This is a guest post by Sherine Hamade with consultations from the Hades beta tester, Cian Sutherland.

Sherine Hamade (they/them) is a graduate student studying Public History at the University of South Florida. They hold a bachelor’s degree in History, English, and the Latin language. From the author: “Growing up in a mixed-race household, I’ve always had an academic interest in the liminal space within which mixed-race people have existed throughout American history- I’m interested in their lived experiences. I’m also interested in video games! I love to explore how representation figures into the gameplay experience, as I was never able to see myself or represent myself as I really am in video games… until now!” You can contact them via email.

Cian Sutherland (he/him) is a mostly Irish psychology and biochemistry double major, nearing the completion of his undergraduate degree in New Zealand. Before paying his university a lot of money to make him a scientist, Cian was – and still is, in his free time – an English and classics nerd. You can find his recent work on his Medium, where he predominantly analyzes the Homestuck franchise, but plans to post articles for a range of fandoms, including Hades. Find more of his work a https://profaene.medium.com/.

Hades’ title screen- just another little game about a dude and his dad.

From the “hack and slash” romp that is the God of War franchise to the time-sink that is the Persona jrpg series, video games are no stranger to Greek mythology. Supergiant Games’ newest title, the rogue-lite dungeon crawler Hades, is no different. Playing as Zagreus, rebellious heir apparent to the throne of the titular Hades, you undertake the Sisyphean effort of escaping the Underworld. Zagreus fights his way through hordes of shades, the souls who inhabit the Underworld, throughout four unique biomes. Along the way, he is aided by his Olympian relatives, accumulating power-ups (“boons”) and learning more about them through the “nectar” gifting system. The game is iterative, resetting your progress as you make your way through each procedurally generated biome room again and again. You either learn and progress, or you die. Over and over again. You return to the House of Hades between each run, interacting with other chthonic gods (including Hades himself), your dog Cerberus, and the benign shades in its employ. Outside of speaking with each npc to progress their personal stories, you can purchase cosmetic upgrades and bgm tracks for the house, exchange resources in the lounge, enhance your stats, check your gameplay statistics, and test out the variety of weapons available to you. 

This rug is just one of many lovely cosmetic upgrades available to you in your effort to liven up the notoriously dour House of Hades

Though this premise in itself is not unique, the complete cohesion of its story, gameplay, and aesthetic elements is absolutely immaculate. Greek mythology is used as the guiding design principle for everything– almost every aspect of the game ties back to its original conceit somehow. “Why are the rooms procedurally generated?” Daedalus, architect of the famous labyrinth, was hired to build them so as to make them inescapable- labyrinthine. “Why is the Underworld run like a business?” Hades, king of the Underworld, is also a god of wealth. “Why is there a narrator and how can Zagreus interact with them?” This is the game’s modern adaptation of the “chorus” in Greek literary tradition, in which non-diegetic actors actively comment on the narrative as it unfolds. These are but a few examples of what makes this game so unique from so many of its predecessors- it isn’t simply dressed in the trappings of Greek mythology, but it reads as though it were built from the ground up with Greek mythology as its main design principle.

All that’s separating these shades from their freedom is one measly sheet of parchment paper, apparently.

I use the term “read’ here because Hades transforms popular Greek cultural heritage through its iconic visual language. The way pop culture constantly references itself begins to create a kind of iconographic shorthand that contributes to a common “visual lexicon.” I’ll explain what I mean here. This is why, for example, I’d never seen any of the films in The Matrix franchise until relatively recently, but I could still recognize slow-motion bullet dodging scenes as referencing The Matrix. The repetition of this scene’s visuals throughout other works of media had become iconic to me simply because I had seen it duplicated so many times. This effect, in which you absorb information from a varied degree of separation from its source material, is called “social osmosis.” Something similar happens with Greek mythology. Popular perceptions of Greek mythology develop because certain elements are so overwhelmingly referenced in pop-culture. These perceptions lead to the development of a specific iconographic shorthand for Greek mythology. For example, most people are aware of the fact that Zeus is the Greek god of lightning, so he becomes associated with lightning in itself. Hades’ aesthetic takes advantage of this, coding characters using this iconographic shorthand. This allows players to “read” Hades’ visual language rather easily, identifying the gods by their designs alone. What is unique to Hades is that it takes advantage of this recognition by introducing unfamiliar concepts to popular perceptions of these familiar figures. 

There he is, the head honcho himself.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here… for there are spoilers ahead!

In order to learn a bit more about the process by which Hades introduces Greek mythology and culture to its players, I spoke to both a peer and a beta tester about their experiences with the game. My questions for my peer were focused on how well they could “read” the visual language of Hades, and how what they knew compared to what they may have learned playing the game. I asked the same questions to the beta tester, but included some additional queries into their beta testing experience as well. What I learned from both of their experiences was that, no matter how much prior knowledge either had, they both came away from the game knowing more than when they had begun.

The experience of my peer was, what seemed to me, the quintessential Hades experience- a friend of his had been streaming the game over Twitch pretty often, he popped in for a bit on a whim, and decided to try the game since he had been looking for something to play. He was initially enticed by its premise, but was immediately caught by the quality of its art and voice acting. He had an interest in Greek mythology growing up, having read the Odyssey twice, the Percy Jackson series, and just about any book on the subject he could get his hands on in middle school and high school, but as he describes, his general knowledge is only “above average.” Playing the game, he was able to recognize most of the main gods relatively quickly, identifying Zeus by his lightning, Poseidon by his trident, Dionysus by his goblet of wine.

Other characters weren’t as easy, however. Though he was familiar with figures like Ares, there was nothing in particular about his design that made him stand out as the Ares. It was by simple deduction that he was able to identify Ares, as his generally martial appearance could point to his status as a god of war. In Achilles’ case, though my friend was familiar with him as a mythological figure, he couldn’t identify the game’s version of Achilles by character portrait alone. In both Greek literary and artistic traditions, Achilles is most often associated with his armor and his spear. Though his iconic spear is prominent in his character portrait, and I confirmed with my peer that he did know Achilles used a spear, he didn’t have the background to recognize Achilles by his spear alone. After asking around, this seems to be the case for most others I knew who had played the game- everyone knew about Achilles’ heel, but not his spear. Achilles is most recognizable in popular culture as the titular figure in the story behind the concept of an “Achilles heel”- he is the baby who was rendered invulnerable after being dipped into the river Styx, save for his heel. This story and its concept are referenced so much that Achilles and his heel are part of the cultural consciousness. His spear, on the other hand, isn’t as readily accessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with his larger mythological background, so when the spear appears as a kind of visual shorthand to flag this character as Achilles, this recognition isn’t as immediate as it is with, say, Zeus and his lightning bolt.

In case the owl didn’t make it obvious enough, here, Athena references her mythological origin, having emerged from Zeus’ head.

This is, in part, how Hades’ visual design works to educate its players- the game plays on commonly understood conceptions of these figures from popular culture, only to subvert players’ expectations by introducing new, unfamiliar elements to the visual lexicon from which it draws. Let me explain. To elaborate on Achilles’ example, most people are familiar with his mythological origin through their familiarity with the concept of an “Achilles heel.” Classically, Achilles is identified with his unique armor and spear. In-game, Achilles does reference how closely his identity is tied to his spear, in that it’s also tied to what brought him to the Underworld. He also notes that Patroclus is the real reason as to why he’s serving in the House of Hades now, however, as opposed to resting his laurels as a lauded hero from his rightful place in the fields of Elysium. Patroclus’ inclusion in the game is representative of its ultimate transformation of Greek cultural heritage. Unlike every other character you meet, Patroclus is initially unnamed, labelled as “???,” and stays that way, for a time. His character portrait doesn’t help much in the way of identifying him either- he’s dressed in Greek garb to indicate that, alongside the rest of the cast, he is Greek, his character portrait is somewhat opaque so as to indicate that he is a shade, a resident of the Underworld. The only real aspect that stands out about his design is that Patroclus is explicitly a person of color. I note this because this is something that stood out to both me and my peer- this cast of characters is depicted as realistically Mediterranean. Patroclus in particular is, very explicitly, not white. Though it’s not very overt, there is one other unique element to Patroclus’ character portrait- his clothes match Achilles’. Patroclus’ name is only revealed once you’ve read his codex entry; said entry simply states “… Forgive me. It is not my place to say much of him, now…” Diegetically, the codex is written by Achilles himself. Every other codex entry is rather informative- so why is Patroclus’ identity made so vague? As with the spear, this is all explained by the Classical literary tradition surrounding the two- they were lovers. Patroclus wore Achilles’ armor into battle, tricking his men into thinking he was Achilles, and died; learning this, Achilles flew into a rage over losing Patroclus, turning the tide of battle, but at the cost of his own life. In-game, Achille states his connection to Patroclus in no uncertain terms- when he mistakes a gift as a token of romantic affection, he states that his “ heart belongs to another. Ever since I was alive”; when you inform him of your encounter with Patroclus, he asks that you “[send him] all my love. I think of him always.” Patroclus’ identity is so intentionally vague because Achilles is still so hurt by the loss of his beloved Patroclus that it pains him to remember it. Though many games tout the diversity of their characters, Hades merely presents them just as they are, remaining faithful to their depictions in the source material. Patroclus is still just as much of a Greek citizenship as Achilles is, reflecting the multiculturalism of the Greek state; the queerness of their relationship is never commented on outside of the tragedy of it all, and just as in their canon. Hades transforms Greek cultural heritage in its adaptation of these recognizable figures while remaining true to the source material.

Mr. ???, in all his glory. There he is. Just barely, though.

This depiction of these characters is significant because, historically, Greek and Roman antiquity have often been appropriated by the West in order to justify certain narratives that outright ignore the lived reality of the culture they’re drawing from. As John Levi Barnard describes in “Ruins amidst Ruins,” there is:

“a pervasive American nationalist use of classical tradition from the Revolution to the Civil War. The classics were central to American public expression throughout this era, whether in epic poetry, political rhetoric, or the architecture of public buildings and monuments… Classical history and literature provided a secular counterpart to the sacred typology of the American mission, which served to bind Americans together in a common purpose; and even in cases of radical disagreement, such as the conflict over slavery, both sides appealed to classical models to justify their positions.”

The United States has been adopting elements of Greek and Roman antiquity into its popular culture from the get-go. The conception of the Greeks as homogenously white and heterosexual did not originate within popular culture, but common conceptions of them as such are symptomatic of what Barnard describes. The populace of Greek city-state and Roman city was not white and heterosexual, it was multicultural and queer. This is part of what makes Hades’ transformation of popular conceptions of Greek mythology so powerful- its designs use established visual cues to fulfill a certain expectation of a character, only to subvert these expectations by adding onto them with elements drawn from the source material. We know Zeus is Zeus because of his lightning bolt; we know Achilles is invulnerable, as the originator of the “Achilles heel,” but Hades makes it a point to tell us that his death was a result of a broken heart, and it is a particular pain that even Achilles is subject to. 

Even their respective character portraits seem to be staring at each other, far off into the distance.

The ultimate representation of Hades’ transformation of Greek cultural heritage is, well, Zagreus, the “god of blood” himself. My conversation with beta tester Cian “Profaene” Sutherland shed a lot of light on the subject. Coming into the game as rather well-informed in terms of the source material, we were both pretty shocked to find that Zagreus was not a complete fabrication of Supergiant’s dev team. There are many different versions to each Greek myth- this is par for the course for Greek mythology, but Zagreus’ canon barely constitutes a canon. At times he is a son of Hades, others, a son of Zeus; he is an aspect of Hades, or an aspect of Dionysus; he’s even identified as a hunter who would ritualistically eat wild animals. The most formal conception of his canon seems to come from the “Orphic mysteries,” a series of revelations from, well, Orpheus himself, following his foray into the Underworld. According to these mysteries, Dionysus-Zagreus was torn apart by the Titans- only his heart remained. Athena (or Demeter) manages to save Zagreus’ heart, from which Dionysus is born. What was most impressive is that Hades manages to retain almost every iteration of these contradictory interpretations: Zagreus is a chthonic god and the son of Hades, Artemis references the fact that his name means “hunter”; Zeus jokes that the two of them are so close that it’s as if he is really Zagreus’ dad. The most impressive of these is the team’s incorporation of Dionysus’ Orphic mystery origin- in a random line of dialogue, Zagreus and Dionysus conspire to trick Orpheus into believing that they’re actually one and the same god, and Zagreus follows through, conveying the story to Orpheus who proclaims that he is “committed to the spread of all such truths” and will go on to tell the tale. This game is so masterful in its transformation of Greek mythology in that it manages to subvert its own conception of a rather obscure and inconsistent figure from Greek using the same ephemera from which he was conceived. 

The poor guy never had a chance.

Supergiant Games’ Hades takes what is popularly known about Greek cultural heritage and fuses its design elements with what is present in the source material which is, in this case, Greek mythology. This allows players to “read” the game’s visual language, building upon the familiar concepts of these figures by introducing unfamiliar, textually accurate elements to their characterization. Hades is a serious game that’s serious fun.

Thanks for reading!


— Sherine Hamade
15 December 2020

Bibliography

Barnard, John Levi. “Ruins amidst Ruins: Black Classicism and the Empire of Slavery.” American Literature 86, no. 2 (2014): 365. http://ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbl&AN=RN356458836&site=eds-live / http://explore.bl.uk/BLVU1:LSCOP-ALL:ETOCRN356458836.

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