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Hades: The Labor of Sisyphus

[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Even if you’re a complete newcomer to the wild world of Greek mythology, pop-cultural osmosis has probably made you at least vaguely familiar with the basic premise of the tale of Sisyphus. According to the experts at Wikipedia:

[Sisyphus] was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity[…]The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus himself. Hades accordingly displayed his own cleverness by enchanting the boulder into rolling away from Sisyphus before he reached the top, which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.

Hades, the latest genre-blending masterpiece from developer Supergiant Games, revolves around the same themes of perseverance and futility (indeed, the narrative parallels are only reinforced by the fact that Sisyphus himself appears in a minor supporting role). The player controls Zagreus—the estranged son of Lord Hades—as he desperately tries to fight his way out of the Underworld, navigating an ever-shifting labyrinth of booby-trapped rooms and battling innumerable legions of restless spirits and ravenous monsters. Inevitably, though, every escape attempt ends in failure; whether the culprit is a skeletal Hydra, a snarling gorgon, or a lowly venomous rodent, Zagreus is ultimately slain. Because he is both technically immortal and a native denizen of the afterlife, however, the young prince cannot truly “die”; instead, he is teleported back to his father’s court, where he can interact with various secondary characters (including Cerberus, Achilles, and the severed head of Medusa) and upgrade his weapons and abilities in preparation for his next “run.”

This is where Hades differs from the tragedy of Sisyphus: defeat is not a punishment, but rather an opportunity for growth. Each death allows you to progress the plot, level up your attributes, and improve your skills. Eventually, the Fates reward Zagreus’ persistence; he overcomes every obstacle, reaches the surface, and witnesses his first sunrise…

…before promptly dropping dead of “natural causes.” Unfortunately for our hero, those born in the Underworld cannot survive for long beyond its borders. Still, the demigod refuses to let such a trivial setback thwart his efforts; no matter what destiny decrees, he will taste freedom. The gameplay further enriches this overarching conflict. The “rogue-lite” framework, which is built upon a foundation of randomization and repetition, inherently immerses the player in the action; our desires and experiences become inextricably intertwined with the protagonist’s.

And it is this harmony between story and mechanics that makes Hades the best game of 2020—and, quite possibly, among the greatest ever created.

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