I know, I know: everybody loves Hades, the Super Giant’s latest jewel. These days, it is impossible to read any online game magazine without reading an article about it. This game has been on everybody’s mouth since its official release on September 17th.
And for good reasons.
Hades managed to raise the bar of the roguelike genre1 just when the genere started to become uninspired and boring. There are many reasons for Hades success but, in my opinion, its greatest accomplishment is that it was able to provide a glaring example of a roguelike with a solid storytelling.
I’ll be honest: until Hades, I thought that was impossible.
Roguelikes' core gameplay element is a repetitive cycle. You start, you die, you start again. Stories, on the other hand, try to stay away from repetitions as much as possible2. How do you tell a story when you are forced to repeat the same events over and over?
At first, roguelikes not even tried. Each run was a self-contained “story”: you may lose (muck likely) or you may win but every time you start again you are re-telling the same story. Therefore the “dramatic question” is: how it will go this time?
Then, with the increasing popularity of the genre, roguelikes wanted to construct a narrative including all repetitions. There is a gameplay motivation for this: roguelikes wanted to build a overworld hub to give to the player something to look forward even when they continuously die in the official run. Such overworlds need to be embedded in the character story arch and, therefore, the narrative itself needs to embrace the infinite repetitions of runs.
Hades is not the first roguelike that tried to build an overarching story. Older games tried to tell meaningful stories but they all failed to go beyond a simple justification for why the main character is willing to painfully die until the end of time. Some of them are “original”: in Rogue Legacy (Cellar Door Games, 2013) , for example, when the main character die, it is replaced by a descendant. But in the vast majority of them, the protagonists are afflicted by a curse/spell/punishment they want to break.
These justifications are fine (after all, even in Hades' the protagonist is afflicted by a curse), however, the story never goes much deeper than that and, more importantly, it looks separate from the game. Small bites of story are scattered along a story-less gameplay. That’s it.
And then came Hades. In Hades the story is blended in the game and you can never really split story progression from the actual gameplay. The feeling I had is that you are playing the story. The plot is not an extra to keep you entertained, the plot IS the game.
The small details are what make the difference. A tiny piece of story is hidden in every corner, in every dialogue, in every time Zagreus' is thinking aloud.
And that’s more: dialogues reacts to previous events and to the current state of your progression. When you are killed by an enemy, Zagreus will complain about that enemy while respawning and Hypnos will make a snarky joke on that event. If you carry a particular weapon, the Gods of the Olympus will comment on it revealing a small piece of new information to the player.
Everything appears real, vibrant, dynamic. After more than seventy escape attempts, I still discover new things. New pieces of the world building are revealed to me at every corner. The world of Hades keeps looking alive and it looks like the act of playing changes it.
I’ll be clear. The storytelling in Hades works like it never worked before for any other game. I encourage you to play Hades. It is the only way to truly understand what I am saying. If you are interested in game storytelling, Hades is a case of study to check out.