With guest co-host Chris Bratt!
Crawl out of that blood pool, you’re in Hades. Don’t worry, not real Hades, only the much-lauded action game interpretation of said underworld by Supergiant Games. It’s a roguelike full of notoriously beautiful Gods and super hot heroes. But were Greek deities really considered so sexy by the ancient Athenians? Who even was Zagreus, son of Hades and lead character of this game? And if we found ourselves trapped in this realm of ghosts, could we ever truly escape? We put all these questions (and more) to archeologist Gunnel Ekroth, a specialist in ancient Greek religious practices who has legitimately burned goat bones to better understand these distant people. That’s dedication.
Click “read more” for a full list of links and transcription.
She edited the book Round Trip To Hades
Here are some reading suggestions she left us:
You can follow Chris Bratt on Twitter
Music and SFX:
Various music from the Hades Original Soundtrack
Darkest Child by, what a shock, Kevin MacLeod
Gunnel Ekroth, archeologist: She doesn’t appear as a goddess. She appears as a human being, as an old lady, she comes to a place where she takes a job as a nanny, and she takes care of a young Prince and she tries to make him immortal by holding him over a fire each night. And eventually the queen discovers her and gets really upset because the nun is frying the baby. And she snatches the baby back and then Demeter transforms herself back into a goddess. She grows so her head almost breaks the ceiling. And then Demeter tells her: “You stupid woman. I was going to make your son immortal but that’s not going to happen now…”
Brendan Caldwell: Hi there. Hello. You’re listening to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people silly questions about video games. Every episode we get an expert of some real life topic. That might be a scientist, a historian, whatever. And we use a recent game as an excuse to extract all of that person’s knowledge. Uh, but we also have some chat about the game itself as well. Today that game is Hades a roguelike action game set in the Greek underworld where the player must escape by fighting the Gods and ancient Greek heroes who stand in his way. Soon we’re going to hear from an archeologist who’s going to tell us all about hero cults and all about how the gods were really seen by the people of ancient Greece. And also if there really was any escape from the realm of the dead. As usual, I do have a guest co-host with me to help out with the game side of things. And this time that is Chris Bratt of People Make Games.
Chris Bratt: Hello, Brendan. I’m so glad you have, uh, an ancient history expert to refer to because my knowledge of Greek gods isn’t, isn’t great, but I do know quite a bit about the video game. So hopefully I can I’ll I can rely on that bit.
Brendan: I think there’s some crossover. There is, I think there’s some crossover. I need to get into the habit of asking, asking people my co-hosts who they are. Cause I realize some of my listeners might not know. Chris, what’s your deal?
Chris: I am part of a team called People Make Games. We’re a YouTube channel that makes videos, kind of like short documentaries, if you want to be very generous, about video games, the culture surrounding them. And I guess a relevant example here is: we recently did one about Hades, but specifically the way that game’s dialogue system works, because I think it’s really interesting and it’s a huge part of why this game story hits. Right? And yeah, so we, we like really delve into kind of a niche.
Brendan: Last night – as we’re recording now – last night, the Game Awards were on. Just before we go into any Hades chat. I want to ask you, because you told me before we started recording, that you stayed up to watch the Game Awards. Why?
Chris: Until like three o’clock in the morning as well. I’m really not sure. I wasn’t intending to do that. I just, I don’t know. It’s very, very, very commercial. Even as award shows go, it’s like some of the awards themselves and the winners were sort of raced through at breakneck speed so that they can get to the next trailer or whatever it was. Um, I can’t tell you why I did it, but I’m kind of glad that I did mostly because… do you remember the video game Ark, Brendan?
Brendan: The survival… it’s a survival video game, isn’t it? Where you fight dinosaurs and then… they poo.
Chris: Exactly right. Um, and turns out they announced a sequel last night and it’s staring Vin Diesel and the trailer is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen. At one point, he looks down at his arm, which is glowing with the logo of the video game Ark. And it’s just, it’s so strange. But yeah, Game Awards. It was strange. Maybe I should have gone to sleep instead.
Brendan: Did Hades, the game that we’re going to be talking about, did it win any awards.
Chris: It was robbed, is what it was. They won one award, which was best action game. Although that was one of the awards that they just raced through. So there wasn’t even an acceptance speech, uh, which kind of sucked. And it was up for a whole bunch, including game of the year, which went to The Last Of Us Part 2, which I think felt a little, it felt unfair to Hades, which has been a very special game this year.
Brendan: Yeah. Cool. Well, let’s use this podcast, this episode, to sell Hades a little bit. From what I can tell you have played a whole bunch. Yeah, I definitely have. Can you give the listener a rundown, like someone who hasn’t even heard of it? What is Hades? What does the player do in it?
Chris: Sure. So, uh, you mentioned before that it’s, it’s a roguelike action game. It might be worth coming back to the word roguelike in a second. Uh, but generally you play as a character called Zagreus, who is the son of the God Hades, and you’re trying to get out of the underworld, like fight your way out of the underworld, uh, for reasons that become a bit clearer as you play. And, um, as you defeat enemies, uh, which are also being trapped in the underworld with you, you’re sort of granted upgrades, or they’re called boons in the game, from the Olympian gods. So like Zeus, Poseidon, and all the big names… they give you extra powers because they’re under the impression that you want to come and live with them on Mount Olympus, which may or may not be the exact truth, but we’re not going to tell them because it’s kind of useful to have the power of Zeus when you’re fighting in the world, I suppose. And yeah, so it’s a roguelike game, which means that whenever you fail and die, your progress is wiped and you start from the beginning. Um, and then your next run of the game can actually be pretty different. So you’ll fight different varieties of enemies, get different upgrades from the gods. And the experience can actually be quite unique compared to previous runs, which is why people like roguelikes. This, this sort of loop of “okay, I died, I messed up, but like next time, next time everything’s going to be okay. And we’ll, we’ll get the, the right list of upgrades to, to nail it.” Now what separates Hades from other roguelikes is the way in which it incorporates the narrative as well. So if you die in a boss fight in Hades, the next time you see that character, they’ll be like “I killed you, didn’t I? You weren’t very good last time.” And they’ll actually reference what happened and not ignore the fact that you keep dying and starting over again, which some roguelikes have to do, because it’s kind of a difficult narrative thing to explain. But if you’re in the underworld, where everyone’s already dead, it makes total sense that if you die, you just go back to a different part of the underworld. And so the game is able to work the mechanics of a roguelike into the narrative… we’ve never really seen that in this genre before. And I think people already really loved roguelikes because of that loop we were talking about earlier, but Hades on top of that actually says like, every time you, you have another go, you’re also going to experience an interesting and fully voiced storyline that matters to you on each run. And so there’s just a whole bunch of reasons to keep playing over and over again.
Brendan: We’re going to go deeper into the Netherrealm in a moment and deeper into what you like about the game. Uh, but first we always have a big question on each episode of Hey Lesson and this time it is: can you ever leave Hades? Uh, having never died and gone to Hades, we’re not really equipped to answer this question…
Chris: I was terrified of where this was going…
Brendan: But maybe an archeologist of the ancient Greek world can help us out. So we spoke to Gunnel Ekroth of the university of Uppsala, and she is going to tell us not only about Hades and the heroes who dwell there, but also about the rituals and sacrifices we might do to please them. So here she is.
Narrator (soundbite): Prince Zagreus rises from a fitful slumber with much mischief on his mind…
Brendan: Gunnel Ekroth, can you please introduce yourself to our listeners? Who are you? And what do you do?
Gunnel Ekroth: My name is Gunnel Ekroth and I am a professor of classical archeology and ancient history at the university of Uppsala in Sweden. And my research mainly concerns ancient Greece, and in particular, various aspects of the religious practices and religious lives of the ancient Greeks.
Brendan: We are currently playing a video game called Hades, which is about an ancient Greek god trying to escape the underworld, but Hades the place, can you tell us what, what is it described like, according to myth?
Gunnel Ekroth: Uh, it was a pretty dark place. There was no sun, of course it was very gray and dark and, and fairly boring. And once you entered, you could never leave. You spent your time pretty much doing nothing. Then there was a particular section of Hades called Tartarus where those who had really behaved badly towards the gods were sent. These are the mythological figures, like Sisyphus, who tricked death and then was punished by pushing a stone up a mountain and never succeeded. Then there was also something like a VIP section, the Elysium fields where, um, heroes and some very fortunate and good people would end up. And that was more of a sunny and pleasant meadow or a beautiful Island where you would spend more pleasant time in death. But for most people, most dead persons, that would be the regular Hades, which was gray and dull and dark and boring
Narrator (soundbite): Within the depths of Tartarus reside. The most wretched of all the shades who linger in eternity within the underworld.
Brendan: Uh, so Hades in popular culture is sometimes shown as a fiery place. Is that fair? Or what’s the origin of that idea?
Gunnel Ekroth: I think that seems to be an influence of the Christian notion of hell. No the Greek Hades was not hot at all. It was more, it was more like a reflection of a regular landscape, you could say. You entered by passing over the river Styx, where you took the ferry, run by a guy called Charon. And this is where you have to pay. You have to have a coin in your mouth, so you can pay the journey. And then you come to the other side, there is a three-headed dog Cerberus, that’s very aggressive, but won’t bite you. And then after that, you enter into Hades and then you, of course, can’t leave because the dog will prevent you from leaving and you won’t have any money to pay for the ferry joining back. So you were stuck once you entered.
Zagreus (soundbite): Charon, mate. Now, hypothetically, if I provided you with say a thousand coins, would you be willing to give me a ride in your beautiful boat? Up-river, I should say specifically…
Brendan: Hades was also a person, or is it was also a God. The ruler of the underworld is called Hades as well. What did he look like according to evidence?
Gunnel Ekroth: Well, first of all, Hades is a God we don’t know very much about. There is no indication that he would have looked anything different from his brothers Poseidon and Zeus. And that is that he would have been exceptionally beautiful, tall, with very good hair, probably a beautiful beard. The notion of the Greeks was that the ancient gods were extremely beautiful. They were also shiny and they smelled very well. So there is no indication that Hades would not have been like that even if he was down in the underworld,
Brendan: That’s good because in the game… there are plenty of jokes the players are making because all of the gods are portrayed as really handsome and good looking and sexy.
Gunnel Ekroth: That’s perfectly correct. I mean, and also sexy, of course, absolutely. A Greek God was somebody, some person or had an appearance that was extremely attractive.
Megaera (soundbite): You don’t have any doors. Why are you always so surprised?
Brendan: In the game we play as, I’m not sure how you pronounce his name – Zagreus?
Gunnel Ekroth: Zagreus.
Brendan: He’s described as the son of the God Hades, but who is he in Greek mythology? And why is he one of the lesser-known gods in popular culture?
Gunnel Ekroth: Well, he is lesser-known because we know very little of him concretely. We have very little ancient evidence, and he’s a very obscure figure. According to one tradition, he is a variant or an epithet of the wine god Dionysus. And according to that myth, he was the son of either of Persephone – who is the goddess of the underworld – Persephone and Zeus, or Persephone and Hades. But that’s pretty much what we know about him. The actual name probably comes from a Greek word called zagre, which means a hunting pit or a hunting net, some kind of hunting equipment. So it has to do something with hunting. And it’s also been suggested that Zagreus is a kind of deity linked to… a master of animals, who controls animal life and in that sense might be connected to Hades. But the main problem with Zagreus is that we have so few sources.
Narrator (soundbite): Who is he really? Lord Hades never would indulge such questions.
Brendan: Um, are there any other forgotten gods of the Greek Pantheon? Who’s your favorite God that nobody outside of your field seems to know about?
Gunnel Ekroth: Well, I worked a lot on hero cults and there is one, I have one favorite hero who was called Erechtheus and he’s known from one single inscription. He has a group of Athenians who worship him and they have a little precinct and this inscription, they state how this group sublets his precincts for 10 years. And it specifies what the person leasing the precinct can do and not do with the various kinds of equipment. And it’s this, this, this tiny window into regular Athenians, like a group that we could have belonged to if we had been ancient Athenians.
Zagreus (soundbite): Achilles in the spotlight.
Brendan: Tell us some more about these hero cults. Like, what are they exactly? It sounds like you’re describing a sort of like a club, like a members club or a gym or something.
Gunnel Ekroth: Absolutely. I mean, this, these types of cult associations, they don’t only have to devote themselves to a hero. They could also be for gods. But they are really like clubs. When I teach, I describe them like a chess club or almost a football team or something. You have a social grouping and, but instead of playing chess or playing football or drinking simply, uh, you will be worshiping a divine figure. And depending on who you are and your resources, you might have a temple or a little chapel or whatever. Uh, and probably when you would meet to worship this figure, you would also have animal sacrifice and you would eat. That would be very important.
Narrator (soundbite): The lounging area within the house of Hades is a dismal place to be in spite of its intended purpose to enliven the house’s grim inhabitants.
Brendan: One of the characters in the game is Theseus and he’s, uh, he’s sort of an antagonistic person in the game. You have to fight him. Did Theseus have a hero cult in ancient Greece?
Gunnel Ekroth: Absolutely. He was very, very big in Athens. He was like their national hero you could say because in domestic accounts, he is the son of the Athenian King, but he’s born out of wedlock and there this whole story that he comes back to Athens to claim his kingdom and almost gets killed. And then in the mythological tradition – because Athens is the home of democracy in the fifth century BC – but in myth, he’s described as reigning some kind of proto-democracy and also organizing the whole political system of Athens and the integrations of young men into society. And so on.
Brendan: What kind of things would Theseus fans get up to?
Gunnel Ekroth: Well, they would do, of course they would worship him. Then you would have animal sacrifice and precessions and dining and, in particular, games. And when a hero is worshiped, he can also – he or she because there are female heroes, even children, child heroes, and baby heroes – they can come back and help the worshipers. And there are these sightings of in particular Theseus is said to have participated and fought the Persians in the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, for example, and the best way to understand this is to think of Elvis.
Gunnel Ekroth: He is the perfect hero cult! This whole thing with the sightings of Elvis, and Elvis has left the building. It makes perfect sense for a Greek hero cult.
Theseus (soundbite): Now, hold a moments fiend! Asterius has made me aware that you recently asked of him an autograph, a tribute to his fame. As I am champion, I am prepared to generously offer mine as well.
Brendan: You edited a book, a collection called “The Round Trip To Hades”, which talks about Hades as, yes, this place of suffering associated with loss, but it’s also a place to socialize. Why was Hades a good place to hang out?
Gunnel Ekroth: Well, the thing is that once you enter… you can check out any time, but you can never leave, so to speak. So eventually everybody will be there. So if you enter late, everybody’s already there. So there all these persons, you can meet Homer and Plato and Socrates and what-not. Everybody is there. And this is something that the later the Roman sources and even the early Christian sources, they make a big thing of this, that the kind of conversations you can have because everybody’s there. In the ancient Greek tradition the thing is that the living are never supposed to visit Hades. You’re only supposed to go there when you’re dead. And you have a couple of characters who actually can go down and come back. What is interesting though, with the ancient figures who do that, is that when they come up, they are the same. But we also have this in the Christian tradition, but there it is very strongly emphasized that as soon as you’re dead, your body starts decomposing. So in the Christian story’s about Hades. All the people who are there, they’re also falling apart. It’s like, oh, I can see your skull! Your flesh is almost gone! And they even throw body parts at each other, it’s just amazing.
Zagreus (soundbite): Father, everybody’s dead. Give them a break.
Brendan: Let’s pretend right. We’re trapped in Hades. It’s a, it’s a dark, gloomy, boring party that everyone’s at, but we’ve heard of these heroes of Orpheus and Theseus getting out. So, how do we get out?
Gunnel Ekroth: I think in the ancient tradition, there isn’t any getting out. But it’s bout trying to arrange so you’re better prepared. So you will have a better stay. There was a whole group of religious initiators or traveling priests, it’s difficult to know exactly how to call them, who apparently traveled around Greek territory. And apparently you went through some kind of training or at least initiation. And finally, you were buried with a small piece of gold or little gold leaf, a thin gold leaf with an inscription telling you how to behave once you enter Hades. And that also if you show that to the goddess of the underworld, Persephone, they will recognize you when you come. And in that case, you will get a better deal once you’re in Hades.
Brendan: So it was like a little note of introduction.
Gunnel Ekroth: Yes. And these texts are fabulous. They’re these instructions that once you enter “don’t drink from the first source, go to the second one. And when they ask you this, you should reply that”. And so on. So you have really had proper instructions, so you will behave correctly. You will miss all these kinds of traps that you can fall into. And eventually then you will be recognized by Persephone and get a better deal.
Brendan: Great. It’s like a tourist guide.
Gunnel Ekroth: Yes it it. And some of them, the texts are really interesting because there are some beautiful lines. “As a kid, I fell into the milk. As the lamb, I fell into the milk as a young bull, I leapt into the milk”… And this is in several of these gold leaves. And we don’t know what it means, but it must’ve been very essential for those undergoing this initiation.
Skelly (soundbite): Little tip for ya. You find any coinage while you’re out there, you be sure to pawn it off to that old Charon, boatman guy. Use it or lose it pal, use it or lose it.
Brendan: There are other practices and some practices, um, that I think you’re an expert in… the ancient Greeks had a process of appeasing the gods that involved sacrificing animals. Can you tell us exactly what a ritual animal sacrifice would involve? Give us all the grizzly details.
Gunnel Ekroth: Absolutely. This is my speciality. Yeah. Um, first of all, animal sacrifice you could say is the major ritual in ancient Greece. This is what you would do. If you had the resources, you would also give the gods fruit and cheese and flowers and whatnot. If you didn’t have the money to pay for animals, the whole notion is that by giving something to the gods, the gods will give something back to you. This kind of reciprocity that you give each other gifts and the animal you sacrifice is usually a domesticated animal, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, uh, it should be a healthy animal. It should be beautiful. You would then bring the animal to the place of sacrifice. People stand around the altar. You would throw some grain on the animal and the worshipers. Uh, some hairs from the forehead of the animal will be cut off and thrown into the fire on the altar. And then you would sprinkle water onto the animal. So it would shake and show that he was alive and well because you don’t want to sacrifice something that is about to die by itself, of old age. After that, the purpose of the sacrifice is defined through prayer because you have to tell the God what you want. And you might sacrifice because you want to get help, or you want fertility or the crops will grow well, or you will succeed in war or a journey, or you want to thank the gods for something they already done.
Hades (soundbite): What would you even know of an honest work ethic? At least the wretched dead yet honour me as lord.
Gunnel Ekroth: After that, the throat of the animal was slit. Uh, the blood collected in a big bowl, a little bit splashed on the altar while the rest was whipped. So to break coagulation, and then they would transform it into blood sausages and black soup and stuff like that. That was eaten. Um, after the animal was killed the, uh, thigh bones and the tail section, that is the back part of the base and with a tail, would be put into the altar fire. And if you put these bones into a fire, they react from the heat. The tail will rise and curve. I’ve done experiments with this myself and it’s foolproof. It’s really amazing. I can recommend this strongly. You don’t have to be a Greek priest. Anyone can do it. And the thigh bones wrapped in fat would after 10 minutes burn with very high, bright flames. And these were signs that the gods were actually paying attention. They were seeing that you were sacrificing, they were answering the phone so to speak.
Zagreus (soundbite): This is not someone I recognize. So in the name of Hades, hello, may I ask who’s calling?
Gunnel Ekroth: After that you took the edible parts, which are the lungs, the liver, the heart, the kidneys, and the spleen, and grilled them in the altar fire. And these pieces were then eaten by the people standing closest to the fire. And this is […] a sign that you belong to the inner circle of the sacrificing community. The rest of the meat would be taken aside and butchered and divided. The basic principle was to divide everything after weight in equal portions, most participants would get equal portions. And that has then been, by scholars today, linked to democracy – that everybody can vote. Everybody is equal. Everybody gets equal portions at sacrifice, and there is something to this connection I think.
Brendan: You’ve, you’ve performed some of these rituals as practical experiments to see for yourself how the Greeks did these things, um… you didn’t eat the food as well?
Gunnel Ekroth: No, I have not *killed* any animals to sacrifice myself because I think also doing that, you have to, you really have to know how to handle animals. It’s not for anybody to start killing animals without knowing what you’re doing. And I… also in Sweden, I think it would be illegal. When I did the experiments I bought the, um, the thigh bones and the tail section I got from people raising animals in Sweden. And I also have some American colleagues who’ve done a long series of experiments in Athens. And then they bought tails and thigh bones from butchers. And also we got various kinds of innards. We did some grilling experiments. But in modern Greece today, this is what we eat. There’s a dish called Kokoretsi with exactly these innards that are grilled on spits. So it’s… it’s not something strange that you would eat those.
Brendan: Oh, okay. So it is just like a barbecue.
Gunnel Ekroth: Yeah, sure, sure, sure. It’s like a barbecue.
Narrator (soundbite): The ancient casks of wine hidden within the recesses of the house of Lord Hades. Few have tasted the intoxicating vintage they contain…
Brendan: Why have tales of Greek gods endured so that even today we’re making video games about them?
Gunnel Ekroth: Because they’re just amazing stories. I mean, Greek mythology. I remember when my kids were small, we lived in France and when you went to go to a restaurant you have to wait for ages to get the food. I would tell them Greek myths. Of course I had to censor them because they’re so full of violence and sexual incest. And it’s like, Oh, this part, I can tell them and then blah, blah, and so on. But these are just amazing, powerful stories. And if I can offer some reading tips, this story about Demeter looking for her abducted daughter – Demeter she is the god of fertility – it’s an amazing story on the whole, when she’s looking for her daughter, all these stories… She comes to a place where she takes a job as a nanny and she takes care of a young Prince. Then she doesn’t appear as a goddess. She appears as a human being, as an old lady, and she takes care of this Prince and she tries to make him immortal by holding him over a fire each night.
Demeter (soundbite): I am the eldest of Olympia, Zagreus, and I expect for you to treat me suitably.
Gunnel Ekroth: And eventually, uh, the queen discovers her and gets really upset because the nanny is frying the baby, frying the son, and she snatches the baby back. And then Demeter transforms herself back into a goddess. And the description is that she grows, her head almost breaks the ceiling, and she shines. So the whole palace shines and the queen gets really afraid that she’s gonna get killed. And then she, Demeter, tells her: “You stupid woman. I was going to make your son immortal, but that’s not going to happen now”.
Brendan: “You stupid lady, let me fry your son!”
Gunnel Ekroth: Exactly “He will become immortal. You don’t see the bigger picture here.”
Brendan: Gunnel Ekroth, thank you very much for talking to us about this. We’ve learned an awful lot.
Gunnel Ekroth: Thank you.
Narrator (soundbite): Thus, did the Prince discover inadvertently the well-kept truth about his lineage. Entirely by chance, this did occur.
Brendan: That was Gunnel Ekroth, archeologist and specialist in ancient Greece. Uh, if you want to hear the full 45 minute interview we did with her and you really do, then you can subscribe to the podcast on Patreon. It’s $2 a month. You will get unabridged interviews with all of the experts we speak to not just our archeologist from this episode, if you go to patreon.com/heylesson, or follow the links in the show notes below. This is definitely one of the more interesting interviews. It physically hurt me to cut out some of the stuff Gunnel was telling me about these ludicrous gods. Bratt! Have you ever roasted the thigh bone of a goat in praise of Zagreus?
Chris: I haven’t, no. When I was listening to that part of the, uh, um, the interview, I was like, Oh my God, are we going to… has she done a crime? Is this illegal? Are we, are we going to get in trouble for endorsing this? And then thankfully she gave some important context afterwards. No, I’ve not. I’m now a vegetarian. So I don’t know where I fit in the whole animal sacrifice ritual world. Uh, but it sounds interesting.
Brendan: Yeah, I had to, um, I cut out a bunch of stuff because I had to for time. So there was a lot, there was a lot more detail about what bits of the animals go where like, some specific parts of the animal are given to the priest who performs the ceremony. And it’s it’s yeah. For any vegans out there. I apologize. But as someone who has tried to get out of the underworld a lot, did her observations feel familiar? Like what stood out to you?
Chris: Oh, a bunch of stuff. Let’s start with something that is quite different to Hades the video game, is that I was surprised by her description of Hades as a location. So she, she described it as sort of, um, dull, like, uh, generally dull and gray and dark and boring and… in Hades, the video game, it is luxurious and bright and full of color. And I guess I also had picked up some of what she talked about with like Christian preconceptions of it being a fiery place. Yeah, I had no idea that Hades was a bit dull… did you?
Brendan: I didn’t, I always thought… I thought the fire was green, but it still burned. And I think I’d got that off Disney’s Hercules.
Chris: Right. Okay. Oh God. Is it? Yeah. And yeah, apparently that’s not, that’s not the case. Um, she did say that like similar to in the game that, you know, the other different areas, like the Elysium fields, the VIP section, she described it, uh, that that’s a little bit more like interesting, a bit more of a classy place to hang out if you’re in the underworld and which is similar in the game itself, it’s where you run into characters like Theseus and Asterius, uh, who are sort of trapped there, but also quite… well, at least Theseus, he’s quite enjoying the whole process. He quite likes hanging out in Elyisium I think.
Brendan: Let’s talk about Theseus. All right. Because you did a video that was on the dialogue system of Hades, which we may talk about in a bit.
Brendan: But in that video, you had a bit of a dig at Theseus, who’s the ancient Greek hero who fought the Minotaur and stuff like that. But Gunnel was telling me that Theseus has a whole fan club. What’s your problem, dude?
Chris: Okay. So there’s a big hero cult in Athens for your boy Theseus, apparently. So again, my interpretation here is coming from, from the way that Supergiant [the developer] has portrayed him, but I have a number of reasons why I don’t like him. First of all, he is extremely smug. So I guess a very mild spoiler (the game’s been out for a while now) but Theseus is someone that you fight in the game, along with his, his sort of partner Asterius, which is the Minotaur which he defeated in his previous life. And so whenever you meet Theseus and Asterius, Theseus is just horrible to you. He’s got this big gross smile. He sort of leers at you. He always interrupts Asterius, who is actually the more interesting one of the pair, quite frankly. So he saved the Minotaur in the world of Supergiant. And so brought him with him to the VIP club of Elysium. And I tell you what he, he knows that he did that. He lords it up over that Minotaur. And I don’t think that’s deserved. The man’s about 95% muscle. And he also knows that quite frankly, and it’s the smugness, it’s the smugness surrounding the whole thing. I just am not a fan of Theseus. And I enjoy trying to hit him with a sword on a regular basis.
Brendan: So, if it’s not Theseus, then who is your favorite ancient Greek deity?
Chris: I think I like Poseidon a lot. He is one of the three brothers – Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. And they all have a similar kind of ego issue. Uh, they’re all extremely powerful. And I think it’s gone to their heads a little bit. But Poseidon is sort of your… he tries to be your cool uncle, like he’s the one that would probably offer you a cigarette outside a birthday party that he knows you’re not meant to have. You’re going to keep it quiet, but like, it’s quite cool that you’ve got this bond… Um, and it’s sometimes a little lame and awkward, but I am quite fond of it.
Brendan: Gunnel was telling us about the, the gifts or the sacrifices that people used to give to the gods. And you as Zagreus, you give gifts to the gods in the game as well, but it’s not like the tail section of an animal…
Brendan: It’s nectar or whatever. But what does that do? How does that change the game?
Chris: You do it and you will receive an item that will give some additional power to your character. Your first experience with Hades is like, “Oh, okay. If I have a better relationship with some of these characters, they’ll make me more powerful. That’s useful.” However, once you’ve played it for, for as long as I have the nectar and the ambrosia is actually a currency that you use to sort of romance the various Olympian gods or Greek heroes that you fancy the most. That’s like… if I’m going to be completely honest with you, that’s what it really becomes about, uh, in the late game.
Brendan: So it is like giving gifts to people in Stardew Valley?
Chris: Exactly. Or Mass Effect. I don’t know why video games often sort of boils down the process of romance to like, uh, fetching the right item for someone. But yeah. Yeah. Essentially it’s like that. It’s like Stardew Valley.
Brendan: You say this, I don’t think you’re the only person who’s getting into romancing characters. The people, if you look on the internet, people are getting incredibly, uh, deeply, uh, horny for these characters. Let’s just say it. What’s going on? What is it about these gods that makes them so attractive to people? Is it just the illustrations of the artwork or, or something else going on?
Chris: That is absolutely true. The internet is rampant with this and if you haven’t played Hades, you might be thinking, Oh, well, like every, every video game, every fandom has this people often get very infatuated with fictional characters. However, in this case, first of all, like Supergiant has not shied away from the fact that these gods that you’re encountering and even the lesser characters, like the heroes as well, they’re all incredibly attractive. Which is, from what I hear from Gunnel, that is very in keeping with, uh, ancient history. The illustrations themselves, like none of these characters are not hot, it’s no mistake that people have come to this conclusion. And also there’s just, I feel like there’s an Olympian God or an underworld God for everyone’s tastes. You know, if you want to get spoken down to by an angry woman with a whip, there’s someone here for you. And please, please read nothing into the fact that that’s the one that I referenced first. It could have… I could have picked any example.
Brendan: There is a lot of story to the game as well. A surprising amount for a roguelike, like you were saying for that genre, it’s usually quite rare for you to have so much dialogue. They’re usually quite light on it, light on character building and stuff, but here there’s a ton of it. But how is that delivered to you. Is it like drip-fed to you?
Chris: If you think about it, um, just the way that a roguelike works like we described earlier, it’s a really big challenge in terms of like, how do you express a narrative to players who could be progressing through this game at very different speeds? Like some, some people that play Hades complete their first run…. defeat the final boss of Hades, on their fifth or sixth attempt if they are really, really good at the game. Where some, it could take 100 attempts to reach that point. And Supergiant are all about narratives that keep talking about what the player has been doing. When the players’ progress can be so different, it just seems like an impossible challenge to get something that can work for everyone. And they managed to do it, which no one has really done in this genre before. And it comes down to a bunch of things. Um, one of the more surprising facts about Hades for example, is that it’s script is more than 300,000 words long, which is just over the length of the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire, like Game of Thrones is less than 300,000 words. This script is longer than that. Which is pretty mind blowing.
Brendan: That’s longer than Homer’s Odyssey.
Chris: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Right. That, that solves some of the problems because they don’t want to hit the point where they’re just repeating the same lines that you’ve heard over and over again. And they, they really do manage to avoid that. So, so part of the way they solved that is by just having a huge script that they can keep dipping into. A lot of the story is told through dialogue with characters and they have a really clever system that’s running behind the scenes, whenever you talk to a character, where they sort of check a bunch of criteria based on like…. you know, what happened in your last run? What’s the furthest you’ve got in Hades? What weapon have you been using recently? Uh, what enemy killed you in the last encounter? Have you spoken to this person before? Have you spoken to other characters recently? There’s all these different criteria that come into place and the game traces to pick the best dialogue option from this huge script that we just mentioned. So that every time you speak to a character, it feels relevant to what you’re doing right now. And also it isn’t repeating itself – which, you know, a lot of games that you play over and over again for the amount of time that people are playing Hades – they have to rely on repetition at some point. And it does manage to put that off way longer than you’d expect. Some people have been playing this game for 100 hours and have yet to hear a line repeated yet, which is insane when they’re all fully voiced, um, and written really, really well. There’s a reason people, I joked about why people are so horny about these characters and part of it is the illustration and the tone of each character. But also they’re really interesting. Like it’s not difficult to get invested in their storylines.
Brendan: I really enjoy how, like Gunnel said, everybody’s here, everybody from Greek mythology, you know, is in this game, or seems to be.
Chris: Yeah, it’s a very interesting interpretation of some of the Greek myths. And it really, actually, one of the things I love about it the most is that it really nails the fact that these are stories and legends about unbelievably powerful beings, right? They control the oceans and the sky is and everything in between. And yet a lot of their feuds and a lot of their real motivations come down to just really relatable family dynamics. There’s three brothers that are competing, uh, with one another and it’s all about bravado and power and who’s the most important. And they can be really petty with one another. And yet they’re the Olympian gods. They’re like the most powerful beings in the world. They defeated a Titan together! And yet they also, you know, don’t like if you spend too much time with one of them and, and pay them less attention. I feel like that is something that’s really present in Greek myth itself. And Hades the video game really understands that and embraces it.
Brendan: I was playing last night and, uh, Hades told me off because the dog, Cerberus, tore up the lounge.
Chris: Exactly. Yeah.
Brendan He said, “Because you disappeared, son, the dog was so upset. He tore up the lounge.” It’s like the thought of this three-headed giant dog, just wrecking the pillows. But instead of wrecking the pillows, he’s actually just demolishing all the furniture in the house.
Chris: Cerberus is wonderful in this game. Everyone, almost all the major characters just love this dog. And Hades in particular has a real vibe of, you know that stereotype of a dad in a family who doesn’t want to get a pet. They just, they refuse to get it. They’re belligerent about it. They stand their ground until eventually they give in and they get a dog. And then the dad and the dog are the best friends. They just, they spend all their time together. And it turns out that they just needed permission to love something.
Brendan: All right. Well, uh, that’s it, we’re going to have to disappear. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell and my guest co-host this week, Chris Bratt. Thank you very much for helping us out.
Chris: Oh, absolutely. My pleasure. It’s a fun video game slash world slash ideological belief to talk about.
Brendan: Uh, where can people find your stuff… People Make Games’ stuff?
Chris: Uh, the easiest place to find us is always on YouTube. Um, yeah, just search People Make Games on YouTube. And Hades, if you’re listening to this podcast fairly close to when it came out, is probably the last thing that went up on the channel. We don’t have a huge budget at People Make Games, but we did try and create a set for that video, which involves nailing a velvet duvet cover to our living room wall. And if you want to see how bad-slash-good that looked, then that’s the place to do it.
Brendan: If you have enjoyed this episode of Hey Lesson, or if you’ve just been blasting through all of our episodes and not even noticing that we don’t have any adverts because that’s how good it feels to not ever listen to an advert, um, maybe consider throwing us a tip on Patreon. If you do, you will get extra goodies, including the full interviews with, our archeologists, our scientists, our cave divers, our parasite biologists, everyone we’ve talked to. Uh, but you’ll also get maybe behind the scenes video updates and a bonus podcast every month, depending on what tier that you subscribe to. Go to patreon.com/heylesson or follow the links in the show notes. And you’ll see how to get that. If you can’t spare the change, there are other ways to show your gratitude. And that is to just share any episodes that you’ve liked with friends and family and workmates and whoever. Even just throw a link up on Facebook saying, “Hey, I listened to a fun thing about a three-headed dog this week. You know, here, here it is. Maybe you’ll like it too.” And that always helps us. But until next time, thank you again for listening. And thanks again to Bratt for all the godly knowledge.
Chris: No problem. Bye everyone.
Brendan: Hey Lesson will return!
Chris: Wow. That’s a dramatic final line. I enjoyed that.
Brendan: I’ve been inspired by the Mass Effect trailer that was revealed… No, wait. That was “Mass Effect will continue”. Hey Lesson Will Continue! Goodbye.