Karol Popow is MA student at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, member of the ALEA game research group, lifelong games passionate.
The games, unlike the previous media, have one major difference – they are interactive. Digital entertainment audiences have moved from interpassive reading or viewing to acting as reception. Reading games means playing them. At the same time, the digital form of leisure has created new research opportunities in areas such as the reception of Classical Antiquity. The key interactive features of games have a profound effect on the worlds and characters that the games represent. They are habitable thanks to the involvement of the players. So to find how Antiquity exists in games, it is necessary not only to describe the creators’ vision of it, but also the way the player inhabits and uses Antiquity.
Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020) is a recent game situated in the realm of Greek mythology. It fits in the rougelite genre – the player controls the character, crawls throughout a dungeon in runs lasting about 30 minutes, kills monsters, collects loot and treasures lasting for one run, and permanent power ups the avatar. In Hades, the mechanics of rougelite are explained by mythological narratives, especially the reverse katabasis motif. Instead of getting to the Underworld, the player-controlled character Zagreus (here: a son of the God of Hades) tries to escape from the deepest floors of Tartarus. Thus, the first and most comprehensive narrative use of Antiquity in Hades is twisted, but also it retains its basic meaning. To get to the Underworld, or in this case to escape from Hades, you need to show your skills, tame the Unknown and, most importantly, prove yourself. A chance only possible in games – play the katabasis, not just read or watch. There is also an analogy to the labyrinth motif. The state of the Underworld, upgrades, enemies, and even the rank of challenge are created randomly each time a player starts a new run. Hades uses a reverse katabasis mixed with escaping a mythical maze as a reason to take gameness seriously, and the game does it really well.
Another way Hades plays with Antiquity is through its relationship with gods, heroes, and mythological monsters. They were traditionally symbols of divine and sacred powers, and in particular the gods were worshiped by mortals. In this example, the monsters remain as obstacles to be overcome (killed) by the player, and the gods and heroes, like in the case of katabasis, change appearances while revealing deeper meanings. Firstly, some of them represent the forces of nature. Poseidon rules the water, Zeus restrains the lightning. But the vision of the Hades creators stands out mostly when they present the gods like Athena, Aphrodite, and Dionysus not only as mythical figures, but also interesting game mechanical features. Thus, the goddess of wisdom endows Zagreus with defensive skills, while the other two gods weaken his enemies. If we consider Greek mythology as a set of stories explaining the world to the ancient people, we can take the classic themes in Hades not only as justifying the existence of this game-world, but also as an opportunity to enrich the player’s iteration with this world and make understandable his agency in it. The Hades mythology is not only knowledge of the world. It is part of the gameplay, mechanics, and narrative design. Mythology constitutes this world and belongs to it. Hades uses the gods as helpers to the main character, not just totemic idols. This is much closer to the ancient perception of the interference of divine powers than we imagine it today.
Finally, the game developed by Supergiant is huge and ambitious, proving that pop culture can create new visual, literary and aural representations of Greek mythology. Each character living in the world of Hades has a unique portrait, iconography, and complete professional VoiceOver. They are so well written that create convincing illusions of living entities: watching them gossip, fight, and shout over each other is pure fun. Additionally, Hades offers to the players a coherent in-game chronicle of the Underworld, written by Achilles. Developed as the game progresses, this is an excellent example of the literary interpretation of the ancient tradition experienced by the player throughout the game. Musically, the game is also excellent. The Hades soundtrack’s composer Darren Korb uses electronics, orchestral music, and even heavy metal riffs to create a composition that is energetic and nostalgic when needed, but above all memorable. The level design of the world allows players to run around the crypts of the Tartarus, the fiery Periphlegeton pools in Asphodel, the Elysian Fields, and even a step into the void of Chaos. Paradoxically, the world of the dead has never been so alive before. All this indicates that the ancient aesthetic sense of beauty can be conveyed by modern means.
Replaying Hades is to be constantly torn by the need to flee the Underworld and the desire to stay there to discover one more reference, one more fun dialogue, another deadly weapon combo. This game presents a great opportunity – only available in the form of electronic entertainment – to inhabit and fall in love with this world. The Supergiant Games’ vision is an extraordinary achievement in literature, art, sound, and game mechanics, but most importantly, Hades proves that ancient tradition could and should seek new media to live on. This is an opportunity to reach new audiences, especially young people, and show them the beauty of Classical Antiquity in their native language, the language of the game. After all, replaying Hades is just fun as hell.
Blog post prepared by Karol Popow & elaborated by Dorota Rejter
For more on the games and the Classics see the volume edited by Christian Rollinger, Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing with the Ancient World, London: Bloomsbury, 2020.