I feel like any way you start a post about 2020 and what a year it was will sound cliché. Saying it was a “rough” year is a massive understatement when as of writing, almost 350,000 people in my country have died. An unfathomable number joined by a year of unfathomable numbers, millions losing jobs, millions being set back on the ladder of progress that this colonialist country is built on.
If instead I said the year was “wild”, “absurd”, “difficult”, if I used the phrase “in these times” it would sound like PR commercial speak.
Instead, I’ll be blunt. Hard times have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. Any port in a storm we can find to weather it is worth talking about.
For me, my safe harbor was Hades, a video game created by Supergiant Games. For those who don’t know Supergiant has a reputation of never missing and creating games that are fun to play, incredible art and music, and deeply reflective stories about characters navigating situations they see no escape from.
(Major spoilers for Hades)
Hades is no different. The game follows Zagreus, the son of Hades as he attempts to escape his father’s realm of the same name. In Hades, you die, a lot. You die, come back, and try again. Eventually you escape Hades only to fight your dad himself. If you beat him, you escape, only to be sent back when you find out you can’t survive on the surface.
You do however find your mother, Persephone on the surface. The game then morphs, instead of being about escaping, its about returning to the surface to see your mom and understand better the circumstances of your birth, why she left Hades, and what she sees in your father. You could write a book about how Zagreus, Persephone, and Hades come together to function as family, but what I want to talk about is the ending, the credits ending, and more importantly, the song that plays.
The player needs to beat Hades 9 times and then escape one more time to reach the game’s ending. When you show up, on this 10th time, you expect to fight Hades again, as you always have, as the games cycle has dictated. But something truly transformative happens, that renegotiates the player’s entire relationship with Zagreus, Hades, the cycle of escape, and the play itself.
Hades just….lets you go.
The whole game you’ve tried and tried to escape, hit Hades who is the most difficult fight you’ve reached in the entire game. Who you’ve beaten nine times. The antagonist who taunts you every time you die, who tells you that you aren’t enough, tells you you’re weak, tells you that you won’t make it, tells you that you don’t understand.
Lets you go.
And Zagreus does. He goes to see Persephone on the surface one last time. She has packed up her things to his surprise, she’s decided to come back to Hades, thanks to Zagreus helping her better understand what happened with her husband. The boatman Charon is there, you climb in the boat and the credits roll. If you want to watch the ending, its worth it I think, even if you didn’t play the game here’s a link.
The song “In the Blood” plays. I’d highly recommend listening to it before reading further.
They key line, the line that really made this game hit home for me in this year:
Where I haven’t seen my parents, my sister, her four kids,
Where I haven’t had the physical support of my close friends,
Where I’ve witnessed more and more people living on the margins, struggle, while the wealthy are content to let them wither on the vine,
Where people have decided the cold bodies of our friends, neighbors, and family are worth it, as long as the wheels of capitalism continue to function is
Is not where you live,
But who cares when you’re gone.”
After writing this I realized what I wanted to say about this year. This is a year of loss. We are all in some stage of responding to grief. Many people are for the first time realizing things weren’t so great before either. That there’s always been a body count to how our society functions, there’s always been people who are oppressed and most importantly what has happened this year is not news to the people who’ve been oppressed and victimized generation after fucking generation.
I’ve tried to think about Hades over-arching message and theme. Hades is a game about cycles and how we are all bound to them. In Greek myth its the Fates, spinning their web. In our world its processes and systems that function as they were designed, whether its the criminal justice system, our economic system, politics, or family. Hades as a game seems aware of this, yet it postulates, through the character of Zagreus and the support of the people around him, that these cycles might not be breakable, but instead can be refashioned, retooled, for our own ends.
After the ending Zagreus continues trying to escape Hades, now at the behest of his father to make Hades more secure. The fights you have with Hades after feel more like father and son bonding, a friendly rivalry. The cycle of the game continues, but under new rules, a new context.
I think the game is pretty clear about its outlook – Sisyphus, consigned to roll a boulder up a hill where it falls back again is a major character in the game. The work of Albert Camus is all over this game. Cycles, the nature of the universe, the nature of the systems we inhabit might not be able to be broken, but *we* can change them. Like Zagreus we can never give up. Every time we fail is just another opportunity to try again. We exist in a long tradition of people who have desired a better world *for everyone* and there’s a strength in that. As a museum person I respect the notion of being the next steward in a long line of stewards.
Most importantly, we can allow ourselves to feel loss, to mourn, to take a shot, pour one out for those who we’ve lost. To realize that we were home for them and they were home for us.
What Zagreus’ struggle is really about is finding a reason to survive, about making it.
Because in the end, we have to.