Hell-escaping roguelite Hades has used its early access period to release a number of major updates, some of which add new deities to the game’s Greek-god-based pantheon. The most recent update, Long Winter, introduced Demeter, god of agriculture, bringer of seasons, and grandmother to protagonist Zagreus.
As well as adding a new character model and mechanics for players to use in their escape, she had to be slotted into the game’s existing narrative while also adding her own influence to the game’s story. Developers Supergiant Games had to bring together all of these different aspects in order for Demeter to join the rest of its dysfunctional godly family – but at first, she wasn’t planned at all.
“Demeter hadn’t really been in the running among gods we were eager to add,” explains writer and designer Greg Kasavin. “For one thing, I believe she would rank dead last in terms of ‘household name’ status among Olympians. After all, she's the goddess of agriculture... that's hardly as dramatic as lightning, war, or strategy. [And that theme] was not as clear a source of gameplay inspiration in the context of an action-oriented experience like ours.”
Demeter does play a large role in the myth of Hades and Persephone, which forms the basis of the game’s narrative. “In the myth, Persephone was Demeter's daughter, and Demeter understandably was not thrilled after her daughter suddenly disappeared,” Kasavin explains. “[At first], Demeter's role presented a number of significant story complications I was happy to avoid.”
However, Demeter remained stuck in Kasavin’s mind, and he began to see it as an opportunity. “The part where she's unpopular as an Olympian should not be driving our choices about which characters best serve the story, as that sort of thing has never been a factor in our story decisions. And the part where she doesn't seem interesting from a gameplay standpoint can be solved by considering her from a different point of view.”
Each god gives the player “boons” which improve their abilities on his path out of hell. When considering Demeter as an agricultural god, “We just thought of stuff like grasping vines slowing enemies down,” Kasavin explains. “Nothing too inspiring.”
Instead, they turned back to the source myth to reimagine her powers. “Demeter creates desolate winter while her daughter is away, then brings spring when her daughter returns. In plainer terms, we liked the idea of Demeter as an 'ice queen' type of character, providing powers over cold,” he says. “That's one of those classic fantasy-game archetypes we were excited to explore through the lens of our game. With our big cast of characters, having archetypal personalities as a starting point is important so you can immediately tell everyone apart.”
Kasavin explains that Hades is the closest opportunity that Supergiant has had to explore classic fantasy archetypes. “We don't see [common abilities like ice powers] as cliches, we see them as some of the vital building blocks of genres we deeply love, and we finally have a gameworld and context in which to explore them directly,” he says. But they still have a spin unique to Hades. “Her connection to agriculture and her bitter personality – a mother wounded by the loss of her daughter – gives us an angle on these powers.”
But the angle is only the beginning. Figuring out what abilities a god will actually confer on a player is a process that can involve the whole team.
“[Designer Amir Rao] and I pin [initial] ideas down and do a quick brainstorming pass with the rest of the team to jam out something like 50-or-so ideas,” explains technical designer Alice Lai. “Sometimes we approach things from a perspective of "what would feel cool and distinct" and strike out ideas that seem too same-y or too complicated.” She explains one such thought, where an enemy could be frozen in ice, stunning them but giving them damage resistance in return. “It's a very cool idea, but when we tried to break down how it fit in our combat flow it became too unwieldy,” she explains.
“The thing is, some of the adventurous ideas do always get through,” says Kasavin. To nod to Demeter’s agricultural associations, Lai and the team created a boon called Rare Crop, which resets another ability to a weaker state before increasing it slowly as the player progresses. “It's a way of trading off some of your current power level to get even stronger in the future, and sets up some uniquely interesting decisions that simply weren't in the game before,” Kasavin explains.
“The end result of [the iterative] process is about 15 strong concepts that I implement as a technical designer and which go through a final playtest and balancing pass,” Lai explains. “At this point any lingering issues are ironed out, though big changes are rare.”
“There's a lot of joy in seeing these disparate ideas weave together over the process of an update,” she adds.
The same kind of weaving happens when creating the character model for a new one of Hades’ gods. The collaboration is primarily between Kasavin and art director Jen Zee. “Jen really wants to understand a character deeply before creating their appearance. I provide her with that starting point, with written background information on the character, sample dialogue, notes on their tonality, ideas for visual cues, and so on. Jen will take that into consideration and do her thing,” Kasavin explains. “[Then] Jen's designs will often help refine my own understanding of the character, help crystalize a character's voice and so on.”
“Demeter was definitely one of the characters that strayed much further afield from what I think most players have in mind based on existing descriptions,” Zee says. “[But] the game's narrative provided key reasons to push her toward this icy, older woman – and story is king when creating a good character design! In spite of our confidence that she was right for the game, it was a relief to see her met with such positivity, as it's always a bit of a nailbiter when you go off the beaten path!”
The warm reception to Demeter does likely stem from her narrative importance, and the way Supergiant was careful to make her fit into the game’s existing story. “We had already introduced the idea of it being snowy winter on the surface, a detail that proved very compelling to our community, and begged for elaboration,” Kasavin notes. Then, they were careful to integrate her into the existing cast. “We didn't just add dozens of new events for Demeter alone – we also added events around her with Hades, Achilles, Poseidon, and many other characters, so that she feels like part of the world.”
Though Demeter wasn’t initially planned, she is a part of one of Supergiant’s key experiments with Hades. “Expanding the story as well as everything else while the game is in early access has been one of the joys of the process for us, and also one of the central hypotheses we wanted to test by pursuing this project at all: Can narrative work in an early access roguelike game?” Kasavin explains.
In some ways, the early access structure has been a benefit. “Having these [update] milestones every eight weeks or so keeps the pace of development plenty quick, and we also get immediate feedback on the results. The outcome is we've been able to iterate much more heavily on many aspects of the game than we could have on our past projects,” he says.
“The bigger lessons are ones we picked up going into this process, having studied and enjoyed a number of successful Early Access games, such as Darkest Dungeon, Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, and more. Some of those lessons include being as transparent as possible with where you're at in development via a development roadmap; having a clearly articulated and structured system for reporting bugs and providing feedback; making sure time is built into your schedule for promoting your updates; and finding the right rhythm for those updates for your team and game. Everyone also says your launch is only the beginning, and that's certainly been our experience, as well.”
“If the Fates are all right with it, I would really like to keep it up both on a personal level and as a team, and make sure we finish strong on this one, since we have come this far. For my part, I owe it to our players, our characters, and our team.”