Feature Article

Hades Changes What It Means To Be A Roguelike

Forget the punishing difficulty of the genre, Hades is all about the story.

Megaera, one of Hades' earliest bosses, stood before me for the first time. I had done a handful of runs through the underworldly roguelike but had never made it far. I was determined to change that with this run. I used all of my focus to dash, dodge, and dance around her until both our health bars were nearly depleted. I made one final swing to finish her off. Finally, I had won.

The high of victory wouldn't last long though--I died shortly after that boss fight and returned to the House of Hades. But I was surprised to find Megaera waiting for me in the lounge.

"The next time we fight, you better finish me off," she said in an encounter I hadn't experienced before. I'd run into similar situations in other roguelikes, where I fought a new boss in Slay the Spire or Dead Cells, but had never been rewarded for failing.

"Roguelikes are categorized by their punishing difficulty. It's like a source of pride," Hades writer and game designer Greg Kasavin told GameSpot. "We don't think that's integral, though; the thrill comes from the idea that the game can surprise you over and over again."

Meeting Megaera for a drink after a run
Meeting Megaera for a drink after a run

Hades is still difficult, but its core systems are built around moving forward. You'll still encounter new story beats, items, and other changes if you keep losing. It's a departure from the design choices that the genre is known for, as Supergiant Games wanted to bring the "thrilling" surprises that roguelikes are known for and make them available to more players.

A few weeks after the fantasy-meets-basketball adventure Pyre shipped in July 2017, the team at Supergiant Games came together to brainstorm what they wanted from their next game. Development on the studio's previous games, Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre, had been messy and difficult because the studio didn't plan those projects well. They were developed in stride around central themes--a process that put strain on the small team.

"Our pre-production can be so frustrating because it takes so long to find an idea that gels. We wanted to make an early access game that would force us to have a playable game sooner," Kasavin said, adding that this was the first time the team wrote up a summary pitch for one of their games. "We then decided on a roguelike to encourage replayability. You don't see many narrative-driven games in early access."

"We know that designing things on paper can barely mean anything. When the rubber meets the road, that's when the real stuff happens."

Supergiant Games Creative Director Greg Kasavin

Kasavin and other members of the team had been playing roguelikes like Risk of Rain and card battler roguelike hybrid Slay the Spire, marveling at how deep the gameplay systems were in those games. They wanted to create something similar: a game that players could play over and over again and still experience something new with each session.

"There is a ton of variety in the deck-building mechanics in Slay the Spire," he said. "Each character has a fundamentally different play style on top of all the other play styles you can use by building your deck. Trying to manage the randomness is really compelling."

In Slay the Spire, you build your deck as you progress through the game's three spires, choosing new cards as you defeat enemies and open chests. There are certain strategies, like going for cards that apply poison to enemies, that players focus on because of their effectiveness. There's no guarantee players can get the necessary cards to make those builds feasible, though. You may have to adapt and change your plan midway through a run, depending on the cards or relics you find.

"On one hand, you might push towards a certain build, but the randomness is going to fight against you. That decision-making part of roguelikes is super interesting," Kasavin said. "Difficulty has nothing to do with any of that."

Roguelikes are historically difficult. Games like FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Spelunky popularized a genre where players would need to spend dozens of hours just to get good enough to to finish a run that can be completed in one sitting. Kasavin wanted players to spend dozens of hours playing Hades, but he wanted to reward them during that time.

With every return to the House of Hades, players will hear new dialogue from characters like Achilles and Hades; unlock new weapons, areas in the hub world, and upgrades; and learn more about the game's overarching story. Progress and narrative advancement isn't tied to winning like it is in many other roguelikes.

Hades isn't easy, of course. It has similar content that gives players who want an increased challenge a grind that's akin to Spelunky or Slay the Spire. The difference is that everything else in the game, the different weapons and intriguing intra-Olympus relationships, become available to all players much sooner than they might in similar titles.

Chatting with Zeus during a run
Chatting with Zeus during a run

Hades was a complete change from how Supergiant Games usually approaches its projects. Outside putting more time into pre-production, the studio rejected one of its longstanding practices of building each game from scratch.

"We wanted to make games that had their own unique identity and that meant not using ideas from previous games in our new projects," Kasavin said. "They all have ideas that make them what they are."

Bastion's evolving hub world, Transistor's deep skill system, and Pyre's branching story and NPC dialogue options all make those games unique. Their defining elements all also find a home in Hades. The evolving hub turned into the House of Hades, the skill system transformed into the boons that each god gives protoganist Zagreus, and the NPC dialogue system became one of the most vibrant parts of a trip through the Temple of Styx.

"We didn't realize why we were making it so hard on ourselves," Kasavin said.

It's part of the reason why Hades feels so polished--it's a summation of everything the studio had worked on for the last decade-plus. The narrative that framed Greek gods as a dysfunctional family was the glue that brought it all together.

Power ups, called 'boons' in-game, are designed around the gods
Power ups, called 'boons' in-game, are designed around the gods

One of the motivators behind changing the way Supergiant Games approached development was growth. The studio added eight people in the lead-up to Hades after struggling to develop Pyre with only a staff of 12. The team wanted to find a way to continue making games they were passionate about without development starting with nothing but a "hazy idea."

The new people they hired included platform engineers, technical designers, and similar roles that could help streamline how the team made their games. Bringing on these developers, several of whom helped the game launch on Nintendo Switch (something the studio has been unable to do with Pyre), meant they had to shore up how they approached their projects.

"We didn't realize why we were making it so hard on ourselves."

Supergiant Games Creative Director Greg Kasavin

"This new process did have a stink of creative bankruptcy, that's why we avoided it in the past," Kasavin said of planning Hades development before creating a prototype. "We know that designing things on paper can barely mean anything. When the rubber meets the road, that's when the real stuff happens."

The main goal with this new process was to start sooner, and it worked. It usually takes Supergiant Games around three years to finish a game, which is also how long it took to finish Hades. But this time, the team was far more organized--allowing them to constantly record dialogue during that same three-year period.

Many players have been along for the ride since Hades launched in early access in 2018, and those players are still experiencing new story beats after playing it for more than a hundred hours. That's only possibly thanks to that three year stretch of recording sessions. It's why every character feels alive each time you speak to them.

"Another challenge is what happens when the story runs out, what will players do then," Kasavin said, laughing and adding that the game isn't endless. "Hopefully they go away before the story runs out."

Disclaimer: Greg Kasavin is the former executive editor of GameSpot.

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