I played Hades for the first time a few weeks ago and was instantly (and surprisingly) hooked. Repeated failure is something I struggle with in games – it’s why I’ve avoided FromSoftware titles like Bloodborne and Sekiro, and initially wrote off Hades as “too hard” for me. But the more of Hades I played, the faster I realized that developer Supergiant Games rewards you for each attempt, rather than punishing you for trying – arming me for another run with the experience, knowledge, and upgrades that I had earned along the way.
Suddenly, failing became a way forward, and my opinion on difficult games started to shift. Challenging games can still be kind, they can still want you to succeed in them even if their approaches are different. FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki recently said he “feels apologetic” towards players defeated by his games, and I believe that mindset helped inform Elden Ring, which has promised (and now proven) that it’s more approachable than all the other Dark Souls games. With that, I’m ready to finally give a FromSoftware game a proper try. Elden Ring lies ahead, and I’m walking towards it with confidence thanks to my experience with Hades.
Failure as a teacher
Hades only gives you one weapon to start with, but you can unlock others by collecting currency on your (likely) failed runs. After getting thoroughly trounced on runs using the sword and spear, I decide to use the shield I unlocked, believing I need the protection it can offer more than anything. But I can’t seem to get the hang of directing my block towards projectiles, and fall before I can make it to Hades. As Zagreus respawns, slowly walking out of a pool of blood back at the House of Hades, I feel emboldened to give it another go – even though the protagonist himself is clearly frustrated to be back at the beginning again. “Urrghh, damn it,” he says, uttering a line of mine that usually precedes me quitting a game that has whooped my ass.
Instead of sharing Zagreus’ sentiment, I head into the weapons room where I decide to try out a new weapon: the Twin Fists of Malphon. Within minutes it’s clear that me and the more aggressive fists work well together, especially with some attack boons (power-ups) tacked onto that send lightning bouncing between enemies. However, with far too little XP going into the first major boss battle and no health between me and it, I know this isn’t going to be a good run. Megara fells me faster than I’d like to admit.
“I’m going again,” I say, before pulling up a list of Hades tips and tricks. I learn that we’ve been using the Mirror of Night upgrade station wrong, as I had no idea there were more options for me to spend my hard-earned in-game currency on. Here’s where Hades is much kinder than other roguelikes: you can earn darkness in some of its dungeons (along with several other types of currency) that can be used to purchase upgrades before jumping into your next run. The Mirror of Night upgrades let me invest in three extra lives, giving me a bit more padding that ensures a death at the hands of Megara doesn’t mean the swift end of a run as it had done before.
I keep losing, but discouragement never fully sets in, as I know that Hades shakes up its bag of tools before letting you stick your hand in the bag again. Every run will be different, so it’s a lot easier to feel less like I’m personally failing, and more like the rolls just aren’t in my favor. When I finally defeat Hades and realize that I’ll have to go back through this all over again to get the “true” ending, I’m excited rather than defeated – what the hell has this game done to me?
The promise of failure
Hades is a prime example of how difficult games can give players a reasonable set of tools with which to beat them. Sure, those tools may be a bit different every time, resulting in certain runs that feel like a loss straight out of the gate, but even those failed runs have value. A bad run can help you hone in on what kind of builds you should chase for future runs, leading me to believe Supergiant agrees with Yoda when it comes to failure: “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Hades was the perfect game to teach me how to persevere in the face of repeated failures.
But Souls games traditionally approach failure as little more than a reminder to get good. An attempt to play Dark Souls Remastered last year left me in a foul mood, as the repeated gauntlets leading into boss gates offered very little variation and an abundance of ass kicking. I’d walk up to an early game boss, get my teeth kicked in, and restart at the last save point, forced to face those same enemies once more with the same weapons in hand and the same skillset. The only option in traditional Souls games is to fight back through a familiar line-up of enemies and take another shot at that same boss over and over again until you make headway. The only thing you get when you fail is another shot.
But Elden Ring is different. Like Hades, failure is more of a learning opportunity, a chance to go “okay, I’m not ready for that path, let’s go another way.” Elden Ring’s open world gives you time and space to explore the Lands Between, level up your character, and find better weapons and/or armor to help you with harder fights. The first major story boss, Margit the Fell Omen, is notoriously difficult – but you don’t need to walk into that battle right away. Instead you can take down some easier enemies, building up your character and confidence before trying to take down big beasties. It’s the addition of choice to the FromSoftware formula that makes it more approachable to players like me, who find repeatedly dying without any forward progress to be discouraging.
I gave up on Dark Souls, vowing never to put myself through that kind of mental anguish again. But Hades taught me how to embrace failure and use it to fuel future attempts at success. That Elden Ring will also give me choice means I can take my failures and apply them to future attempts, whether that means making some adjustments before heading through boss gate or avoiding it entirely. For the first time in my life, I’m ready for a FromSoftware game.