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HADES IS INFINITELY UNSEXY

Hades is the latest release from Supergiant Games, the beloved developer of Transistor, Bastion, and Pyre.


Hades belongs in the "roguelike" genre, which takes its name from Rogue, published in 1980. Roguelikes send the player through randomly-generated levels; like a beach endlessly reconstituted by the waves, levels 1, 2, and so on will never be the same. Roguelikes also iterate on the mechanic of "permadeath": when you die in a roguelike, you typically have to start the game all over again, back at level 1 which is never the same level 1. Roguelikes vary in how they approach the tenets of randomization and permadeath, but the tenets are firmly set.


Roguelikes have a reputation for punishing cruelty aimed at the player, and devotees of the genre are often described as "masochistic". Most art has me at "masochistic". When I learned about the photos of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, modeled after Guido Reni's St. Sebastien paintings, the novelist strung up by his wrists, pierced with arrows, I felt strung up myself. Here was a writer who put to flesh the cost of words.

Admitting that there can be pleasure in pain is generally taboo: the Mishima photos compel and repulse your average viewer, I imagine, the same way images of the crucifixion do. We look and can't help but feel that our looking is forbidden. The best artists can't help themselves either with these images; they can't help but make these images of suffering look sensual, beautiful, nearly erotic.

Trying to figure out what's hot about suffering can lead you tumbling in ravenous circles, like the ouroboros snake who eats his own ass. Sex affords us the chance to refute death, but the sex-urge is also the Y2K bug that death has catastrophically programmed inside us. We get off to get off this mortal coil. Fucking frees us from death as it bends us before his cold scythe. Death says, "I'm coming to get you," and he means it in the most perverted way.

The curious thing about the so-called masochism of roguelikes is how mechanical these games ultimately are, and how sexless they always feel. Permadeath is a misnomer in the genre: yes, you die, and you have to start the game all over, but starting over isn't the same as death. Death is the boundary of a singular life, after all. Video games generally cheat at death, since very few players would actually want a mechanic like death in their games. Imagine: Mario falls into the first pit. The Game Over screen appears, and it really means it: the cartridge in your Nintendo spits a plume of bitter black smoke. The game is now unplayable, rest in pixels.


Roguelikes have no real relationship to death. They are actually perpetual starting over machines. They are bankruptcy protections writ into gaming space: sure you fucked up, roguelikes say, but you don't always have to be a fuck-up.

Roguelikes are actually perpetual starting over machines. They are bankruptcy protections writ into gaming space: sure you fucked up, roguelikes say, but you don't always have to be a fuck-up.

That games straddle the life or death barrier so frequently tells us something more general about play—we want to tease ourselves with the costs of life, but permanence is never worth it. Even what we call the tool we use to play video games is a dead giveaway: the controller gives and takes life, and it must be ergonomic and hopefully cute and comfy as fuck.


There is actually a genre of play that introduces permanence as a mechanic: the Legacy game. Pandemic: Legacy made a big splash when it first released, as it introduced ideas of material permanence to the board gaming space. In Pandemic: Legacy, players work together to stop viral pandemics from spiraling out of control around the world. Part of this work involves irrevocable decisions: players are told to write on the game board with permanent marker; to tear up cards. But even Legacy games cheat death: Pandemic Legacy is re-playable when you reach the end of its program. In this way, the tunnel itself is well-lit; who needs the light at the end?


Supergiant actually teased us with ideas of permanence in their previous game, Pyre, where you play as the coach of a team of American Gladiator-like players, shepherding them through a religious sport competition that’s a fusion of basketball and soccer (the game is delightfully odd). Like Hades, Pyre also takes place in an underworld of sorts, though it's more metaphorical: your team is made up of convicts and political prisoners, cast into a purgatorial space by an autocratic government. By playing their religious form of sportsketball, what the game calls "rites", you have the chance to free your players from purgatory and send them back to the world of the living. As their coach, however, you yourself can never leave this purgatory. At several pivotal moments, Pyre forces the player to say goodbye to their favorite players/characters: once you free them, they are gone, and you will never interact with them again. Pyre wasn't exactly beloved upon its release. Though it certainly has its fans (me, included), the game was unfairly dismissed. In this light, Hades seems like a course correction for Supergiant. With Pyre, they tried permanence, and the fans found it hellish.


HADES IS SEXY, DEATHLESS COMFORT FOOD


Hades is unique among roguelikes in that it's a sexy game, or at least it pretends to be sexy. It seems to understand that sex and death are twisted in one giant mall pretzel of grotesque decadence, and it asks you to bite big and hard and try all the dipping sauces too. You can find lots of articles about why everyone is so goddamn horny for this game. The artwork alone has surely launched a thousand 'ships in the fanfic world. I am human, after all, and Hades is filled with stuff to drool over. Panting in the tradition of Disney's Robinhood, even the dog in Hades is hot:

Hubba hubba. Awooga.


Hades tells the story of Zagreus, son of Hades, as he attempts to escape the underworld and his father's menacing (but hot) brow. As you fight your way out of the underworld, Olympian gods and figures swing by to support you with their favor—in this way, Zagreus is like an entrepreneurial twink with an up and coming Only Fans. Occasionally, you're forced to choose between two gods' favors, and in these moments the game comes closest to the roguelike genre's masochistic roots, with the betrayed god possessing enemies to smite you. But their anger is short-lived: you smash a couple of skeletons, and Dionysus comes crawling back, his quads bulging around his thigh bracelets like a pork roast. I was only playing around, kid, he says. Can I still have an invite to the Private Show?


And Hades feels marvelous to play. You dash and swerve through randomly generated levels, slashing your sword, firing your bow, launching your javelin at swarms of cleverly designed enemies. Skeletons fling explosive potions at you; witches hurl bullet-hell spells; crystals refract punishing light. Feel is sensual, of course: it's remarkable that a game played on a screen can feel like running your hand over the curves of a Bugatti (reader, I have never run my hands over the curves of a Bugatti). Every player expects some level of resistance when they pick up the controller: thumbing the joystick hard to the right might get Mario to run faster, but his fast isn't necessarily how I imagine my fast. It's remarkable to think one of the most successful game studios of all time, Rockstar, is infamous for making games that feel so bad. In your hands, Red Dead Redemption 2's Arthur Morgan feels like a coffin being driven around town by the corpse inside of it.

As I tripped and stumbled and very slowly made my way through the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, I felt entombed by feel: Arthur's verbs were all so stiff and wooly. Hades pulls off the trick of doing exactly what you want it to do, when you want to do it. Feel in Hades is constantly confirming a gamer's favorite prior: that you, in fact, have all this in control, you've got all this on lockdown, you hot little fuckboi. No wonder Zagreus can't keep his subscribers off of him.


HADES IN THE YEAR OF DEATH


Playing Hades in the middle of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is another matter. For a game that is so superficially steeped in death, with Zagreus emerging from a pool of blood after each failed attempt to escape the underworld, Hades is delightfully chipper. Death isn't any sort of finality for Zagreus, it doesn't circumscribe his life from the beginning or from the end. There is nothing lost in death, which, for many players, must come as a great relief. In fact, Hades makes you stronger after each death: you gain powers, for one, but you also collect jars of ambrosia that you can give to various characters to increase their heart meter toward you (why be coy, Supergiant? make the hearts boners, modders!). In this way, Hades describes an economy that can't be destroyed from the inside by the dissonances of late-stage capitalism. Our time holds no value if we have an endless store of it. Zagreus' indestructability, his perpetual horniness, and his ambrosia hoarding make him a capitalist's wet dream, a consumer whose tastes will never die, a laborer who can't quit, and a fucker who can't stop fucking people over.

Our time holds no value if we have an endless store of it. Zagreus' indestructability, his perpetual horniness, and his ambrosia hoarding make him a capitalist's wet dream, a consumer whose tastes will never die, a laborer who can't quit, and a fucker who can't stop fucking people over.

That the game sketches material pleasure as purely transactional is disappointing, and it confirms we're in a market of limited possibilities: fuck me once, that's one ambrosia; fuck me twice, that's two.

Beautiful, sweet, mortal Hedwyn

I find it notable that the same studio produced Pyre, a game which actually attempted to describe permanent loss, and which grappled with the further fact we spend our whole mortal lives racing from and toward. Pyre was sexy in a way Hades can't begin to comprehend: when I was forced to finally free handsome Hedwyn from Pyre's purgatory, the fact that I could lose him, and would lose him, made him all the more sacred, violable, irreplaceable. Sex is only precious if you can exhaust it.


And I find it notable too that Hades has arrived when we are collectively asked to confront death in a way few of us living have ever been asked to confront it. American society goes out of its way to marginalize death, to usher it to the wings of our thinking. To wake up each morning in the pandemic is to confront the new numbers. Infected. Hospitalized. Dead. We cover our faces in masks, making it harder to see what it is that's worth protecting: our lives, and the lives of others. We are fatigued. We hear stories about how people have given up protecting themselves and others from all this death: life needs to go on, even if the going on of it requires some lives to stop.


Hades isn't a serious game about death. It is more of the usual: a metaphor for control and our unwillingness to give an inch (unless it's in that sweet Zag D). And yet the game is haunted by the better game it could be, by the actual dead. When you wander through your father's apartments in the underworld, you keep bumping into shades, faceless figures draped in aqua robes. Occasionally, the game prompts you to listen in on their conversations, where we learn how they died. Whereas all the other text in the game is spoken by living voice actors, the faceless dead are deprived of voices. They are sexless, unhornifiable, doomed by their lack of definition and the definitional lack they're headed to.

We watch as our father Hades banishes them to the terrible and final beyond.


They're never coming back.

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