Or Die Trying

I am a terrible loser. No matter if it’s sports, discussions or Mario Kart – just the prospect of a defeat makes my mood drop rapidly. All of this is often accompanied by my growing impatience and as a consequence, I throw away even sovereign victories. A self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

Avoiding death, however, is anything but easy as a gamer. Whether you jump, shoot or race, dying is an integral part of almost every game. Even in the forefather of all games, Spacewar!, the goal was to escape death in a spaceship. In the following 60 years, games have developed from the back room of the MIT institute to a global entertainment industry. But death remained ever present. And so I fell into the abyss as Super Mario, was shot by alleged terrorists in Call of Duty, couldn’t resist murderous zombies in State of Decay or crashed into the wall at 300km/h in Need for Speed. And where in many games it still simply says “Game Over”, Resident Evil always put it in a nutshell: “You are dead.”

Thousands of death screens later, this experience, which is always the same regardless of the genre, tires me out more and more. Because dying is degrading, dying is boring, dying is frustrating. The more the attention span diminishes, the more I long for narrative experiences that offer me relaxation and distraction and do not cloud my enjoyment of the entertainment with constant repetitions of truly deadly passages. And it is precisely for these reasons that I have so far refused to play a genre that focuses on death: Roguelites. A genre that expects me to die an infinite number of times in seemingly endless attempts? This sounds to me like the antithesis of all the things I enjoy playing these days!

But now a game has come that is supposed to change everything. A game that brings critics to true praise. A game in which I not only die forever, but which is also named directly after the god of death: Hades.

Will I be able to manage to look death in the face in Hades – and thanks to Hades, can I learn to appreciate death as a gameplay device and finally become a good loser?

Sure, it helps that Hades is clever. The Greek underworld is charmingly depicted and the dialogues are more reminiscent of banters between English soccer hooligans than of the writings of Homer. After each death – and there are indeed very many very quickly – I end up in a kind of underworld train station and chat with the outcast extended family, which makes direct reference to the manifold tragedy of my passing. This is whimsical and creates a certain, fundamental lightness in overlooking my failure. Nevertheless, I have died, and often, and now I must defeat the same opponents again.

And sure, it helps that I learn in the process. I begin to understand which enemies have which attack patterns, earn gold and treasures with which I earn upgrades, and actually feel from death to death that I am getting better and only need this one perfect attempt to escape from Hades alive. Nevertheless: Up to now I keep dying, and that often. The game remains stubborn: “There is no escape.” Sure, nobody escapes death. But wouldn’t a unique permadeath be enough for me, before I’d frustratedly fire the game into the corner and wait for the sequel “Ambrosia”, with its lush wine-women-song-narratives and endless energy bar? But before alcohol is used as a problem solver, I first put down my weapons, retire to the main character’s spruced-up bedroom and ask myself: What does death in video games actually mean?

In philosophy, death is one thing above all: incomprehensible. The omnipresent Austrian philosopher Sigmund Freud even claimed that every human being is convinced of his own immortality because of this incomprehensibility in the subconscious. Perhaps this also explains why every single death that I have already died virtually hasn’t really touched me emotionally. After all, the last savepoint is always just a click away. In predominantly binary game systems, players often have to choose between two states. Running or jumping. Hitting or blocking. And live or die. In the end, it’s not about death – but about the player’s power to act. And so death is simply a metaphor that shows me how well I master the game.

A few more rounds of Hades confirm the theoretical excursion: Due to the many fast runs, the constant presence of death, death becomes irrelevant – and ordinary. Compassion and grief have no place in the narrative, because after all, I’m already chatting with my opponents again just a few seconds after my death. And the insane frequency of the individual runs hardly leaves room for boredom or frustration. Even when I fail, the game rewards me and conveys to me at every moment that no distance covered, no fight was in vain. Death? Just a means to an end, to better understand where I still need to refine my acquired skills. The gameplay loop of Hades, it finally grabbed me.

Maybe I just have to be more patient with other games that don’t encode the player’s failure so clearly, don’t motivate so well, don’t show so well where I’ve already gotten better. Maybe they are just not as good teachers as Hades. In any case, I should no longer equate death in games exclusively with defeat. For as one in another, important Austrian philosopher (and singer) named Falco finally asked so succinctly: “Must I first die in order to live?

The Californian studio Supergiant Games is well known for its excellent indie titles – and after Bastion, Transistor and Pyre has presented their definitive work with Hades, from which even Roguelite deniers could no longer escape.

This post is also available in: German