I’ve had a lot of "road to PC games Damascus" moments in the last year - braving competitive multiplayer matches in Age Of Empires 2, jumping into Dishonored to break myself out of a two-game rut, and then letting Agent 47 free me from my obsessive, fun-dampening quicksave habit last month.
Now, it seems, I’ve had another shot of PC gaming validation, courtesy of clashing-eyed funboy Zagreus from Hades. This time, I learned not to be too quick to presuppose what I'm rubbish at. And much like surrogate father Achilles, who instructs Zag in the way of how to do fights good, Hades was a consummately shrewd teacher.
One of the things I have come to be certain of over the years is this: I am proper cat turds at games that involve running around really quickly in rooms, mashing things before they can mash me. This conviction has waxed as my teenage reflexes have waned, and so I have played less and less of these sorts of games over time, despite enjoying them.
But then along came Hades, an ARPG about the most literal sort of mythbusting, and charmed virtually everyone I knew. I was intrigued. And after hearing so much about how the game treats failure - not as a barrier, or even as something to be forgiven, but as a central part of progression - I was encouraged.
"A whopping narrative game about fixing the love lives of emotionally mangled immortals, cosplaying as Diablo, sounded right up my street."
A whopping narrative game about fixing the love lives of emotionally mangled immortals, cosplaying as Diablo, sounded right up my street. As it turns out, it was. After starting Hades on Saturday, I’ve been absolutely consumed by it, way down in that place where I start each day with a run or five, have to physically force myself not to play it during work, and then after an evening run, think pointlessly about it before going to sleep. It’s great. But then, you probably either know that for yourself, or you’re sick of being told it.
But the best part, for me, is how Hades managed to teach me a whole boatload of skills, instincts and competitive appetites that I thought I was just too much of a duffer to enjoy, while leaving me blissfully unaware it was doing so.
When I took my dose of Vitamin H this morning, I was poised to send Zagreus, the prince of the underworld, on his thirty-eighth successive attempt to escape his dad’s castle of misery. My last few runs had been strong, seeing me scraping to the very threshold of the overworld. With a bit of luck, I felt that one or two runs more might finally see me clear of the big-but-not-final milestone blocking my progress. But I hesitated. Something didn't feel right.
For some time, I’d been annoyed at myself for spending crucial resources early in the game, spaffing various caches of precious hellglug on things that were of no use to me at the time. My reckless spending had left me underpowered for a long while, and had gotten me stuck in a bit of a grind in my efforts to replenish stocks.
This had never been a major frustration for me, of course. Thanks to Supergiant’s unearthly mastery of reward psychology and incremental gains, I had remained motivated throughout the doldrums. Slow as progress was, I was confident that I’d still get there in the end, by trying again and failing slightly better each time.
And yet for some reason, this morning, I wasn't satisfied. I looked at the thirty-seven runs it had taken me to get where I was, and in my inner monologue's best imitation of Megaera's chilling hatepurr, thought: you can do better than this.
All of those botched runs had taught me more than even a full codex of Ollie Toms guides could ever manage about smart choices, character builds, enemy attack patterns, and effective spending of rewards. And I wondered, if I were I apply those lessons to a fresh save, how much more efficiently I might progress.
There would be no material benefit to me in doing this, of course. In fact, it would set me back hugely in the progression of the game’s story, which I’m totally engrossed in. But more than I wanted to see what came next, I discovered - to my immense surprise - that I wanted to see if I could do what I had already done, but better.
I absolutely bloody rinsed it. An hour and a bit later, I found myself sat with my fingertips tingling from keystrikes, watching Zagreus’ death screen with a sense of faintly euphoric disbelief. In my fourth run in the new save, I’d managed not only to reach the big boss I’d glimpsed a couple of times in my previous save, but take half of their health bar with me to boot, when Zagreus finally barked his egg and had to go home.
It was still very much a lukewarm run by Serious Game Winner standards, and I’m sure luck factored pretty heavily into my success, too. But my own standards, at least, had been absolutely shattered. I had, somehow, become good at Hades.
I’m pretty sure, too, that the further I went in that run, and the three leading up to it, the better I played. I had known, after all, that my stats weren’t padded with 37 losses worth of consolation prizes. And once I realised how well I was doing, I became invested in getting as far as possible. No longer was I treating Zagreus as an everlasting bog roll, to be used sheet by sheet in wiping all the combat off a good story. His death actually counted to me, in a way it hadn’t before.
"No longer was I treating Zagreus as an everlasting bog roll, to be used sheet by sheet in wiping all the combat off a good story."
The mentality I had fallen into was exactly the one I’ve been suppressing since my teenage brain withered. It’s a mentality that turns successes into triumphs, but which makes you feel like a tray of piss when you’re losing. And that’s not for me - whenever I feel like I’m falling behind in something, my instinct is always to give up and run away.
That’s why Hades appealed to me in the first place; because it sidelined the whole “merciless test of skill” thing in favour of perseverance. And yet, the whole time the game had been comforting me with the reassurance that failure didn’t matter, it had quietly been giving me the confidence I needed to let failure matter.
I could happily have continued in my old save, eroding the mountain one grain of sand at a time. But instead, I have chosen to rip off my training wheels, and use them to beat a giant snake to death. I know there’s every chance you’ll be reading a post titled “How Hades taught me the real meaning of hubris” in a week’s time. But for now, it feels pretty great.