Hades is a roguelike action dungeon crawler published by Supergiant Games and fully released in 2020. This game, while amazing for its storytelling and energetic, fast-paced gameplay, has another feature that makes it an effective game. Hades makes complete sense to frame as an action-packed roguelike.
The roguelike subgenre of video games is notable for its wide variety of games that can fall into the category. Roughly, a roguelike is any game which shares some of all of the features that were characteristic of the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue when it came out. Roguelikes have permadeath (each time the player’s character dies you have to start over from the beginning of the dungeons). They also contain procedurally generated dungeons (rooms or chambers) with different enemies, loot, and layouts, so the challenges that players face are never exactly the same. Roguelikes are often turn based as well and based on grid layouts, though this isn’t the case for Hades, which is an action game). Hades also has resources that you can collect which remain with you across runs, and unlocks that you can access by paying with those resources to help you progress, which is another feature not all roguelikes share.
This roguelike structure really works for Hades. It doesn’t feel as if it’s just a roguelike for the sake of it, or like the Rogue-like mechanics are just placed there without much connection to the story or its characters. The simple answer for why it works so well, I think, is that the roguelike nature of Hades is motivated at every level of the game.
At the gameplay level, creating a repetitive gameplay loop and allowing the player to build on their chances of success as their own skill improves has its benefits. The mechanics surrounding the roguelike elements of the game support the player in their attempts to escape in the face of the unforgiving consequences of permadeath. With the resources they can gather within their runs players can choose which bonuses to Zagreus they want to apply, and thereby get stronger with every run and more likely to reach further rooms. They also encourage the player to embrace the unpredictability of the dungeons in each run by offering them various bonuses in resource gathering in exchange for choosing a different weapon to use each run, and the chance for powerful boons of differing rarities to acquire each time they start a new run and have to create a new build from scratch.
There’s also a strong narrative motivation for Zagreus’s journey to take place in a roguelike format. As Hades and Zagreus both note within the game’s dialogue, the chambers of the Underworld are specifically designed to be inescapable. They are constantly shifting around and filling with random combinations of shades each time Zagreus enters them, so it makes complete sense that whenever you start a new run you don’t know what kind of room you’ll be walking into. Zagreus needs to be ready for anything, and willing to take on whatever he encounters in the chambers between him and the Overworld. We learn that Zagreus is subject to the same difficulty of escape as anyone who enters the Underworld through typical death, and while he can fight really well and is the son of powerful gods he still has to overcome the extreme scenario of battling through every layer of literal hell. And so we get an idea of just how difficult our task is supposed to be when we’re controlling Zagreus as he attempts to do so.
The roguelike nature of Hades’s gameplay has character-driven motivations as well, and affects its characters’ emotions, what they have to say to each other, and their relationships. As an example, the player, as Zagreus, has many opportunities to talk with Dusa over the course of the game. In the first few lines of dialogue players can share with her, they discuss Zagreus’s repeated attempts to escape the Underworld. Zagreus is friendly, but insists that he’ll be gone soon whenever he sees her. Dusa notes Zagreus’s determination, but mentions that she’ll still be tidying up his room. This is likely because she has a crush on him, but also perhaps because she doesn’t really know if he’s going to be able to get out – or if he’ll eventually give up or decide to stay instead as she seems to hope. Certain pieces of Zagreus’s personality make sense in the context of the roguelike as well. His absolute determination, his cheeky comments, and the way he goes all out in every confrontation make sense when you consider that no matter what he tries, worst-case scenario is he just ends back where he started and can take everything on again. In this way, Zagreus’s story itself is Rogue-like. Every time you die you get better or stronger too, so over time you gain bits of progress that keep you and Zagreus motivated to keep going further into the chambers towards the Overworld.
Another reason why the repetitive gameplay elements of Hades are effective is because it gives you empathy for Zagreus’s mission and his efforts towards achieving it. Dying over and over again without being able to prepare fully for each attempt you make gives you empathy for Zagreus’s frustration and strong will to escape. In fact, you have to have a strong will like his – or adopt his strong will – in order to finish the game because it’s so difficult to get to the end. You start your escape attempts at the same time that Zagreus begins his, so each defeat he suffers is your defeat as well. This doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you are Zagreus. He’s a very well fleshed out character with his own distinct personality, life story, voice, and detailed relationships with the characters around him. While the player can likely relate to him or step into his persona for role-play purposes within the game, the roguelike mechanics don’t directly make you feel as though you are him. But you do feel like you’re in league with him. You’re rooting for him not just because he’s the protagonist, but because you’re rooting for yourself too. You’re emotionally invested in Zagreus’s success, and you feel the impacts of his repeated failing to do so until he does. And so when you embark on another delightful ransacking of Hades’s domain, you’re rooting for Zagreus to finally, FINALLY, escape.
Of course, if the repetitiveness of roguelikes is simply not your thing, the congruence between your journey and Zagreus’s journey won’t necessarily make you enjoy the amount of starting over you’re going to have to do to beat this game. It is, however, a very effective way to integrate the narrative elements of Hades with its gameplay and player experience.