There Is No Escape: On Supergiant’s “Hades”

By Vivian LamDecember 17, 2022

There Is No Escape: On Supergiant’s “Hades”
WHEN SUPERGIANT officially released Hades in September 2020, the state of the world wasn’t very far from the literal burning hellscape of the game. Zagreus, the discontented prince of the Underworld, seeks to run away from a home where he’s never felt he belonged — a quest that quickly proves futile, as he is killed over and over again and forced to restart where he began. In many respects, it’s no surprise that a game about repeatedly attempting to escape from a violent, labyrinthine hell from which there is no escape (as one fan noted) continues to strike a chord for many.

But the appeal of Hades lies less in its offer of escapist fantasy than in the way it forces players to confront everything they seek to escape in endless, recursive loops. And it is in the very act of repeated confrontation, the game argues, that survival in the absence of escape becomes possible.


In his Theory of the Novel, literary critic György Lukács attributes the genesis of the novel to the loss of the closed totality of the Homeric epic. He describes antiquity as an era where objective reality could be portrayed “as it is” because there was no disconnect between the self and the world. Divinity had left its fingerprints on every part of materiality, and total understanding of this immanence wasn’t necessary — just full acceptance.

As such, individuals did not need to create meaning or project their will onto the external world. Agency existed, but only to the extent that it was ultimately by one’s own choices that a foretold outcome would inevitably be realized. Hector and Achilles, while keenly aware of the prophecy spelling out their doom, go to battle anyway because it is the only way forward. Even Odysseus, who circumvents misfortune through sheer cleverness, obeys the laws of fate in playing by the rules.

But in the modern era, Lukács argues, this sense of cohesion has been lost. The gods have abandoned their posts, the oracles have died, and the threads of fate have worn thin. Individual life, culture, and society are no longer inseparable — more often than not, they’re at odds with each other. There has been a shift from experiencing and accepting the world “as it is” to constantly yearning for a world as it “should be.”

Lukács diagnoses this condition of alienation as “transcendental homelessness” — lacking a sense of unifying totality, individuals are haunted by an “urge to be at home everywhere” that is impossible to achieve. There is a mismatch between inner perception and the reality that the indifferent and often hostile external world offers. Seeking to reconcile this dissonance does not lessen the feeling of being unmoored — rather, it is exacerbated by continued failure to find tethering ground in the lonely quest to make the self and the external world fully legible to each other once again.

Hades, in its distinctly modern yet self-contained revival of ancient myth, embodies this conflict between the epic and the novel — between the rigid certainty of an essentialist reality and the terrifying boundlessness of a socially constructed one. The Underworld is a place where function and identity are treated as one and the same: duty and purpose are inborn, and unstinting adherence to assigned office is the status quo. Though Hades has the trappings of immanence, including a checklist of prophecies and a portal to meet the progenitor of the universe themself, there is yet a need to forge and extract significance from the sheer fact of existence. If Zagreus exists only as a favor from the Fates — revived by rewriting destiny itself, yet without clear domain or function — then how immutable can the Underworld truly be? If even the gods have limits to their understanding of and ability to shape the world, then how can they be the sole arbiters of what is and isn’t possible? Even a closed totality, when pushed towards its limits, will reveal sewn edges and gaps in the seams.

For some, including Zagreus, the solution to this dissonance is not to search for what’s been lost but to abandon what’s left and escape to an entirely new world altogether.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of stories premised on the multiverse — the existence of an infinite number of universes where one change, be it on the scale of a single choice or wholesale narrative genre, results in an infinite number of possible lives for any given individual. Multiverses offer comfort by proposing that no chance or option is wasted — consolation in the reassurance that you are not truly alone in the choices you make.

Ultimately, using the same principle that drives time loops and time travel, multiverses seek to solve the dilemma of being stuck in the worst timeline. If the present is lost to us, surely there must have been a kinder one we were able to make a home in? If the future is damned, surely there must be a way to reverse the mistake that turned the story into a tragedy?


Asphodel, environment from Hades.

Zagreus is trying to escape to a world where he no longer has to prove his worth or question his right to exist. But his journey ultimately confronts us with a hard truth: What if this is all there is? What if there are no kinder worlds or habitable planets, no infinite do-overs or second chances? What if there is no escape, no matter how hard you try?

While Hades takes place in the stable, meaning-granting world of Homeric epic that Lukács describes, its unyielding totality becomes a prison because Zagreus dreams of an impossible reality he earnestly hopes can be realized. Hades, the father of Zagreus, represents the domineering institutions of power that foreclose other possibilities of living and reify the status quo — the “final boss” that, once slain, should free the hero and everyone else from his reign. But even Hades is as incapable of leaving as his son; they are both metaphysically bound to the Underworld by their very nature.

As the game notes, while eternity may offer infinite time to solve any number of problems, it also means they cannot be escaped. As it were, Hades seemingly offers only two solutions to this dilemma: confrontation or resignation, each as futile as the other.


Zagreus is billed as a power fantasy — edgy and suave, rebellious and resentful, he’s the antihero who mercilessly hacks and slashes through his foes with a sarcastic quip ready at the edge of his perfect teeth. How could he repeatedly brave the Underworld’s horrors and regularly commit patricide were he not fueled by some amount of confidence and spite?

It’s quickly made clear in playing the game itself, however, that Zagreus’ most salient trait is his kindness: he’s a “soft-spoken prince,” good-natured and self-deprecating. He succeeds in his endeavors by asking for and accepting aid. He maintains a sweetness and generosity that earn him a retinue of friends and far fewer enemies than one would expect when violently slicing a path through hell.

But so much of the fanwork around Hades centers not on Zagreus’ resilience but his vulnerabilities: the loneliness of not belonging; the desperation of feeling trapped; the despair of knowing there is no true escape from his home, his family, or himself. Fans imagine moments when the futility of his efforts finally sinks in, and the act of dying itself becomes the goal.

A fan comic by @dirtcup_art envisions Zagreus confessing that, although he’s been able to see the surface, he still feels trapped. There is nowhere he wants to be and nowhere he can go, and he is addicted to dying. He is afraid of his father and the eternity that lies before him, and he fears that dying is all he deserves.

At its most hopeful, Zagreus’ undying death and rebirth makes him the god of blood and life — a symbol of reinvention, connection, and vitality. And at its most tragic, Zagreus’ predicament is an allegory of depression and abuse. What does it mean for a god to die and die and die again, at the hands of his own family in his own home? A god who bleeds red like a mortal, with no power or purpose beyond a drive to escape the inescapable and seek the harm that comes with it?

At its core, Hades is a story about the particular cruelties only those closest to you can inflict. In that vein, artist @spiderbirdo created the fan comic Mortal Coil to work through her own strained relationship with her parents. In it, she explores the consequences of Zagreus severing his divinity to become mortal. Those he leaves behind chase after each human version of him that dies, each of the bereaved grieving in their own way. He successfully reunites with his birth parents but causes deep hurt to those who cared for him in their absence.

These themes especially resonate for some queer and trans fans. Hades has been celebrated for its representation of queerness, drawing a large LGBTQ following for it. But perhaps the draw is that although it’s a kinder world for queerness, it still isn’t a particularly fair one for anything else. A joke among fans is that while Zagreus’ father might not bat an eye at him being bisexual, polyamorous, and/or trans, he will still find plenty of other reasons to reproach and rebuke him. Zagreus might not have to worry about his gender or sexuality, but he is still haunted by a feeling that he will never truly belong or be happy because of some fundamental part of who he is. By obviating nominal identity, Hades gets at the heart of what hurts most about its disavowal: being made to question whether you were meant to exist at all; being forced to compromise between fixed notions of what you “should” be and your own self-knowledge and will to be your truest self; and having to make the difficult choice to abandon the good parts of home because you can no longer bear the bad. 

The song that plays during the “credits” of the game, “In the Blood,” is exultant despite the fatalism of its message. As Zagreus and his mother Persephone willingly return to the place they’ve sought to leave, the story’s ultimate message is sung: you are born to a life that isn’t truly your own, and no matter how far you try to run from your origins, they will always be coursing beneath your skin. In other words — there is no escape.

But the place Zagreus and Persephone return to isn’t the same one they left. Though Zagreus’ deaths are ephemeral, the consequences of his words and actions are not. With over 300,000 words of dialogue, arguably the most compelling and fundamental part of the game isn’t so much the goal of escape as it is the building and mending of relationships.

While forging bonds with the various denizens of the Underworld and Olympus isn’t absolutely necessary to “beat” the game, it’s key to driving the narrative forward. This includes not just the central epilogue where Hades and Persephone reconcile with the rest of the family pantheon but also the many other tragedies of Greek myth that end in death without closure. Zagreus has the option of reuniting Achilles with his lover Patroclus and reconciling Orpheus with his former wife Eurydice. He can free Sisyphus from his eternal punishment, and reconnect Nyx with her parent Chaos. And he can repair his own romantic ties with Thanatos and Megaera, mending the hurt of his departure and old wounds that haven’t healed.

Hades himself has changed, as have the rest of the denizens of the Underworld — not so much that they’ve transformed the essence of who they are, but enough to have made room for the possibility of reconciliation and closure. A space has opened that may not offer true comfort or ease but has the capacity to hold love without exacting a price — a home that may one day be made by choice rather than by resignation. While it’s not perfect, and far from what it “should be,” it might be as close to a kinder world as one can possibly get.


The triumph with which Hades eventually declares its motto, “There is no escape,” is puzzling. It doesn’t make sense to find joy in being stuck in a place that strips you of your ability to live fully, or to derive victory from progress that just as easily turns into failure.

In some respects, Hades is a particularly masochistic exercise in futility — a story about a god fighting his way out of all he’s ever known only to find that the world outside is just as inhospitable. At the end of the narrative, Zagreus becomes the Underworld’s “security tester” to further ensure the impossibility of escape, rendering his discontent into a function that only serves to reinforce his imprisonment. He is still left to dream of a different world he may never be able to fully realize.

But in other respects, Hades is an absurdist take on finding meaning in the sheer effort of survival — a story about making and repairing relationships once condemned to fail and finding purpose in the endless quest of dismantling an unjust system that precedes you and will inevitably continue after you, and a demonstration of making incremental changes that won’t solve the problem but might make it a little easier to bear for those you care about.

To be able to dream of escape — of one day being able to leave and find a better place where you can finally feel safe and whole — is essential for survival. And successfully escaping from life-limiting circumstances is not something anyone should be begrudged of. But these places of safety and potentiality are shrinking, and it’s only becoming harder and more treacherous to reach those places of imagined sanctuary.


The surface, environment from Hades.

When fleeing is not an option, inescapability becomes a calling card for resistance. Because the solution to transcendental homelessness is not to dedicate your life to searching for a longed-for place of belonging, but to create it yourself — to realize your own capacity for divinity by giving the boon of your devotion and care to those who matter most to you; by honing the resources at your disposal to articulate and actualize a place that expands to accept, rather than to further confine; by asking for and accepting the help needed to become your own savior, and to answer a call for help when no one else will. 

Unlike Zagreus, mortals don’t have unlimited time and tries to get things right. But the fact that you cannot escape your one life makes it even more imperative to survive by subverting the very forces that seek to limit and contain you. To leverage futility as a tool rather than a condemnation to failure — to reconfigure inevitability into that which undergirds the drive for transformational change.

There is no escape — and that may be the beginning of liberation.


Vivian Lam is a writer, editor, and unrepentant shower singer. They currently serve as the assistant health and biomedicine editor at The Conversation US and can be found at

LARB Contributor

Vivian Lam is the assistant health and biomedicine editor for The Conversation US. They previously worked as a clinical researcher in thoracic and geriatric oncology and dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. They can be found at


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