Hades and Structure
StoryScan: Critical hit
Our newest feature, StoryScan: Critical Hit, highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this week’s essay, we’re covering Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020), the award-winning roguelike set in the underworld of Ancient Greece. Players who have not completed Hades in full may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the entirety of the main storyline.
Games in the roguelike genre share a few defining characteristics: procedurally-generated (random) levels, permanent character death, and threats around every corner.1 This combination creates a gameplay loop where players frequently restart from square one, which presents a host of limitations for narrative design. The action roguelike Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020) takes the liability of repeated restarts and turns it into an asset with a premise that makes repeated deaths a core component of the story. In Hades, players control the flame-footed Prince Zagreus as he attempts to escape Hades, the underworld of Ancient Grece. More often than not, his escapes end in his demise, but in the underworld, death is just a temporary setback.
Hades has been praised for its many positive qualities, such as its standout soundtrack, fast-paced gameplay, and vibrant art direction. Its engaging, narrative has been particularly well-received by players and critics alike.2 Although the story boasts several standout components—a strong cast, engaging world-building, and relatable themes—one of its best aspects is also its simplest: its structure, which is built around the evolving goals of its protagonist.
To understand how Hades integrates character goals into its structure, the first step is to determine the driving force behind those goals: the protagonist’s wants and needs. According to K.M. Weiland, the author of the ‘Helping Writers Become Authors’ book series, a character’s want is an external goal that they believe will soothe their inner emptiness, whereas their need comes from an internal realization that will transform their perspective, allowing them to grapple with external problems with greater ease.3, 4 In Hades, the protagonist is Prince Zagreus, son of the Greek god Hades, who shares his name with their underworld domain. His first external goal, his want, is to escape the underworld and find his mother on the surface. As the narrative progresses, Zagreus’s want changes following new obstacles and revelations, marking the transitions between acts. These changing wants contrast with his need, the desire to belong, which is laid out at the start and does not change until it is satisfied at the story’s conclusion. As a result, the wants drive the momentum from act to act, and the need ties them together to form a single narrative.
Goals and Structure
Set-Up: Wants and Needs
Hades sets up both the first want and the need early on, using a combination of dialogue, narration, and flashback. When the player is first given control of Zagreus, they receive the basics of the premise through dialogue: Zagreus is the son of Hades, and he is attempting to escape from the underworld. This basic motivation is enough to drive players through their first attempt at reaching the surface. Should they fail, as the majority of players do5, the player is then returned to the underworld’s entrance hall, where they learn more about the other residents, including Hades himself. Returning home also allows players to see a flashback that reveals the motivation behind Zagreus’s escape: his desire to meet his mother, Persephone, who lives on the surface. Chronologically, the scenes within the flashback occur before the start of the game, so the desire to meet Persephone is the motivation for the escape from the start. The combined desire for escape and a reunion with Persephone make up Zagreus’s first want, but they are not the only things pushing him forward. He is also driven by something deeper: his need.
Zagreus’s need forms the base for all of his wants throughout the game, regardless of when or how they change. This need is spelled out in the first flashback before Zagreus learns about his mother. According to the narrator, a disembodied and omnipresent voice that interacts with Zagreus throughout the story, Zagreus has conspired to put the house to sleep through magic so that he can search through his father’s possessions. The narrator elaborates on Zagreus’s motivation for the plan, saying: “He does not know exactly what he seeks. He only knows that something has always felt off to him, that he does not belong.” This statement defines Zagreus’s need: to feel a sense of belonging. When he learns his mother’s identity, he fixates on escaping the underworld and meeting her, but meeting her is only an external want. His need is internal and can only be met by an internal change.
Turning Points: Successes and Setbacks
The transition between Act One and Act Two marks the point where Zagreus meets his first want. When he crosses the threshold between the underworld and the surface, he reunites with his mother, but complications make their reunion bittersweet. Although Zagreus has countless questions for Persephone, their time is cut short when it becomes clear that he cannot survive outside the underworld. He can only remain long enough to learn that Persephone believed that he had died at birth. While this explains why she never sought him out, it does not explain how he is alive to talk to her now—nor does it give Zagreus the sense of belonging he needs. To satisfy that need, Zagreus focuses on a new external want: learning the truth about his birth and his mother’s subsequent departure. Unfortunately, his inability to survive on the surface means his conversations with his mother are limited to a few sentences at a time, which means he’ll have to fight his way out of the underworld quite a few more times before he can get the whole story. With this new goal, Hades continues to weave its protagonist’s wants and needs into its structure, incentivizing the player to continue the game past the initial goal.
The end of Act Two mirrors the end of Act One by first resolving one of Zagreus’s wants, then introducing another complication that forces him to pursue his needs from a new angle. By the end of Act Two, Zagreus has escaped from the underworld several times, and he has learned most of the pieces of the story that led up to his birth. According to both Hades and Persephone, their union was a secret that threatened to start a war with the Gods on Olympus. When Persephone gave birth to the stillborn Zagreus, her grief drove her to flee to the surface. Although Hades was able to revive Zagreus with his allies’ help, he chose to keep Zagreus hidden to protect both Persephone from the wrath of Olympus. This knowledge satisfies Zagreus’s second want—to learn the truth of his past—yet it still does not satisfy his need to belong. His dissatisfaction is further compounded when Persephone insists that he stop visiting her, as his actions threaten to reveal her deception to Olympus, which would put them both at risk. When Zagreus counters by asking her to return to the underworld with him, she declines, saying that Hades’s love for her has surely faded. Brutally rebuffed, Zagreus is now worse off than he was at the start: he has finally met his mother, yet she has rejected him, compounding his sense that he does not belong. To overcome this setback, he must again shift goals: this time, to reuniting his family and preventing war. Once again, players have a reason to keep fighting their way through the underworld, and the stakes have never been higher.
Hades satisfies both the wants and the needs of its protagonist in the final act, providing a satisfying conclusion for both the characters and the player. At the start of Act Three, Zagreus has a new goal: reuniting his parents, who separated to prevent a war between realms. Zagreus’s primary hurdle is convincing Persephone that Hades still loves her, which he accomplishes by sneaking into his father’s room and finding a portrait of Persephone next to his bed. Once he has the evidence he needs, Zagreus can finally convince Persephone to return to the underworld, where she reunites with Hades and retakes the mantle of queen. This not only satisfies Zagreus’s want—to reunite his parents—but also his need, as reuniting his family gives him the sense of belonging he had been lacking. This need is further fulfilled when Persephone concocts a plan to reveal their secret to the Olympians without starting a war, which results in Zagreus bringing his extended family together for the first time since before he was born.
The narrative’s conclusion satisfies both Zagreus’s wants and needs, but players who choose to continue after the ending will find they still have goals to meet. Hades has come to see Zagreus’s escape attempts as an asset, as they expose vulnerabilities in the underworld’s security, so he tasks Zagreus with continuing his fight through the underworld in an official capacity. This gives players a new goal with an open ending: the continued improvement of Zagreus’s home.
From start to finish, Hades integrates Zagreus’s goals into its structure, incentivizing players to continue fighting in the face of difficult challenges and constant threats. By differentiating Zagreus’s wants and needs at the start, the narrative maintains a strong momentum even as Zagreus repeatedly meets his goals. The momentum is further supported by the complications that arise each time Zagreus achieves something he wants. It is only when Zagreus meets both his wants and his needs that the complications end, bringing his story to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for players to return to the world.
1 Harris, John. “@Play: The Berlin Interpretation.” Game Set Watch, 2009.
2 “Hades for Switch Reviews – Metacritic.” Metacritic, 2020.
3 “The Thing Your Character Wants will almost always be something external, something physical. He’s trying to salve his inner emptiness with exterior solutions.” Source: Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (pp. 20). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
4 “The Thing Your Character Needs usually won’t be something physical—although it can (and usually should) take on a physical or visual manifestation by the end of the story. The Thing Your Character Needs is usually going to be nothing more than a realization.” Source: Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 22). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
5 “Starting from a fresh save means Zagreus is as weak as he can possibly be…and chances are, you won’t be able to get through on your very first try.” – Greg Kasavin, Creative Director at Supergiant Games. Source: IGN. “Hades Developers React to 25 Minute ‘Fresh File’ Speedrun.” IGN, 2020. 0:45/26:21
* Reference Footage: Silent Longplays. “Hades – Series – No Commentary Full Playthrough.” YouTube, 2020.