February 4, 2023

Melinoë and a witchy companion look up to a moon.

Screenshot: Supergiant Games / Kotaku

When I played Bastion in high school it was the first time I felt that American video games could be art. Most of the games I knew were openly concerned with how efficiently I could kill a living creature, or their color palettes were a horrible combination of brown and gray. Bastion stood out as a beautiful dungeon crawler with an earworm of a soundtrack. I was similarly rewarded when I bought the next release from creator Supergiant Games, Transistor. The poignant image of dystopia had me crying until five in the morning in my dorm. I was heartbroken when I realized that none of these games would ever get a sequel.

The developers have previously stated in Job interviews that they didn’t want to make sequels for money. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to the world of [Bastion]but if we do, it will be at a time when the team wants to do that more than anything,” Supergiant writer Greg Kasavin told Eurogamer. “It can’t just be a financially motivated decision because it isn’t Bastion was created in the first place.”

“Supergiant doesn’t make sequels” became a salve for fans who had hoped their favorite games would get more love and attention. Supergiant was better than those crass studios that made “unnecessary” games for money. Making commercial art has always been about compromise. These developers seemed to be that rare group of creatives that stood above those little mortals. Fans admired them for it and hoped that this rebellious streak would continue as long as the studio made games.

Then Supergiant was released Hades in 2020, a roguelike that shattered all of the company’s previous sales records, hitting one million copies sold almost immediately after it went from Early Access to full release. It garnered universal critical acclaim (its Metacritical score currently sits at a 93) and had the glitziest awards tour an indie game could hope for. It was undeniably the most successful game the studio had ever released redefined the roguelike genre. Not only was it a fun and stylish game, it also showed that American developers could find mainstream success in two stigmatized genres: visual novels and roguelikes. Besides gaming, it is the first video game to use a Hugo award. Hades is the real star not only of indie games, but perhaps of the creative potential of all video games.

Still, the mythology of the non-sequel Supergiant remained ubiquitous. Many of its most devoted fans simply didn’t think such a huge mainstream success would change the ethos of a studio that valued artistry over recognition or money. So it came as a utter one shock until a lot (including the Kotaku staffers watching trailers in the office) when Hades II was announced Bee The game prizes.

Hades II – Reveal Trailer

Most Hades fans were happywhile some Supergiant dies who also loved the game were appalled at what they saw was one departure of the studios independent mind. Both the gameplay and the story were similar Hades, which isn’t how the studio usually approaches game design. Even the name seemed an open capitulation to the realities of marketing this tweet suggests. As the developers of the daring original Pyre could surrender to the lure of money and success, what hope was there for the rest of the games industry? Last night was not just a party of Hades II. It was a mourning period for fans who held Supergiant to impossible standards.

Even the official FAQ in front of Hades II nods at this concern:

With each of our projects over the years, we have strived to take on a new challenge that tested our team’s creativity and taught us more about how we can make games together. One of those challenges that we spent a lot of time thinking about was trying to make a sequel that could somehow regain the sense of wonder and delight of its predecessor. Some of our favorite games of all time have achieved this! The question is, can we?

The quote sheds some light on Supergiant’s official stance on sequels. They will make sequels if they find the challenge creative enough. The game definitely looks and sounds like the first one Hades, but it also doesn’t even have a release date yet. Despite the impressions evoked by the reveal trailer, it’s quite possible that the game feel will be very different from that of the first game, or that it will be packed with surprises and innovations that we don’t see coming.

What if it isn’t? What if the developers simply chose an IP that will reliably print money? I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean that the developers will never work on their own original projects again. Supergiant prides itself on being self-funded, and perhaps the financial stability of Hades II will enable them to create another new world. Every indie game you’ve ever played has been shaped by its financial circumstances. Just because developers didn’t advertise which features were dropped for budgetary reasons doesn’t mean those cuts and compromises didn’t happen. Even the classic Supergiant titles you loved were always tainted with dirty profit. That’s why they played so well and looked so damn good.

Kotaku contacted Supergiant to ask if the success of Hades contributed to the decision to make a sequel, and received no response at time of publication.

Supergiant Games is held to a high standard because of the way it presents itself to the public. The marketing copy is conversational, the community strategy relies heavily on word of mouth, and the studio is conscientious about limiting its public appearances. But the studio isn’t a band born out of someone’s garage. The co-founders were veteran developers at EA, and Bastion used to be published by the entertainment giant Warner Bros. Connections and money have always been a core part of what made Supergiant’s games so successful. Does it detract from the artistic achievements of those games? Absolutely not.

But it’s important to be clear about what it actually means to be an “independent studio.” It means existing in a volatile space where developers don’t know if their employer will exist in a few years. It means making concessions and pretending they were all intentional. It means carrying the weight of gaming’s artistic soul, even if you never asked for it in the first place. And I just don’t think it’s fair to hold a studio to rigid expectations based on how a developer felt about their games in 2012. Ten years have passed and the gaming industry is significantly different than it was then. Supergiant need not carry the creative torch. There are so many fascinating and unique games made by shoddy studios that you’ve never heard of. It’s time we try to discover some instead of holding Supergiant to fanciful expectations.

There is no such thing as an indie studio that does not adhere to the material conditions of the industry. So I’m not mourning what Supergiant Games could have been. I’m glad I had the chance to play such a game Transistor not at all. It was always a miracle that Supergiant could be what it was for so long. Some studios seem to produce more miracles than others. I just hope so Hades II remains one of them.

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