latter might sometimes affect the story but usually doesn’t. And yet, I find myself sometimes splurging on the cosmetic effects, rather than saving up to help my friends! The closest I can come to justifying this is by calling it curiosity.

The game starts in media res, leaving out any opening cutscene in favor of getting right into the action. A lot of what you learn about the backstory is learned through suggestion and implication rather than stated outright, at least at first — you suspect that Zagreus is deceiving the Olympians long before this is stated outright. And in some cases, the secrets that eventually come out are ones that the player is likely to know already, even when the player character doesn’t. The very fact that Zagreus doesn’t know that Demeter is Persephone’s mother, even after talking to each of them independently multiple times, is itself one of those bits of backstory that the player learns by implication.

Orpheus repeatedly refers to Eurydice as his “muse”. When you finally meet Eurydice, she informs you that in fact she wrote most of Orpheus’ material. But when you think about it, isn’t that what he said? The poets of antiquity invoked the muses in terms like “Speak through me” and “Whisper into my ear”. They always gave the muses full credit as the real authors of their works, the artist being merely a vessel. Something to bear in mind whenever an artist calls someone “my muse” in real life.

Slay the Spire

It’s been a good few weeks since I’ve done any regular posting, and before IFComp season begins, I’d like to say at least a little something about what I’ve been playing during those weeks. The chief thing, definitely the one I’ve put the most hours into, is Slay the Spire. That’s because it’s a very compelling game: it’s a hybrid of roguelike and deck-building game, which is an unexpectedly synergetic combination. The roguelike part gives it a rhythm of periodically failing and restarting, which wipes your deck and makes you start afresh, the better to make you experiment with different deck-building strategies.

Most of the game is spent fighting. Cards represent various combat moves, offensive and defensive, and are mostly acquired by winning fights, although there’s some opportunity to buy them from in-game shops as well. There are three player character classes (and a fourth coming), each with its own card set specializing in different force multipliers. The three classes more or less correspond to the classical Fighter, Thief, and Wizard, although the Wizard is a little bit of a stretch — it’s based on summoning an array of “orbs”, each of which automatically performs a simple action each turn, like attacking or defending, or can be spent to perform the same action harder. Call it a summoner, then.

In fiction, though, that summoner is a rogue security android. And that’s a good example of the kind of world-building this game does: offhand and ambient, made of suggestive details rather than lore dumps. The player has no idea that this is a setting with security androids until you see it in the character select screen. The title screen has an image of an impossibly tall and slender spire with an organic-seeming irregularity, but that’s all it tells you about the setting. There’s a bird cult of some sort inhabiting the spire, which seems appropriate for a structure reaching into the sky. Every human in the game wears a mask, usually made from an animal skull. Why? Probably, at root, it’s so the developers don’t have to make facial animations, but it comes off as suggestive and enigmatic all the same. The one exception to this is the special events found in some rooms in place of a combat encounter or a shop. These are storylets that usually culminate in a choice, which may be constrained by your available resources. Steal a treasure at the cost of putting a Curse card into your deck? Give up a relic you found earlier in order to upgrade all your basic attacks into vampire-style life-draining bites? The choices tend to be dark ones, and the text that precedes and explains them is similarly dark. This is the closest the game comes to providing an explicit story.

But the bigger story is the implicit one, of a hierarchy of successes and failures. It’s broadly implied that this isn’t a story of a succession of random heroes attempting to ascend the spire, but that in some sense it’s all the same person, repeatedly dying and being resurrected at the bottom by some kind of three-eyed whale god. Sometimes you’re resurrected as a rogue security android, is all. And when I call it a “hierarchy”, what I mean is this: Within a game, there are three chapters, each ending in a fight against a boss. Beating the third boss with each of the three character classes for the first time results in a little cutscene of a gem lighting up in a sort of three-part key. Once you’ve beaten the game with all three classes, the pieces of that key become available to pick up within the spire. Going for them makes the game a little harder, but if you manage to get them all in a single run and then beat the third boss — which is something I’ve managed only once so far — you get to advance to a short but tough fourth chapter, with an even tougher boss. And each level of this hierarchy feels like victory, at least until you actually attain it and discover that it’s just a piece of a larger whole. It isn’t just the low-level gameplay that makes this game as compelling as it is. It’s also this structure, that makes victory seem close at hand such a large portion of the time.