The roguelike makes death to escape tyranny a worthy cause
There’s a vision of hell we all have in our minds and then there’s the one we’re living in. I was planning on poppin’ out a blog post about the latter today. Hopefully with some pipin’ hot, laser sharp breakdown (read: rant) about how the recent liberal optimist preface, “If things go the way we hope…” — with regards to the imminent presidential election — has entered the cultural lexicon. Trying to get at the idea that, yes, I imagine there’s some sense of satisfaction in knowing that we’re all here for ousting the bogeyman. So much so that these tacit little phrases seep onto our palates and we throw them about as if people will not continue to be displaced, trying to survive in a state of constant terror by the police and deputized white people, and being told our imaginations aren’t capacious enough to conjure new ways of relating to one another; as if somehow the hell we’ve created will not continue on.
But, I don’t want to write that piece. Because it lives within that state of hell too. And I’m kinda sick of being there mentally. I’m tired of mulling around in the ash, observing people act as if shit had not already been on fire for decades, centuries. The delusion of our condition was birthed in the defective, shrunken imagination of this country. And that shit annoys me. So I decided instead to write about getting out of this political limbo for a weekend and entering the freshest hell since Dante dropped nine bars on eyetalian heads all those years ago: this little game called Hades.
There are a lot of things to love about this game. For one, it’s what the heads call a roguelike, which is basically like when a kinda old school arcade game like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes sweet sultry love to an action role playing romp like Diablo. You play as the son of Hades, Zagreus, this chill demon who has lived and served in his domineering father, Hades’, home for far too long and he’s ready to leave. The game entails Zag literally jumping out of his window to the realm of Tartarus below, climbing up the stages of hell, and up to the surface where he’ll eventually fight, you guessed it, Hades himself. Trying to escape hell is unsurprisingly hard as fuck and Zag dies a lot. Like a lot, a lot. But those deaths are baked into the story as they represent just how much Zag is willing to sacrifice for something other than the bleak constance of the underworld.
Right about now is where one might wonder: why try to escape the reality of the Black ass subaltern only to jump into a digital version of that very abyss? It doesn’t make sense. And you’d be right, but Hades is a different kind of hell. Each time Zag dies he returns to the brutalist blood fountains within his home, the House of Hades. And each return, the prodigal son deepens his understanding of his own familial history, how that history has ruined his fathers relationships with his kin — other Greek gods and figures like Zeus, Ares, Aphrodite and Artemis — and provides a rationale for both Hades’ neurotic micromanagement of the underworld and Zag’s growing urge to split. Hades makes it fun to die in a way that few other games have because each death actually means something.
Zag knows there’s more out there. There’s more possibility for his life, for his understanding of self, beyond the tyranny of the underworld. Only constant deaths will unlock that potential. Zag’s bleak pursuit to find out who he acts in direct opposition to the structure of his life and the role he was meant to play as a submissive cog in Hell’s antiquated bureaucracy. Luckily, it also represents a fight for liberation for the other gods too, even if they are doing it from a safe distance on Mt. Olympus. Despite their class differences — which comes across in the way they speak to Zag in reference to his father — they infuse their power into each of the six weapons at the Prince’s disposal before each escape attempt and they grow more powerful as he clears more levels of hell.
Those gods also provide the thrust of the story, slowly teasing out the many multilayered dynamics of the Greek pantheon. The first boss of the entire game (and therefore the boss Zag sees most often), Megaera, is a Fury who is tasked by Hades to stop his son from leaving Tartarus. Zag (and we as players) grow accustomed to fighting her and as the number of battles tallies up, the dimensions of their once romantic relationship prior to Zag’s escape plans spill through. The brilliance of this slow unpacking of their characters is that it doesn’t really happen between Zag and Meg. The Fury finds comfort in a side character, the socially anxious gorgon, Dusa, who over multiple drinks in the House of Hades lounge (spirits need spirits, too) confesses how difficult it is to feel a sense of self worth while living here. The evidence of her lacking self worth, for Meg, is in the very act of being put at odds with a friend you once loved and struggled with. Zag and Meg’s continued fights (and her continued losses) draw Meg closer to Dusa because she’s able to see Meg beyond her occupation — as she is also stuck in a holding pattern as the House of Hades’ unofficial lead janitor — Dusa understands her friend as stuck in a kind of limbo, where her interests — which do include being good at her job — are in direct opposition to her desire to relate to others.
I loved watching this relationship build because it felt like those friendships cultivated in the state of normalized apocalypse. Meg’s aggravation both pointed towards Zag and how they’ve been positioned in the world is an aftergrowth of the foul system under which they live. The system that Zag is resolute in leaving. Meg — and all the other characters in the Hell House — are content to live up under Hades thumb for the rest of their lives. Zag’s seemingly radical choice to escape remarks on just how far apart they always seemed to be. His escape has stakes. And sacrifices will always have to be made in pursuit of other ways of being.
Hades keeps it real plain: flight comes at a price. And there’s no better representation of that fact than the embodiment of sheer force, Chaos.
Chaos is the first god. They existed before realms, they are mother to both the Titans and Nyx (the personification of night), and reside in a limbic void between and outside the fabric of their reality. Chaos just is. Reaching Chaos isn’t difficult but it is costly. To even enter the Chaos Gates requires a blood sacrifice and to further utilize their immense power later in the escape attempt means having to fight with one-hand tied behind your back in the next few battlegrounds.
What I love about Chaos is how their power is shrouded in mystery but because of its source in the primordial void — the material by which the universe is formed — they’ve earned the respect and fear of the entire pantheon. So much so that there is no questioning about who or what Chaos is. Their appearance is a torso of faces mashed together, lapping over one another in fluid flesh. Their voice is a multitrack collection of low, slightly detached baritones that’re almost unnervingly mellifluous. No one quite knows what Chaos is, but their dwelling in the subaltern space, their understanding of the nature of gods and mortals, and to be honest, their infidelity to gender, compelled me to their character. But even more, the ways that the god’s reverence for Chaos’ power motivated the Olympians to acquiesce to the dark entity’s boundaries was just inspiring as fuck.
Chaos decides how they will be spoken to: demanding that Zag do not enter their sphere of conversation with domination on the mind. In some of their first meetings Chaos tells Zag not to come into the Chaos Gates using his outside voice. If he was going to liberate himself from the underworld, Zag had to first sacrifice blood and then he had to recognize who’s home he’s in. Lacking any real material desire, Chaos, it seemed, only wanted respect. I related to them; in their cool suave and in the outside realms’ collective unknowing. What interest’s Chaos? What do those who live, at once, within and without the world actually want?
People want different things in Hades. The game’s namesake demands order and submission. Olympian Gods lend their power to Zagreus if only to rub it in Hades’ face if his son does happen to escape. Chaos wants for nothing but the continued state. And while these divine entanglements do grow into a rich network of fun sidebars, quippy arguments, and collabs on the battlefield, there’s still a vast difference in interests between the gods — who only want to see Hades get his — and Zag who just wants to know the possibilities out there for his life that weren’t fire and brimstone. All the possibilities that’d been shirked away by a ghoulish hierarchy that forced him to work under tyranny for centuries.
Hades has a vision of hell that is much like our own: ripe with the exasperation of overworked laborers, disembodied voices wailing for something more, something beyond the now and smirking gods who handle mortal calamities like Gossip Girl characters. And like many of us, Zag’s escape isn’t just a physical one. Yes, he’s climbing the levels of underworld to reach the surface but it doesn’t seem like he plans to meet the gods on Mt. Olympus, no matter how giddy they are to see him. This journey is about determining his own path forward with a new set of potentialities. Escape wasn’t just about ending the reign of one overbearing and insufferable bogeyman but a practice of continued pursuit of the unknown, of the uncertain, of an alternative future. Death will always be present and thus it must be engaged with and hopefully learned from. But death does not define hell. Systemic death wedded to perpetual apathy, however, does. As much as hell is a vision, it’s also a way of being. And if things were “going the way we’d hoped,” we’d be getting the hell out.