Hades writer Greg Kasavin on how he made video game deaths drive a feel-good story

click to enlarge "Now let's all go around the table and say what we're thankful for, boy." - SUPERGIANT GAMES
Supergiant Games
"Now let's all go around the table and say what we're thankful for, boy."

Some video games treat death like Halloween — a spooky threat that shrieks "boo!" around every shadowy passageway.

Others treat death like Christmas: kill a boss, get showered in presents.

But Hades — the critically acclaimed action game where Zagreus, the son of the Greek god of the underworld, tries to run away from home is maybe the only game that treats death like Thanksgiving. All death means is you get dragged back home to hang out with your dad and his side of family, and listen to him lecture you about how you should be more grateful.

My cover essay in last week's Inlander is all about how "deaths" in video games can shape and teach us through moments of failure. That gave me an excuse to set up an interview with Hades writer and designer, Greg Kasavin. Kasavin, the former executive editor at GameSpot, has been thinking about this issue for a long time.


Hades won a ton of "Game of the Year" 2020 awards and a Nebula Award for Games Writing in part because it dealt with death and failure in such an interesting way.

"The language we used ourselves during the development was to 'Take the sting out of failure,'" Kasavin says. 

For about an hour, we chatted about the game's unique approach to death, storytelling, the pandemic and what's the deal with Sisyphus.

click to enlarge What a death in Hades might look like in King's Quest VI - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO ILLUSTRATION; SUPERGIANT AND SIERRA ON-LINE ART
Daniel Walters photo illustration; Supergiant and Sierra On-Line art
What a death in Hades might look like in King's Quest VI

THE METAPHOR

Most video games are in a dance with death: Make failure too rare, and you might as well be creating Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise. But make it too common, and you'll make people rage-quit in agony.


Kasavin has been there.  He was about 10 years old, he recalls, playing "freakin' Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System," an infamously hard game with limited lives.  And he was so just a few button presses away from victory.

"It's a final boss with like, three freakin' phases," Kasavin says. "It's like: final boss. Final stage. Him or me. One more hit. And he got me."

Kasavin refrained from throwing the controller — controllers are expensive, after all.

"I calmly turned the power off, removed the game from the Nintendo Entertainment System and never played it again," he says. "Like: That's it. I'm not doing any of that again."

Even when games hit the perfect balance of difficulty, however, there's a problem for designers trying to use games for storytelling: the deaths can interrupt the rhythm of the narrative.


“You're playing through this highly cinematic story, but every time you die, you go back to the previous checkpoint," Kasavin says. "It's just like, you know, rewatching, rewinding, going back to the previous chapter on the Blu-ray. It kind of kills the pacing, at its worst, if you just, keep dying over and over."

He's thought a lot about this. 

"Hades is our fourth game at Supergiant," Kasavin says. "I think all of our games have sort of been concerned with this moment of failure."

The company's first game, Bastion, won praise for the way their unseen narrator, who talks with a dusty Sam Elliott vibe, reacts to the player's actions. Say you accidentally roll off the edge of the platform during the opening few minutes of the game, swiftly plummeting out of sight.

"And then, he falls to his death," the narrator says, pausing for a beat before adding, "I'm just foolin'."

And then the scene rewinds, with the main character plopped right back to where he fell off to begin with. 
It's a trick that Kasavin has seen before in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it's as old a trait in computer games as 1991's Monkey Island 2.

Often, there's a tension that the snootiest culture critics call "ludonarrative dissonance" — where a game's story and gameplay contradict. You gun down thousands of enemies while you're controlling the character, say, while in the cutscene your character is worried about being framed for a single murder.

Death is the same way. 


"Games have tried to make, you know, death scenes more and more harrowing," Kasavin says.

But in reality, those "death scenes" are just setbacks and frustrating failures. It's an analogy, essentially. 

"The metaphor is so severe, right?" Kasavin says. "'You died,' like something horrible happened, even though what happened was something very basic, something that happens to us every day: You know, minor mistake. 'Oh, I signed on the wrong line,' something like that. Games do that to try to be dramatic." 

But the better games do something with that, weaving that into their narrative or making that part of their appeal. The Outer Wilds, for example, turned it into a sci-fi Groundhog Day conceit, where your death — and the collapse of the universe every 20 minutes — both start you back where you came from. The mystery is figuring out how to escape the loop.

"There's a degree of escapism and fantasy wish-fulfillment that games can provide, right? And some of that is around death, and the idea that death is kind of more of a nuisance than this final mistake, this final status," Kasavin says. "We can come back from it."

To a seasoned player, a death is a way to reflect on what they got wrong, Kasavin says, and figure out where to go next time.

So for Hades, Kasavin wanted to make Zagreus experience that same sensation, too. Being a denizen of the underworld, every time he dies he washes right back up on the banks of the Styx on the doorstep of his dad's house.


"The whole narrative experiment on that game was to just let a player character live through that experience consciously," Kasavin says.

click to enlarge At first your ex-girlfriend in Hades kills you every time she sees you. But you figure out how to deal with your relationship. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO ILLUSTRATION; SUPERGIANT AND SIERRA ON-LINE ART
Daniel Walters photo illustration; Supergiant and Sierra On-Line art
At first your ex-girlfriend in Hades kills you every time she sees you. But you figure out how to deal with your relationship.

THE ROGUE'S GALLERY

From the start, Kasavin says, Supergiant Games knew they wanted to make an entry in the increasingly popular "roguelike" genre, where levels, enemies and loot are randomized and death is permanent. There's no quicksaving or reloading in a pure roguelike — if you die, you go back to the beginning.

"We actually asked: In what situation would a character be dying, coming back to life, but starting from the beginning over and over?" Kasavin says. "It's like, wait a minute, what happens if you die in the Greek Underworld? You're already there. You have no place else to go?"

What's fascinating, he says, about roguelike games is that they're different every time you play them.

"What we find really fascinating about that genre is it is about failure and learning," Kasavin says. "Personally, there's something like deeply, deeply true to life about roguelikes because they're just about managing randomness and chaos. What is that if not, our day-to-day experience."

But to pull that off, the game has to be unreasonably difficult at first, he points out. Otherwise skilled players could just run through the whole game in one blow, never experiencing the randomness it has to offer.

"The consequence of that, of course, is they can be super frustrating," Kasavin says. "So then they run into this friction where, if they piss you off to such an extent, you quit playing."

Hades found two solutions: First, like some other games in the general genre, players who died get to spend some of the currency they've collected on making their character more powerful.

"It actually explicitly makes your character stronger," Kasavin says. "You didn't just lose your time. You have something to show for it."

It's a nice way of adjusting the difficulty curve.

"The very experienced player can get through Hades in much less time than someone who's never played a game like this before," Kasavin says. "But that person can still get through it eventually by using the different permanent upgrades that you get."

Better yet? It's when you get booted back to your base camp that you have an opportunity to have the conversations that make up the bulk of the game's story.

"The story would advance when you died," Kasavin says. "The characters literally tell you, 'This is how you learn.'"


click to enlarge Roll with it. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO ILLUSTRATION; SUPERGIANT AND SIERRA ON-LINE ART
Daniel Walters photo illustration; Supergiant and Sierra On-Line art
Roll with it.

THE CLASSIC HAPPY ENDINGS OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY

The bulk of the Hades story had been outlined before the pandemic. But when COVID shutdowns hit in March of last year, while Hades was still in development, the story took on more weight.

"We definitely saw players, like, connect their experience in the pandemic to Hades. ... Suddenly their day to day circumstances felt even more reminiscent of what Zagreus was going through," Kasavin says. "The kind of Sisyphean struggle of Zagreus... that's metaphorical across many aspects of our lives, right? It could be a job that we hate. It could be, you know, just getting up in the morning and not wanting to do what you have to do. The pandemic made it seem very literal, because here's this guy who's like, actually trapped inside trying to get outside. We couldn't have planned for that."

And just to underscore the "Sisyphean" point, Sisyphus himself — and the boulder he's been cursed to roll uphill for an eternity — shows up. But Sisyphus, in this game, doesn't seem particularly ruffled by being yoked to eternal torture.

The Inlander was certain that this was a reference to French philosopher Albert Camus's famous line that "the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Nope, says Kasavin. It was just a coincidence. He hadn't seen the quote before designing the character and 78 years apart, a French absurdist and a San Francisco video game writer had taken a look at the same character and come to the same counter-intuitive conclusion.

"To some extent, it is like a metaphor for people going through hardship and real life, right?" Kasavin says. "Or just going through drudgery and routine, ad infinitum. We just didn't want to take a cynical or despairing approach to that."

Most of the people in the Greek underworld have some sort of misfortune or tragedy, but instead of leaning into the darkness and misery, Kasavin wanted to give them almost a kind of happy ending. 

"From the myths, we know that they've just been tortured, gone through hell," Kasavin says. "It's like: Is it possible that things turned out alright for them?"

So when, toward the end, Zagreus finally finds his mom Persephone, Kasavin decided to make her as wonderful as he was expecting.

"Everybody was like, 'She's gonna be dead or she's abandoned him — all these really dark theories," Kasavin says. "So many people are conditioned to expect the rug-pull, the dagger in the back, for media to just prey on their cynicism. It just doesn't have to be that way."

That doesn't mean the story is over. With each death, and with each victory, Kasavin gives the player a little more narrative.

Instead of heightening the conflict between Zagreus and his dad, Hades slowly chips away at their animosity.

"It's this kind of hypothesis, given limitless time and immortality," Kasavin says. "They can beat each other up all they want, but it doesn't really do anything. In the end, they have to work through their problems in what I would call the hard way: By talking about it and sorting things out. They're stuck together."

Appropriate, then, that the Hades epilogue involves delivering invitations to the entire Greek Pantheon, all of Hades' and Persephone's relatives on both sides of their family, to invite them to a big feast.

Sort of like Thanksgiving. 

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...