Surviving a Hell of a Year With Hades

Hades was going to be a beloved game no matter when it was released. The game has rich, complex, and deep characters with a charming, queer hero at the center of the story, where building relationships with those around him is just as important as knowing what weapons to use. There is gorgeous artwork and voicework of gods, monsters, and men, quenching those thirsty legions of the internet and pulling players deeper into the story, and lore that encourages replay again and again, revealing more as you make your way up through the layers of Hell. All of this and more would make Hades a fan-favorite, and already, it sits with the top games I’ve ever played.

But the more I think about it, the more I’ve realized: Hades has become such a wild success because in so many ways, it has functioned as a template about not just how to survive 2020, but how to thrive in what many would consider a truly hellish year.

[Contains some spoilers for Hades.]

If you gave anyone thirty seconds and asked them what some major concerns were in 2020, it would not be very difficult to see some recurring themes: COVID-19, the US election, systemic racism and racial justice, climate change, and more and more. It’s… a lot. Even before the pandemic shut down much of the normalcy of the year, there were already major causes for concern. And then the pandemic did hit, and we got to worry about all of these things indoors, on top of worries about going outside, our jobs, our families, many preconceived notions of normality shattering one by one.

So, let’s talk a bit about Hades. The game follows Zagreus, the son of the god of the dead himself. Zagreus wants out. Of Hell, that is. Why he wants out becomes more clear as the game progresses, but in the beginning, you simply take an old sword and set out to battle your way through ghostly Tartarus, fiery Asphodel, heavenly Elysium, and finally through the House of Styx to confront Hades at the threshold to Greece and the land of the living.

You will… probably not make it that far. Not on your first run, at least. Why? Because the whole game, the raison d’etre of Hades, is centered around you dying. And it won’t just happen once or twice; you are going to die a lot. The game counts on it. It embraces this core concept, and the more you die—the more you take risks and put yourself out there—the more the story unfolds. And the gameplay changes, too: you gain more power for your weapons, new abilities, new bottles of nectar to improve your romances and relationships; Hades doesn’t just encourage dying, it rewards you for it. Even if you get frustrated, sad, or angry, you always come back to the start having learned something you can take with you on the next run.

Now, think of your average week in 2020. Do you see the resonance? Think of why the absurd, bittersweet aesthetic of Russian Doll became such a popular reference early into the pandemic as time lost all meaning. Think about the catharsis of the weird, dark, and hilarious take on time loops and fate delivered by Palm Springs. Think of the millions who found Animal Crossing: New Horizons, whose infinite tasks of resource gathering, greeting new villagers, and creating a safe world for them gave us a way to get excited for tomorrow, when our own tomorrows were becoming fraught, unknowable.

But Hades doesn’t try to make you feel that tomorrows are safe or gentle or comforting. Hades doesn’t need you to come out of the other side with sunshine and roses; it’s not a game that encourages optimism, but very often, pragmatism. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to have a shit day. It’s okay that you failed, that you fell, that you fucked up. Get up. Keep going. Eat some goddamned food, how the hell are you going to fight on an empty stomach? Go talk with friends, go for some training. Take care of yourself, because if you don’t learn something and keep hitting your head against the wall, you’re not going to do any better, you’re only going to keep failing and wondering why.

Playing Hades is like the bone-deep exhaustion that settles in after you get off the phone with your best friend, bittersweet and worried about them, not knowing when you’ll see them again. It’s the frustration of your sourdough starter dying on you, of your work constantly in flux, of not knowing how you’re going to eat next month. It’s the deep well of anger as those in power gaslight you, tell you that the pandemic is nothing, that masks are dumb, that racism doesn’t exist—and you know that they’re wrong, and you’re going to fight like hell to show them the truth they don’t want to see.

Exhaustion and anger and frustration is baked into the gameplay of Hades. From your very first run, you’re being tested: How far can you make it before you die? Being sent back to the very beginning, dripping with blood from your journey along the Styx, especially if you were this close to defeating Meg for the first time? Or if you were just a few strikes away from sending the Bone Hydra back from whence it came? It’s enough to make you shriek; in fact, I did. It was not uncommon to get texts, DMs, twitter threads that started with, “THAT GODDAMN HYDRA.” Or, “WELP, MADE IT TO ELYSIUM AND THEN MET ASTERIUS.”

Even many of the side characters carry pain, revealed as you build relationships with them. Achilles is separated from his lover Patroclus and it hurts to speak of him. When you meet Patroclus, he wants nothing to do with Achilles. Orpheus is trapped in the House of Hades, and not only can he not go to Eurydice, she doesn’t even want to see him, burned and bitter after so much time since his failure to rescue her. Nyx, mother of darkness, is disconnected from her parent, Chaos, and after so many millennia, doesn’t even know if it’s worth talking with them again.

Again and again, the game forces you to reckon with reality: living in Hell is hard. It’s meant to be hard. Relationships sour, and break. Love can crumble to ash, if left unattended. Escaping will only bring you hurt. But the game also does something radical, a tone and message that contribute to why it resonates in 2020 so much. The game says: if you want to live, you have to push through. And if you want to win, you have to learn and get better. Did you fail? Did you fall? Are you back at square one? We get it; it sucks. But you’re going to get out. You just have to be willing to pick yourself up, face the pain, and do better.

As harsh as that may sound, Hades doesn’t let you wallow; you can’t afford to. But a chance to rest? To process and talk it out with other characters, strategize for the run to come? Hades excels at that. It was such a breath of fresh air to come across a game that gets how hard you tried, acknowledges failure, but still helps you up, dusts you off, and says, “C’mon, you’re not done yet.” And you know what? It makes it all the sweeter when you do succeed.

Because there will come that moment. With the power of gods Olympian and Cthonic, by blade or bow or shield, you’ve done it. Your father, guarding the gateway out of the Underworld and into the world of the living, falls; he goes the same bloody route you always do when you’ve died, swirling back to Hades. The way forward is open. The air of Greece is cold. You’ve never been cold before. The sunrise is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. And through the snow, you find a garden. You find who you were looking for: your mother, Persephone. For a moment, the win is as sweet as summer wine.

But you weren’t meant for the mortal world. Born of the Underworld, you cannot sustain yourself in the world above. A few minutes with your mother, who didn’t even know you existed, and then the familiar gong, the cry of pain, the welling of the blood-red Styx around you and… you wake up back in the House of Hades, forlorn. But you did it! She’s there! You found her. And faced with this truth, what else is there to do but climb again? The fight has changed, but the reason for fighting, the goals, have not. Armed with more knowledge, armed with greater strength, more determined than ever, the struggle continues, and Hades once more embraces the fall from earth only to transmute it once more into something to celebrate: you did it, kid. And if you did it once, by the gods, you can do it again and again, until you find what you’re looking for.

2020 has had its shares of victories, too, big and small. Many of us came together to kick a fascist out of office, worked hard to elect leaders that will fight for us and protect us despite the roadblocks and suppression from those in power; we’ve rallied together in protest and have pushed for action over the continued murders of innocent cis and trans Black men and women, and much more, all while weathering this pandemic. But with each victory, the work continues and the fights grow and change as the world grows and changes in response. It’s refreshing to play a game and see in it the capacity for the struggle to grow and change, because that’s life; it isn’t a story where things just end when a moment of joy was found, but instead a tapestry that continues to evolve over time, and grow in the telling. Hades grows from a story of escape into one of reclamation and home, and from there, grows further still.

There is still so much more I could go on about, the little touches that make this game unique and charming, giving you more to do beyond hacking and slashing your way to the top. As the game unfolds, you are able to change things for those around you; Zagreus may have his father’s powers, but it is his big heart that separates him from others. Zagreus works to mend things between Achilles and Patroclus, bringing the two of them stories and love from the other across Hell. Zagreus appeals to his father and seeks freedom for poor Orpheus, giving him the chance to apologize and maybe be with Eurydice once more. He begins to seek freedom for Sisyphus from his boulder, the kindness of the former king spurring him to seek liberation for his eternal punishment. He gains the ability to bridge the gap between Nyx and Chaos, finding a way to unite child and parent. He even learns how to repair his intimate relationships with Thanatos and Maegara, who each initially greet Zagreus with the chill of a bitter ex they’re being forced to work together at the same office. And there are small joys: you can pet Cerberus whenever you return; you begin to help decorate and outfit the House of Hades in new fabrics and furniture; you gain the ability to fish from your Uncle Poseidon, who wants you to scour the depths of the rivers Styx and Lethe and report back to him.

In its gameplay and story, Hades is invested in people’s happiness in the worst of circumstances, and exploring how we can help each other to be better. Again and again, Hades continues to surprise me over eighty runs in, and I’ve no doubt it will continue to do so with much I’ve yet to uncover, all while being stylish without comparison, with incredible writing and art/voice direction.

Look, 2020 has been a true hell of a year. The United States has over 24 million COVID cases as of the writing of this piece. There’s no doubt there is still more to come, possibly worse, as a couple months of potentially harsh winter lay before us. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed unless we work for it. Just as in our own lives, we still have our struggles to come, and we are going to fail sometimes. We’re going to fall on our face, step the wrong way, make the wrong choice, and we’re going to feel like we ended up right back at the beginning. And when we do—when I do—I’m going to think of Hades and Zagreus, who didn’t let a little thing like getting sent back to Hell ruin his chance at success.

Because it can happen. You can get there in the end and tomorrow can be yours.

It just might take a few tries to get it right. And that’s okay.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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