There are plenty of things that videogames do well: unfurl impossibly beautiful worlds, deliver a truly invigorating challenge and, of course, provide the only legal way to shoot the approximate population of mainland Europe. But beyond all of these bloodthirsty delights, the one thing that videogames have over every other artform is the ability to put you in the narrative driving seat. There are plenty of people who can watch a film and confidently state “oh my God the main character is literally me” (though these people are insufferable to be fair), but however much you might relate to Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker or Patrick Bateman, film is still a passive medium.
By contrast even the most brotastic videogames, where the storyline essentially boils down to ‘point the gun, kill the aliens’, generate a kind of personal identification that films can’t touch. With total control over your digital avatar, it’s hard on some subconscious level not to see them as an extension of yourself and become increasingly invested in the story; even if said story is held together with bits of string. This kind of identification is obviously an illusion (no videogame can let you do anything you want, for practical programming reasons as much as anything else) but, as narrative shortcuts for audience investment go, it’s a good one.
The only problem is something called ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (that’s what the kind of people who you really don’t want to get stuck talking to at parties call it anyway). This is when the gameplay of a videogame is at odds with the story it’s trying to tell. So, for example if your videogame’s story is about a broken ex-soldier trying to put his violent past behind him, but the game itself sees you gleefully massacring thousands of men, women and adorable anthropomorphic animals before doing the Macarena on their lifeless bodies, then something’s going to feel a little off. Even the most elementary aspects of game design can hobble narrative immersion. For example, in most games your character will die if they take too much damage (disregarding sports games and the like). Obviously in the story your character doesn’t die over and over again, you’re just supposed to pretend that they never happened.
Hades, a furiously violent yet charming hack-and-slash by Supergiant, takes the concept of dying in a videogame and blows it up into the backbone of the plot. In Hades you play Zagreus, the rebellious son of the titular Greek god of the underworld. Refusing to knuckle down and join the old man in the family business, Zagreus decides to pull a reverse Orpheus: break out of the underworld. The only problem is that entire legions of the dead are between you and the exit and all of them are itching to kill you in a frankly Byzantine number of ways. The gameplay is fast-paced and frenetic; our man Zag has six different weapons to experiment with, and an entire host of customizable divine boons from your cousins on Mount Olympus: thunderbolts from Zeus, frost from Demeter, weaponised hangovers from Dionysus (which should be banned by the Geneva convention). Even with all of these creative ways to ruin a hydra’s day, you’re going to be dying. A lot. However, as a God, you’re immortal and your death is inconvenient in the same way that missing a bus is. You die and wake up in Hades’s mansion surrounded by your old friends who sardonically ask you when you’re going to give up this whole ‘run away from home’ thing and get a real job. Even Hades himself is there doing the celestial equivalent of watching Countryfile with his feet up doing his best to ignore you.
The story in Hades only really advances between escape attempts; it’s episodic and modular in a way that hasn’t really been attempted before and it all turns around the fact that all of your deaths really unmitigatedly happened. Each run sees you collect more upgrades which you can use to slowly evolve from a 60-pound weakling to Charles Atlas (or considering the setting, Atlas himself). The map is randomised on each escape attempt which sees different rewards on each playthrough. Your fellow Gods offer a huge selection of powers which bond together in unexpected ways. On one playthrough you might gain a selection that sees Poseidon’s waves cascade from your weapon whilst you restore health with every hit, but after dying you might never see those powers again so you’ll have to develop an entirely new strategy for the next run. This constant reinvention keeps the gameplay from getting stale and the huge mechanical differences between the weapons (sword, spear, bow, shield, gauntlets and thematically confusing machine gun) offer even more customisation. Even previously defeated bosses remember your previous runs and adjust their strategies accordingly to stop you from getting too comfortable.
This drip feed of reward and story keeps the challenging gameplay from getting frustrating: your every death makes you stronger and with literally thousands of lines of contextual dialogue (a friend who’s played over 140 hours was still reporting new dialogue to the very end), there are an awful lot of stories behind the frantic button mashing. Dozens of classical Greek characters from Orpheus to Charon are given storylines to unpick and explore at your leisure, all of whom have a tangled back history with Zagreus, who seems to have slept with half the underworld. This sees you aiding and abetting them in unusual ways: from reuniting Achilles and Patroclus to bonding with Cerberus (portrayed here as beloved family dog). The kaleidoscopic world of Greek antiquity is created in a way that feels both funny and accurate to the source material; much like their originals the Olympians are mainly a bunch of pompous arseholes who are only aiding your escape attempts to rub the aloof Hades’s nose in it. Thanks to the innovative marriage of gameplay and story, Hades feels like a true breath of fresh air. Going to Hell has never been this much fun.
Available for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Steam