If Hades does one thing well, it’s drama. The coterie of all-mighty gods who oversee heaven and earth succumb to mortal pettiness all the time, and poor Zagreus always gets caught up in it.
It starts off simply enough. Zagreus wants to escape the Underworld, but he can’t do it on his own. Hades, his father, has constructed a tenacious netherworld that’s trapped everyone in it. Human souls aren’t allowed to leave for obvious death-related reasons, but Zagreus doesn’t understand why he is relegated to the same fate. Shouldn’t the prince of the underworld get some freedom, too? While everyone around him insists that Zagreus has it made in the underworld, the spiky-haired rebel has never known anything else.
The roguelike game therefore sees protagonist Zagreus making his way through the stratums of the afterlife, and it’s not long before his extended family on the surface — deities of the Greek pantheon — hear all about his plight. Their help comes in the form of boons, which are all power-ups that can beef up things like attack speed and defensive capabilities. But what intrigues me the most about boons isn’t just that they can make you more powerful. It’s that every single boon comes with a message to Zagreus from said family member.
Through these boons, you learn that your aunts, uncles, and cousins all have relationships with one another. Some are amicable, but most are, shall we say, complicated. Nearly everyone you can name, including some of Hades’ closest associates, has a rocky relationship with Hades himself, if they interact at all. Part of it comes down to sheer distance — when you receive a boon, you can’t actually talk to the gods of Olympus directly thanks to some sort of cosmic interference. The underworld, after all, is supposed to exist beyond the grasp of the living.
But let’s be real about why there’s such a disconnect between Olympus and the underworld. Hades is a prick, too. At first, it’s easy to chalk it all up to the stern dad trope — he’s being hard on Zagreus because he has impossibly high expectations. As you gain more codex entries and deepen your relationships with characters in the game, you come to learn that Hades actually has a good reason for being so damn jaded.
The man has an impossible task, thanks to the endless queue of dead souls that need processing. Technically, his brothers Zeus and Poseidon have vast domains of their own to worry about, but compared to Hades, they have it pretty good. If Zeus decides he wants to become a bird and chase after a woman, he does exactly that. And Poseidon’s single brain cell is already half-devoted to fish. Hades by contrast cannot ever take a break, and all the work he does is largely thankless. Nobody wants to die. Even the champions in Elysium aren’t exactly living a charmed life, as Zagreus learns after meeting Theseus.
Then again, nearly every relationship in the family is dysfunctional. Sometimes, Zagreus will walk into a room with two boons in it. He has to pick one over the other, and the gods absolutely will take it personally. Your first choice is always overjoyed, convinced you did the right thing. The forsaken boon, meanwhile, always generates a sore loser who will send enemies after Zagreus.
The guilt is real. When I pick a boon in Hades, it has little to do with who I like best or who I want to maintain a good relationship with. I always pick whatever will give me the highest chance of survival, and if that means making a deal with Chaos itself, I’m going to do it. My only complaint is that the game doesn’t take this one step further and actually make these choices have an effect in the long term, as defeating the wave of enemies always calms down whatever god you slighted.
Still, I’m delighted by just how closely everyone is keeping tabs on Zagreus despite not being able to see him. When you’re starting out and inevitably get killed by Meg, the earliest boss in the game, Poseidon makes it sound like you’re having girl problems of the romantic sort, and not being dragged back to hell by torturers. Sometimes, certain boons will cause gods to remark on whoever you’re keeping company with. Nearly everyone seems scared of Demeter, icy goddess of the seasons. Other times, the vibes between certain gods align just so: Aphrodite and Dionysus know that partying and seduction go hand in hand. If you’re lucky, certain gods will even team up to give you a “Duo” power-up, the ultimate sign of camaraderie between fickle gods.
Despite reigning over entire domains and commanding great power, every single one of these gods loves to gossip, especially about what the rest of the family is doing. It’s almost not even about Zagreus at all — he’s a pawn in the larger politics between a fragmented family. When Zeus sends you a boon, he knows damn well it’ll make Hades mad. That’s the point. He wants to poke the bear and see what happens. Zeus revels in knowing that Zagreus wants to experience the outside world, because it means that whatever Hades provides isn’t enough.
As a child who grew up between two families of vastly different provenances — one that lived comfortably, and the other struggling to make ends meet — it’s a dynamic that is all too familiar to me. Families do fight over people, and while they may not outright say it, sometimes they expect you to pick sides. Of course Zagreus gets swept up by lofty promises of feasts and good times. He has no history with any of his extended family yet, and no reason to be wary of them, unlike his dad.
The gods of Olympus, meanwhile, don’t know that Zagreus is actually a petulant child who would rather destroy everything his father built than accept his lot in life. In turn, of course the denizens of the underworld take it personally when Zagreus wants to leave. While the deities of the underworld have spent a long time together, most of them are under Hades’ thumb and have specific roles to play there. For all of his complaining, Zagreus is actually given an extremely long leash, leaving everyone in the underworld to clean up his mess. Hades would never tolerate such unruly behavior from any of his employees, not when he has the power to damn them.
Hades takes many liberties in how it depicts the Greek pantheon — Zagreus barely even exists in the original myths — but the game definitely captures the torrid spirit of the lore. The Greek gods are a messy lot. And when social distancing has vastly reduced the opportunities for juicy gossip in our day-to-day lives, I am grateful for the melodrama galore.