About 20 minutes into Hades I’ve got a really great set of skills coming together. Poseidon just blessed my dash move with the added effect of knocking enemies into each other, and my sword carries a “weaken” ability from the goddess Aphrodite that deals extra damage to stunned foes.
This satisfying feeling of cobbling together complementary skills is the emotional currency the San Francisco-based Supergiant Games’ new rogue-like adventure trades in.
It’s hard to imagine that since the game’s earliest introduction back in 2018, Hades has been delivering better and better versions of this feeling as Supergiant gradually added to the game.
The majority of video game development cycles happen away from the public eye until they’re ready to see the light of day. The past decade has seen some developers pull back the curtain on the creative process by releasing their games in a semi-complete state called “early-access,” but none of them have done it quite like Supergiant.
From Hades’ earliest introduction, the team clearly laid out a roadmap of planned content additions complete with a countdown to the next one.
“I think developing in early access was a really interesting and exciting way to do it.” says Supergiant Audio Director Darren Korb. “The feedback we got from the community really informed our process in a good way. But it’s a double edged sword, right? Because what would happen is we would ship an update and wait for all the technical issues to be sorted out, and then we’d start tearing it apart again and adding all the content we wanted in the next patch.”
Despite the Sisyphean nature of its development, Hades is always providing the player with a chance to move forward.
Rogue-like games are cyclical by nature, with players starting back at the beginning each time they fail. This gameplay style naturally lends itself to the main character Zagreus’ tale of escape, with each failure landing him back in Hades’ court to be mocked by his father, yet again.
From the player’s side, this failure means a couple things. The court is where Zag is able to use resources found on his journey towards persistent upgrades that make him stronger across playthroughs. Keeping some progress isn’t a new thing in these kinds of games, but where Hades does push new ground is the way it tells its story.
Along with the constant stream of character growth, also comes a drip feed of dialogue and exposition that continues to expand the cast and their motives whether the player progresses further into the underworld or not.
This kind of “show must go on” design ethos has been kicking around the team’s heads for a while now.
“Back even before the days of Supergiant, I was roommates with our studio director, Amir, when we worked together in L.A.,” Creative Director Greg Kasavin recalls, “and we would talk about the idea of a game with a story that would only move forward.” In many ways, Hades makes good on what the video game medium has been striving for since the ’80s.
“You play these big budget cinematic games that still put you back at a checkpoint when you fail. It almost feels like you’re rewinding the movie over and over. And yet that’s how game stories are typically structured. We’ve always been intrigued by playing with what happens when the player fails.”
There’s also a clear effort to respect the player’s time if they only want to watch the story play out, with a setting called “god mode” that makes things much easier with each subsequent failure.
The story itself was largely written and decided when the game first premiered, but constantly iterating on the game let Kasavin and the team develop certain characters and story elements with the player’s opinions in mind.
“One of the hypotheses we wanted to test was to see if player feedback would help us from a story standpoint too,” Kasavin says on the phone. “I thought of it almost like a TV pilot at the beginning, where you’re introducing your cast of characters and the world they live in. Then as we continued, it was ‘Who do people like and who do people dislike?’ All the feedback led to certain characters getting more development than we would have if left to our own devices.”
If all that wasn’t enough: the game rocks. Korb reprises his role as Supergiant’s in-house composer and singer-songwriter with a heavier and darker soundtrack than those found on their previous work. Towering sludge guitars rub shoulders with a hauntingly plucked oud and a spooky sounding Casio SK synthesizer in what Korb calls “Mediterrean prog rock Halloween music.”
Korb even ended up signing on to voice Zagreus in a change of plan that was made early in development.
“When we were casting the game I recorded some scratch voice over for a couple of the characters that we had intended to replace with other actors. But after some auditions, the team sort of decided that we liked my performances in two of them the most, so I was like, ‘OK I guess I’m just gonna keep doing this.’”
These disparate threads tie together to create a mood that feels oppressive but always inviting. With the promise of a new song, ability or location that the player hasn’t seen yet, the game stays fresh even after Zag’s quest reaches its conclusion.
Hades may be about the futility of escape, but the experience blooms into something much more. “I consider it a deceptively happy game.” Kasavin says, “The setting is the underworld, so you’d expect it to be dark and bleak but all things considered, it’s a consistently positive experience.”