Supergiant's Hades is in many ways a departure from the studio's earlier work. Unlike Bastion, Transistor, or Pyre, it's a roguelike dungeon crawler, and it's also the first of the team's games to be put out in early access.
One thing that ties all of Supergiant's work together, though, is a strong narrative. Hades' protagonist is Zagreus, a blurry member of the Greek pantheon who is seen only through fragmentary texts that identify him as the son of Hades, lord of the underworld. (He may have later been merged with the myth of the god of wine, Dionysus, further obscuring his original tales.) The developers took this loose foundation and built up their own character, a rebellious young man who wants to escape his father's underworld, tasking the player with battling through an ever-shifting maze of enemies in an attempt to reach the surface.
Creative director Greg Kasavin has worked on writing and implementing the narrative on all four of Supergiant's games, but this is the first one to draw on an existing mythology. He tells me that this narrative foundation first came from the structure of the game they wanted to make.
"Soon after we launched Pyre in 2017, we were really drawn to the idea of creating a game that we could build in partnership with our player community," he says. Launching in early access didn't just mean the team could iterate on combat mechanics or weapon balance, it also meant that the "story could continue to grow over time, creating the sense of a living world." (They just recently added Dionysus to the game.)
"We were also drawn to the roguelike genre, defined around replayability and having a mix of crafted and procedural context," he continues. "The idea of creating a game inspired by Greek myth came up as a result of that thought process."
Uncovering bits and pieces of story as Zagreus attempts to flee the underworld over and over again, like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, is a fitting way to experience mythology, which rarely has a dedicated canon. "Greek myth is filled with contradiction, since it comes from countless stories that evolved over time. My goal is to stick to the spirit of the source material, more than the letter." Kasavin explains.
"In many cases there are only shreds of information available," he adds, which gives him and the team more freedom to create the stories that they want to tell. For example, Kasavin began by rereading Homer's classics, but it took "delving into more obscure sources I hadn't read before" to find Zagreus himself. Even Hades was something of a blank slate at the start. "There are relatively few canonical stories about him, despite how relatively famous he is."
Kasavin also tells me it's been a pretty straightforward process selecting who gets to make an appearance: "Since we're a small team, I just write the characters and put them in the game. If my colleagues find the work compelling, and I can make a good enough case for why certain characters should be part of the cast for sake of the gameplay and story, we go forward with it."
The next step is making these thousands-of-year-old characters relatable for a modern audience. For that, Kasavin chose to explore something that never changes: "a big, messy, dysfunctional family."
Not only is this a common interpretation of the pantheon, it's also an instantly recognisable archetype in the modern day, giving players an easy way to begin to relate to the characters. But what crystallised this approach wasn't rebellious Zagreus, his cranky father Hades, or any of his many siblings. In fact, it was a three headed hellhound. "I think the setting and tone of Hades really crystallized for us when we imagined Cerberus as the old family dog," Kasavin tells me.
"It's been fun to imagine the Olympians through the lens of different family archetypes," he says. "For instance, Poseidon is the quintessential loud uncle, while Artemis is a bit of a black sheep who distances herself from the others. I think this point of view has helped us make each of the gods and other characters feel familiar in a good way, while still being authentic to the canon that gave us the inspiration for them."
That familiarity also helps to make characters immediately understandable, which is useful in a run-based, non-linear structure like Hades. "You have to have a lot of content...that can make sense in whichever order players experience it," Kasavin says.
On the other hand, that unpredictability can also be a benefit. "Even though I do the writing and narrative implementation for the game, it still surprises me all the time when I play, given the nature of how we set everything up," Kasavin tells me. "I think some of the game's stronger moments come from when the Olympians will take note of one another's influence. For example, you might encounter Poseidon, after having already received Zeus's blessing in a given attempt to escape the underworld. Poseidon might then give you some of his perspective on his younger brother, and you get some of their rivalry, some of their competitiveness."
In the end, gods are flawed too. "They really are not benevolent, in many cases, and are prone to jealousy, pettiness, rage, all sorts of very human imperfections," explains Kasavin. "I've also been fascinated by mythical heroes such as Achilles, who likewise are not necessarily heroes in the modern sense; they sometimes make terrible mistakes."
It's that humanity that runs through Hades, bringing its godly characters down (or up) to earth as they keep Zagreus company on his endless trek through Tartarus.