This is the fifth post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
In the 2018 hit video game Hades, players step into the role of Zagreus, the charismatic son of the Greek god Hades, as he tries to escape the ever-shifting labyrinth of the underworld and reach the surface. The game is beloved in part for the creators’ decision to make everyone in the game attractive. But the characters’ hotness is not the only reason fans have flocked to this game—the valuing and centering of queerness has also invited an audience that rarely feels catered to in the gaming industry.
The landscape of Hades is punishing, as the dungeons of roguelike role-playing games often are. The game world aims to kill the player over and over again as they fight their way out of the underworld’s three levels: brutalist Tartarus, lava-flooded Asphodel, and the wild gardens and crumbling ruins of Elysium. In spite of this hellish landscape, the game builds possibilities for hope, affection, and respite into Zagreus’s harrowing journey.
One of the most engaging of these side stories is the chance to reunite Achilles and Patroclus, lovers and fellow soldiers who have been separated in death. Through his encounters with Patroclus out in the fields of Elysium, Zagreus can help reshape both the landscapes and the player’s experience of the underworld by nurturing an undying queer love. If the player chooses to help the couple, Patroclus’s glade transforms into calm and healing space amidst the chaos of the player’s run. Its unruly garden becomes a place of queer perseverance.
The game reveals Achilles and Patroclus’s love story slowly. The pair—who loved each other in life—have been separated in death. Although Achilles was fated to spend a hero’s eternity in Elysium, when he learned that Patroclus had not earned the honor of entering Elysium and would instead spend his afterlife in the flames of Asphodel, he signed a contract with Hades to prevent this terrible fate: Achilles agreed to work in Hades’s house and to never see Patroclus again. Patroclus got to spend his days in Elysium, but he would never know what happened to his lover. The player can learn this history one piece at a time by unveiling snippets of Achilles’s writings as they interact with various elements of the game.
When Zagreus first meets Patroclus, however, he knows nothing of this sadness—in fact, the player does not even learn the dead hero’s name at first. Patroclus is not violent, like the other dead souls in Elysium, but he is cold and bitter. On their initial meeting, Zagreus says, “I’m just passing through. You seem less warlike than the rest. May I ask your name? I’m Zagreus.” Patroclus responds, “Names are there to be forgotten, stranger.”
Later, Zagreus asks: “Is something wrong, there, sir? I mean shouldn’t you be up and about, competing for eternal pride and glory and all that?” Patroclus responds: “What’s the use? Let’s say we fought, if anybody asks. Now, go. I’ve no quarrel with you, besides. I’ll just remain here, comfortably at rest, for some untold millennia, I guess. Have a nice… whatever time it is.” For much of the game the player’s journey through Elysium and into Patroclus’s glade is a reminder of the cruelty of death.
On one hand, it seems as if the landscape of Patroculus’s reflects its inhabitant’s sadness and longing. After escaping the hellfire of Asphodel, the fields of Elysium are initially a welcome sight to players. Soon though it becomes apparent that the green grasses and clear waters are even more oppressive and dangerous than the hellfire. When fighting the shades in Elysium, for example, the player must kill the shades of warriors twice, and giant balls of pink butterflies deal damage that is hard to escape. Deep in the crumbling gardens of Elysium sits Patroclus’s glade. There, surrounded by the river Lethe, which grants drinkers the erasure of their memories from life, sits the lone shade in his sorrow.
Queer care, love, and perseverance changes Hades by altering the mechanics, the look, and the experience of being in the game world.
Elysium’s design evokes an unkempt garden. Cut stone pathways are encroached by overgrown lawns, and topiaries in golden containers spill over the edge. It is abundance and excess lost in itself. Soft grasses are not a comfort—as they are intended—but a prison that separates Patroclus from his lover and a place built to honor greatness too narrowly defined. As Patroclus laments to himself as Zagreus enters his glade one day: “What qualifies a man to this eternity in so-called paradise? Even in death, there is no justice. I knew so many peaceful, decent men, but none of course are here. Instead, it is the warriors. The kings. The slayers. Great men? The standard for greatness is low, indeed.”
For Patroclus, this ostensibly perfect afterlife is a ruin, a cage, and a hollow mockery of the love he had but can no longer find—this is an afterlife he would never have seen had Achilles not signed the contract with Hades. His refusal to drink from Lethe is a bold declaration of love in sorrow, a love that must not be forgotten.
Zagreus learns more about the couple by gifting them nectar from Olympus, which he finds while traveling the underworld. After Zagreus is gifted the story of their love in exchange, Patroclus entrusts him with a message for Achilles: “Risk it all.” These were the words the two shared shortly before their deaths, and it is the phrase that spurs Achilles to action. On this side quest, Zagreus locates the contract (with the help of Nyx, the goddess of night) and pays five diamonds (a rare and difficult to earn currency in the game) to alter its terms and reunite the great hero Achilles with his love.
When the couple is reunited, the player’s experience of the glade changes. Instead of silence, Zagreus is occasionally greeted by laughter as the lovers share space and time again. Patroclus, no longer sitting bent over and despondent, stands strong and tall. After the pair are reunited Zagreus can even begin to call on them in times of need and they will help him take down difficult foes. No longer a prison keeping Patroclus in, his glade begins to become a sanctuary keeping the violent shades out. The cool waters of Lethe hide fishing spots instead of memories. The disordered abundance in the gardens of Elysium suggests hope and possibility, a dandelion growing between cracks in the sidewalk.
Queer game studies is about more than studying the queerness of games; it is about looking at games through a queer lens. Playing as characters whose queerness is a key part of their identity is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and even in games like Hades there is more to its queerness than the relationships nurtured by characters. As we’ve seen, queer care, love, and perseverance changes Hades by altering the mechanics, the look, and the experience of being in the game world.
Patroclus and Achilles are not the only queer folks in Hades, and despite my focus on Patroclus’s glade in this post, it is not the only space shaped by queer love and longing. Queerness is everywhere. I look forward to seeing more virtual natures that recognize the queerness that is already a part of the reproductions of the environments that exist around us. Digital natures can make space for the beautiful and the strange, as Hades makes room for a love that was lost and now finds shelter in an unruly garden.
Featured image: The lush gardens of Elysium. Image from Hades Wiki on Fandom.
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