The Catharsis of Failure
How trying again and again in Hades made me feel accomplished
This is the run, I tell myself, my sweaty hands clutching my Switch with a clawed grip, my body curled defensively into my couch for the better part of an hour.
I have everything I need to finish this run, to finally best Hades and make my way out of the underworld. My relic makes my temporarily invincible. Lightning bolts are called down when I dodge. My shield weakens my foes upon hit, and my Special deals gnarly critical damage. My stats are good, almost too good.
There’s no way I can fail.
In a sudden burst of button-mashing frenzy, Zagreus explodes in blood for the 37th time. I’m returned back to the beginning of the game, emptied of every boon I’ve earned through my run. My money is gone. I am, again, a product of my own failure.
I couldn’t best Hades.
He looks down on me from the pile of regal papers amidst his desk, bushy brows furrowed in distain at the arrogant son who dared think he could escape the labyrinth.
“Where do you think you are? Who do you think you’re talking to? Nobody gets out of my domain — whether alive or dead. You wish to learn the hard way? Fine, then go. Get out. Don’t let me stop you.”
Despite all my repeated tries — no different from smashing my pretty skull against one of the gilded pylons in Hades’ regal chambers — I refuse to give up.
Hades, see, rewards my failures.
Roguelikes are an interesting emergent genre. You’d think that players wouldn’t be such gluttons for punishment, but games such as Dark Souls have proven that’s not quite the case. There’s something refreshing, even glamorous, in the act of failing again and again. That tantalizing reward at the apex of the pain is just enough motivation to keep the player trying again and again and again — only to fail right at the end.
Supergiant Games’ newest entry into the genre, Hades, is finally out of Early Access and available on consoles. I picked it up the second that I could, my Switch itching to hold another game that might absorb my attentions similarly to Slay the Spire and One Step From Eden. Supergiant has an impeccable track record: Bastion, Transistor and Pyre are some of the absolute best indie darlings ever designed. Hades is beyond familiar to anyone that’s spent the last few years with Supergiant, the game’s music, art style and voice acting reflecting the familiar but impeccable design of previous entries.
Hades, I would argue, is by far the best game they’ve made, and the high point of the roguelike genre.
There’s something tantalizing in the almost of the roguelike. Hades gives you everything you need, right from the start: weapons, boons, currency and abilities that help Zagreus escape from the underworld and from his oppressive father. As you make your escape, it’s clear that he cannot do it alone. Beyond the hack and slash and randomized loot drops, Zagreus gains new abilities and items in the relationships that he furthers with the people, monsters, demigods and gods around him. Despite none of them having any real faith in his ability to succeed, all of them offer favors because of the tantalizing curiosity: can Zagreus actually make it out of the underworld?
Hades is monstrously addictive. Every run through the labyrinths of the underworld feels unique and interesting to the player. I’ve found myself making run after run, using every weapon and ability at my disposal as I try and help Zagreus make his escape. It’s that tantalizing reach that keeps me coming back, the possibility that the next run will have the right assortment of boons, that the next run will give my weapon the additional powers it needs, that the next run will finally be the one.
As of yet, that hasn’t happened. I’ve reached Hades three times, only to be sent back to the beginning again and again, bloody and worn.
I keep playing, because there’s something cathartic and freeing in that failure. There’s something in the journey, in the efforts, that make the deaths and losses not hurt so badly. Whenever I return to the courts, I know that Zagreus will have another heartwarming conversation with Dusa or Thanatos. I know that I’ll be able to experiment with another weapon. I know that, eventually — because of my own perseverance — I will best Hades and leave the labyrinth.
If I don’t, that’s okay.
I’ll keep trying.
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