I wasn’t going to write about Hades this week.
My post is late because, though I was planning on cleaning up one of the reserve posts I’d written a week ago, the news dropped yesterday that Hades won a Hugo Award for Literature. If that doesn’t sound impressive enough, Hades is the first game to ever win a Hugo. If that still doesn’t sound impressive enough, according to Eurogamer, the category of “Best Game” is a one-off. Which means they might never give a Hugo to another video game.
Which means they might have added the category this year just to give the award to Hades.
And, if you ask me, never has an award been more justified.
Because, as I’ve tried to explain to many writer friends, the awesome gameplay is not the most amazing part of Hades.
It’s the writing.
To put this into context, I am extremely hard to impress when it comes to writing in video games. I don’t want to get into a rant here, so suffice it to say that I just don’t grade on a curve. I am totally capable of saying, “That game has fun dialogue,” “That game had a surprising twist,” or, most commonly, “That game had an intense plot.” But I have almost never said, “That game is really well written,” because to me that implies that it has a complete, cohesive, engaging, active storyline. With legitimately great writing and charming characters who aren’t cliché. Essentially, the entire package that I’d expect from a film, TV show, or novel with great writing.
But Hades is that entire package.
If you haven’t played it, Hades is a rogue-like, which means it’s a game where you play as a character doing “runs” of an adventure with randomly-generated maps and assortments of enemies.
In this particular adventure, you play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who’s trying to escape his father’s realm—the underworld. Not the most unique premise, sure, but hang with me here, because that’s the same thing I thought.
Until I started my first run and Zagreus started talking. I don’t mean that he was soliloquizing—there was no cutscene where he painstakingly detailed his reasons for wanting to escape.
I mean that when the game started, after Zagreus delivered two extremely brief lines about his escape (while I was controlling him), I ran up to a pillar and tried attacking it with my sword. And when it broke, Zagreus said a sarcastic, “Oops.”
And I blinked. “Oh . . . He’s . . . still talking. Alright.”
And then I went into the next room and Zagreus commented on the enemies that spawned there.
And then I found a golden vase, and when I broke it and gold coins spilled out, Zagreus said a devious, “I’m sure father won’t miss these,” at which point I chuckled like, “Wow. How much VO did they record? Does this dude just talk the entire time?”
Yes, he does.
Also, a lot. They recorded a lot of VO.
In a world where the standard is to record a handful of grunts and shouts for your protagonist, only having them talk in cutscenes or when a game designer thinks you forgot an objective, Zagreus just . . . talks.
Like he’s just . . . a character?
An extremely charming character who I thought I was going to hate, but who I liked . . . immediately?
The thing is, then I got to the first boss, and I didn’t realize it was happening at the time because I was already too into it, but Zagreus spoke to that boss—a quick exchange of a few lines to show that they know each other—and that was the moment where I first experienced why Hades deserved its Hugo.
Not because Zagreus and that boss talked and it was cool, but because that was the very first moment where I understood that Hades was creating a world.
When I died (that first boss destroyed me), there was no return to the title screen. Zagreus, having died, just returned to his father’s home—the House of Hades, which he’d been trying to escape. Why? Because, in-world, that’s where everyone goes when they die. Did the game need to have an in-story, totally acceptable justification for the rogue-like genre model? No. Did I need to mention that it provided an in-story, totally acceptable justification for it anyway? Hell yes.
But, anyway, putting that aside, returning to the House of Hades was the moment I fell in love with the game because there were, immediately, so many characters to talk to—if I wanted to. I won’t spoil any of them here, but I will say that, aside from being extremely charming in their own ways (each of them great showcases for playing to a character’s strengths), they all make the world feel incredibly active.
Because, sometimes, they aren’t in the House of Hades. Zagreus will comment on their absence, of course, pointing out that they “must be on break.”
And sometimes, you can, in fact, find them on break.
Sometimes, new characters arrive after being away on business.
Sometimes, these characters are talking to each other! And of course, you get to listen in on a few lines of dialogue, but after the bit that’s relevant to you, they continue chatting to each other in cute whispers that you hear?
And also, every time—not even just sometimes but every time—these characters have specific dialogue in reaction to your last run. Characters comment on the enemy that just killed you if they logically would have that information. Characters comment on how they heard you beat the first boss and reached the second area of the underworld and “Good on you, lad. Keep fighting.” If you were killed by an enemy who killed you before, Zagreus will respawn in the House of Hades and angrily curse the enemy who killed him.
What I’m getting at here is that Hades is genuinely an achievement.
I am 30+ runs in, and I’m still getting unique dialogue.
It is just an incredible, technical feat. There are so many characters who are universally charming or annoying or cute or scary or hot (make me bi, Ares, you beautiful fucking monster), and all of them have an unreal amount of naturally flowing dialogue that presents an ever-evolving story that changes as you play. I desperately want to go into how, but I refuse to spoil this game for anyone. All I will say is that the first time I beat the last boss, their last line of dialogue hit me very, very hard. And that did not emotionally equip me for the epilogue, the music for which is a perfect embodiment of Zagreus’ legend. Music and legend that, mind you, both haunt me to this day.
It is just beautiful and I cannot express how incredible the writing is for this game. I wish I could watch a documentary about the writing team that handled all of it. Were there specific writers for each character? Were there maybe teams—like one person handling Megaera and her sisters or, conversely, a group of people handling Hades? Was it, impossibly, one person writing for everyone? Were the voice actors in the writers’ room riffing off of each other? And just how many pages was Zagreus’ script?
Okay—I have to stop because I will just rant forever. But what I will say is this: if you are a writer of Fantasy and you love video games . . .
. . . play . . . Hades.
The love that Supergiant Games gave to its characters; the way that they created its world and made it feel alive; the short, confident bursts of conversation between characters that they used to compliment gameplay instead of bogging it down; the slow, careful graduation of its story; and the way that Supergiant molded all of this perfectly around the rogue-like genre—all of that can only influence your writing for the better.
At some point, I will write about Hades again.
I know it without a shadow of a doubt. Because I barely scratched the surface.
And because there is no escape.
Phew. This took a while to finish. Thanks for reading though! If you made it all the way here, I have a few other “Games for Writers” posts on here, but it’s my most staggered series by far, so they range wildly in quality. On the low end: “Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater,” which was awful and I don’t stand by at all anymore. On the high end: “Games for Writers – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Is a Great Fantasy World Simulator,” which was extremely fun and totally holds up.
If you enjoyed, I am not, by any means, a celebrity influencer. I’m just an aspiring writer doing this as a means of staying honest. Which means I’m still building my platform, and thus totally appreciate Follows (the button for which is on the left sidebar on PC and the top-right hamburger menu on mobile). I post every Sunday or Monday, but the topic, while random, will always relate to writing in one way or another. I might not post this weekend because of the holidays, but there’s an equally likely chance I’ll have a bizarre dream between then and now that I’ll just have to share.
At any rate, thank you for reading. Until next time, stay safe, stay hydrated, and have a great holiday!