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Hades is the best game of the pandemic

Our memories of games are often tied to the time we played them. These can be happy recollections – a summer of Elder Scrolls coincided with your first love – or unhappy ones – your Street Fighter binge culminated in a bloody nose at London Trocadero for beating the wrong person at Street Fighter.

It’s surely right, then, that the games we played over the last two years will be forever associated with the pandemic. They will be forever associated with the low-level dread hum and the tinnitus spikes of terror; the miserable stream of bad and worse news; the confinements, the illness and death. While life stopped, games distracted us. And the best of these distractions – the best of the pandemic games – was Hades, originally released in September 2020 on PC and Switch, and out now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.

Hades takes place in the Greek underworld. It follows Zagreus – Hades’ son – a cynical, quick-witted jock with a heart of gold, who must escape his father’s domain to find his missing mother, Persephone. Hades, a patriarch who exists in a state of permanent irritation, wants ‘Zag’ to straighten up, fly right and get back to work: Supergiant, Hades’ developer, depicts the underworld as a bureaucratic nightmare. Hades scribbles away at his desk with a feathery quill, totting up the list of the dead; these dead – the shades – work in an office, forever drowned in paperwork.

Zag’s escape route takes him through the torture dungeon, Tartarus, up to the Asphodel Meadows, across the Elysian Fields and out through the Temple of Styx. Though each world is beautiful – a shimmering watercolour of bubbling lava and heavenly grasses, close to a kind of Western anime style – the escape isn’t. Each room threatens Zagreus with deadly traps, while Hades, the ultimate hater, remains hellbent on stopping him. He sends wave after wave of minions, along with more fearsome figures from Greek legend.

Luckily, Zagreus has access to a practically limitless combination of upgrades. You begin with a sword, but unlock five more weapons. Using ‘Daedalus Hammers’ (a tip: always always choose these), each of these weapons can be utterly transformed – you can turn your shield into a homing missile, for instance, smashing enemy after enemy before it returns to you. These weapons are further augmented by ‘boons’ – blessings from a lively cast of Greek gods. Athena, for instance, lets your dash deflect projectiles (another tip: pick this one while you’re still new to the game); Zeus lets your weapon strike foes with lightning. As you progress, wise combos become vital: “duo boons”, collaborations between gods, are key to an overpowered build. (Final tip: try Artemis and Ares’s ‘Hunting Blades’.)

With all these gods to chat to, it’s worth discussing Hades’ writing. Early on, a housemate of mine was horrified to see me bashing through dialogue trees, eager to return back to hacking at Hydras. “The story is the best part,” he admonished me. And it’s true: Greek myth has long provided an ideal narrative setting to transplant into games, with its iconic heroes settling beefs via combat. Yet Supergiant do a wonderful job bringing out the gods’ cattier, camper sides. They’re lovable jerks, here: the Yin to the Yang of God of War’s bloodthirsty psychopaths. Dionysus, for instance, is a kind of college campus stoner bro: (“Heeey there zag maaan.”) Theseus is a pompous blowhard, but has formed a touching bond with the minotaur he defeated in legend.

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Zagreus, too, is a notably good egg: he banters his military man father, along with the grizzled Gothic voiceover who narrates the story: “The bedchambers of Prince Zagreus lie in a perpetual state of utter disarray, despite his lord and master of the house repeatedly insisting that he pick everything up.”

The game features roughly 20,000 lines of dialogue, yet it was made by a team of just 30 people. And Supergiant managed to make Hades without crunch: employees get unlimited time off and are mandated to take at least 20 days. Emails can’t be sent after 5pm on Friday. (Compare that, as Ian Walker at Kotaku does here, to The Last of Us 2, made by Naughty Dog’s team of more than 300, who suffered through enforced overtime and sleepless nights.)

While Supergiant’s working days have a clear beginning, middle and end, Zag's do not. Were you preternaturally competent, you could escape the underworld on your first try, kick Hades’ ass, and walk out into the lush green of ancient Athens to reunite with your mother Persephone. (In fact, watch as the game’s developers giggle as one speedrunner does just that, in under half an hour). But most of us mere mortals will die. And since Zagreus is an immortal, he cannot. So death is not the end of this game. Because Hades is a roguelike.

The ‘game over’ screen, once the ultimate fourth wall breaking device, is part of the narrative, and the story continues with failure. Zagreus sinks into waves of blood only to emerge from the Pool of Styx as we might emerge from a daytime nap, commenting on whatever felled you. It’s this mechanic that makes the game one of the most replayable ever (a nice feature during a pandemic). Rather than a vast world that you only want to see once, it provides a small world of infinite combinations: a Rubik’s Cube to a 5000 piece jigsaw.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the way games let us travel during a period we cannot. (Can’t go outside? Derive the numinous digitally, from a glimmering Hyrulian sunset!) This makes sense, given that we are living through an unprecedented period of confinement. But less has been said about a different way you can get lost in games. Because Hades is not just a very difficult game, it is a particularly intense game, a teeth-grindingly, forehead-sweatingly intense game. The screen explodes with coloured chaos; the transition between life and death is hair thin. When I play Hades I am submerged into a pure and contented zone of focused feeling. I am not me, for a bit; I’m released.

As a kid, if you had told me that many years from now I’d be living through an inverted childhood, where staying in and playing games and eating takeaways had become a civic duty, I would have got to work on a time machine. But, as an adult, the pandemic – except when it’s been terrifying – has been relentlessly dull. It has wrought a total loss of intensity. No social events, live music and sports, parties, whatever; no release. Games like Hades can’t replace these pursuits, but they provide an intensity of entertainment that can work a comparable magic.

This may all be a pretentious way of saying that the game has been a great distraction as the world around us goes to shit. I’ll always remember that when time needed killing, Hades was there. It was the best of the pandemic games.

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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