Hades (Supergiant Games, 2021)
When I looked at the list of Hugo winners this past week, I was thrilled to see one of my favorite video games had won for Best Video Game.
(And then I froze and said, “Wait, there’s a Hugo for video games??” Answer: yes! This was the first year an award was given for Best Video Game, and it was proposed as a special award category. The last two years have seen a sharp rise in the video game market as first time gamers and previously casual gamers suddenly found themselves with a lot more time and a need for both entertainment and a new way to connect with others. Hopefully, this will be established as a continuing award category for the WSFS, but time will tell.)
Hades, developed and published by Supergiant Games, now carries the honor of being either the first or the sole winner of this category, and it solidly deserves it. Is it the best game in the last twenty years? No. There are bigger, grander, more ambitious games out there. Dragon Age comes to mind (Origins or Inquisition, anyway), as do Skyrim and Call of Duty. But with that conceded, Hades is absolutely a worthy Hugo-bearer. Why?
There’s getting called on the carpet and then there’s getting called on the carpet
1) It’s Built on an Elegantly Simple Premise
You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades. Like all men of a certain age, he wants to go out and explore the world, away from his father’s influence. UNLIKE most young men, “home” is the Underworld, so running away from home is less “grab a bag and a lunch” and more “Escape From New York”.In terms of mechanics, Hades is a rogue-like dungeon crawler. If you’re NOT an inveterate geek, that means that the game is designed in such a way that you fight through successive rooms full of enemies until you reach your goal. You die. A lot. The goal isn’t even to “not die”, as it is in a lot of other game types. The goal is to gain enough powers on each successive run to eventually be able to make it all the way through the dungeons to the outside world. Every time you “die” in game, you return to the starting point – Dad’s office – and gain new information, powers and abilities.
This means that the game is very easy to grasp, even for new gamers, and is designed for continual replay. Rather than a linear game in which you proceed directly through a storyline, “Hades” is a process of discovery. Characters appear and disappear, rooms are in different orders every time, and relationships evolve as you find different pieces of the whole picture.
Artemis is eager to meet her newly-found cousin, and will help his journey.
After all, she knows something about dealing with overbearing fathers.
2) It Fleshes Out That Premise into a (Literally) Epic Storyline
Zagreus is not just any rebellious kid. He’s the child of Hades, raised by the goddess Nyx. His weapons tutor was Achilles. His puppy is as big as my living room. And when he starts trying to leave home, he quickly learns that he is in fact a member of a very large and highly dysfunctional extended family.
It starts out as just plain funny: the first time Dionysus shows up to meet his new cousin and in the process grants Zagreus the ability to inflict hangovers on anyone his arrows hit? Brilliant. But he then slowly unravels a long, sad story: one about love, loss, and grief. I want to squeal a lot about how this game understands blended families, chosen families, and families you love but that are locked in their own patterns. But spoilers. So just trust me: it’s worth the time.
Nyx, one of the Primordial gods, acts as a maternal figure to young Zagreus, guiding him and shielding
him from his father’s wrath while navigating her own fraught relationship with the lord of the Underworld.
3) It Understands its Source Material in a Way I Never Get to See
Listen, being a Classicist means mostly learning to just roll your eyes and keep your mouth shut when you see ANYTHING inspired by Ancient Greece or Rome. My first article for Black Gate was about “Clash of the Titans”, and I grew up in the age of Xena and Hercules. (Don’t even get me started on Disney’s “Hercules”. It’s criminal.) And I roll my eyes with a sense of humor. These ancient stories belong to all of us, and they SHOULD be played with.
But “Hades” gets Greek mythology in a way you almost never see. Hell, I didn’t even know that Zagreus was a historically documented deity until I played the game, so I was IMPRESSED. But it’s not just that they get the facts right. It’s that they get the flavor of Greek myth, as a vital, messy, complicated narrative. (Pro tip: if two gods both offer you a favor and you’re only allowed to choose one? Never snub the guy who bears lightning bolts.)
Running into an ex is never great. Running into your ex when she’s a literal Fury tasked with dragging your ass back to Hades?
4) The Graphics Are, Again, Simple, Clean and Elegant
It feels like an old school dungeon crawler. It looks like an old school dungeon crawler. If anything it reminds me most of playing the original Diablo on a PC. Conversations are narrated but not animated. Instead, the attention has gone into individual character design.
Eurydice, for example, was a nymph in life, and here’s she’s painted as unmistakably feminine, but just as unmistakably arboreal.
Artemis’ design is heavily inspired by Studio Ghibli, while the maternal figure Nyx is one part Vertigo Comics and one part Mucha. By all rights it should feel wrong; instead the geniuses at Supergiant Games have managed to meld the strangeness of the individual pieces with the nostalgia of the overall design. The result is delightful, like finding a restaurant that cooks one of your favorite meals in a completely different way.
Tree nymph Eurydice
5) The Soundtrack is Amazing
Darren Korb crafted an absolutely fantastic score for this game. It melds traditional Greek music with the kind of heavy metal guitar you would expect on a highway out of hell. It’s by turns thunderous, whimsical and wistful, and it’s racked up over 3 million plays on Spotify.
It also manages to never get irritating, which for a dungeon crawler is both fantastic and difficult to achieve. You spend a lot of time hearing the same theme (I think I can still hum most of the Diablo soundtrack from memory, 20 years later), and Korb granted players a soundtrack that makes that a joy.
I hope the WSFS decides to continue this category. Video games have become a solid reservoir for powerful storytelling, and 16 years after Roger Ebert infamously said that they will never be art, the craftsmen behind the industry have proven him wrong. But if they do not and Hades remains the only Hugo-winning video game, it will wear the laurel well.