Over time, playing Hades becomes a ritual — there’s a cadence to moving through the underworld and beating the same enemies over and over again. You start to expect things to work in a certain way, especially after hours of play time. So when the game suddenly darkens to the clang of a faraway bell, it feels ominous.
You’ve never seen this before, and by this point, you’ve probably put many hours into the game. What’s happening? And then he appears: death incarnate, scythe in hand. Thanatos. Oh shit, you might think. Who is this? Am I going to have to fight him? I’m not prepared for this! But just as you’re mentally preparing for an ass whooping, he hits you with a surprising piece of dialogue.
“You left, without so much as telling me good-bye,” he says. “I suppose you knew I’d catch up to you sooner or later, is that it? No escaping death, and all?”
I came to Hades late, so by the time I met Thanatos, I had already been exposed to much of the shipping and fan art on social media. I took Thanatos’ reproach as the words of a jilted lover who was pissed that Zagreus, the protagonist, was trying to leave him behind. Spicy!
Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin told Polygon that the dialogue wasn’t meant to signify that the two had an existing romantic relationship prior to the events of the game, though it can develop that way over time. Zagreus, Kasavin said in a phone interview, “didn’t have a lot of friends” save for Thanatos when he was growing up. But Zagreus’ escape attempts are a “catalyst for for their feelings intensifying,” he said.
But regardless of how you interpret that introduction, it’s evocative. Despite only being a few lines, you get the sense that there’s history there, and Zagreus has a little reason to feel guilty.
“A good story is one that makes you imagine, much more than is there in the story itself,” Kasavin says. Subtext in this case is more powerful than the actual text. But Thanatos isn’t just memorable because of a few lines. It’s what happens next that really seals the deal. Whenever you meet a new character in the field, you gear up for a fight. Except in this case, Thanatos appears, chastises you for being a jerk, and then challenges you to a competition. No other encounter in the game works this way.
Technically, he’s there to help you beat the wave of enemies that Hades, your father, sends after you. But the game also keeps track of how many enemies Zagreus kills versus Thanatos. And when the battle begins, the stakes feel high — Thanatos is a beast.
“He just deals kind of the classic 9,999 Final Fantasy [damage]” Kasavin said. Even worse, it can be an area of effect that simply makes enemies vanish. Keeping up with the god of death is no easy feat. Sometimes you do. And other times, Thanatos wipes the floor with Zagreus.
Whatever happens, though, the dynamic between the two remains juicy and charged. You want to beat this guy, but also, maybe you want to kiss this guy. There’s something inherently hot and audacious about trying to show up death itself.
Thanatos, Kasavin said, was one of the earliest characters they put into the game, and one of the ones that changed the least over development. Part of what made him exciting, he said, was that there’s little out there in existing myth regarding Thanatos, which left the team at Supergiant fertile ground to build upon. What we do know is that Thanatos is supposed to be “peaceful death,” which is why the team tapped voice actor Chris Saphire to portray a more “gentle” version of the grim reaper.
To meet him, the player has to reach Elysium, realm of the champions, which is one of the later portions of Hades. The other prerequisite is beating Meg the Fury enough times that her sisters start to appear as well. The idea, Kasavin said, is that Meg has failed at her job enough times that Hades calls in reinforcements, so that word of Zagreus’ escape attempts reach Thanatos. But there’s also only a 50% chance Thanatos will appear during a run, meaning that some fans can put tons of time before ever meeting him. While potentially frustrating, the rarity is intentional.
“From a gameplay standpoint, the thing that was really exciting was this idea that this character could just drop in on you at any point,” Kasavin said. “Because normally with the game structure, you go from chamber to chamber and and you kind of know what to expect, right? Because you choose your reward.”
“But with a roguelike game,” he continued later in the conversation, “you want there to be that variety, you don’t want it to get too predictable.” Kasavin said the team looked toward the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, which features a competition between Gimli and Legolas, as inspiration for the encounter with Thanatos.
Whatever the outcome of the bout, Thanatos will say something broody and then disappear. He can show up again during other runs, but there’s never a guarantee. Part of that design choice hails from Supergiant’s wider attempt to portray characters who have lives beyond that of the protagonist. But it’s also just an effective device that leaves fans wondering.
“We conveniently gave him his teleport-away-in-an-instant ability so that he can just kind of leave in a huff, and leave conversations hanging,” Kasavin said. The player is left wanting more because, at all times, Thanatos makes you feel as if there’s “unfinished business with him.”
No surprise, then, that Zagreus and Thanatos are the most popular pairing within the fandom. Hell, I’d go so far as to say that Thanatos is one of the most memorable encounters I’ve ever had in a video game. No small feat, given how quickly Thanatos instills a sense of allure and mystique to Hades.
“I had a suspicion that players would kind of get attached to him,” Kasavin said.