I’ve played all of Supergiant’s three games, but I’m not entirely sure I’d call myself a fan. Bastion was good, but if you stripped out the exceptional art and ear-meltingly sexy old due narrator there wasn’t much to the gameplay itself. Transistor certainly improved the gameplay and gave us a world that had more uniqueness and originality in one fight scene than most of the Triple-A gaming world, but the narrator just lacked that oomph and the story was just so bleh I couldn’t bring myself to care that much.
But Pyre? Pyre is a masterpiece. Perhaps not as high in esteem as I would hold Dark Souls, Undertale, or Nier: Automata, but like those games, it used the medium of games to show me something that no other medium could have managed. However, unlike them, Pyre taught me something that doesn’t just extend to my real life… but my life as a gamer, enjoying games outside the genre that the game itself sits in.
I’ll try to avoid any major spoilers, but there will be some minor ones, so heads up on that.
The premise of Pyre is as unique and colorful as the rest of their games: you are a reader, someone capable of reading in a world where literacy is illegal. For your crime, you’ve been banished to a sort of purgatory with other outlaws. While the world is harsh and inhospitable, there’s only one true avenue of escape: the Rites, a 3-on-3 high fantasy basketball match where you have to grab a ball and dunk it into the enemy’s pyre until it’s extinguished. Through these rites, it’s possible to gain absolution, and escape your imprisonment… but it’s not possible for everyone. Only a few people can escape through the rites, and the rest, even those who helped their friends return to the world above, have to be left behind to spend out the rest of their lifetime sentences.
As a reader, you gather up a band of allies and compete in the rites, guiding them and helping them reach freedom, one at a time. It doesn’t matter how much you win, or how much you lose, the game continues, the only difference being who gets to leave and who stays behind. And therein lies the crux of what makes Pyre so unique.
See, as you travel, the bands of enemies you face in the Rites become quite familiar. You begin to learn of their stories, and their struggles, their relationship with the people in your party, and their reasons for wanting to escape their imprisonment (beyond the obvious, I mean). And while your relationship with them never grows stronger than the relationships you forge with your own party, you do begin to sympathize with their plights and their desire to be free. Complicating this is the fact that there is a “plan” in motion to overthrow the corrupt government that banished you in the first place: The Plan advances with every person who escapes, but some people are better at advancing it than others. It’s even possible that one of your enemies might be better at aiding this fledging rebellion than the people in your care.
Pyre never explicitly states the lesson it tries to teach, but through gameplay and sympathy, you begin to realize something as you participate in the rites: sometimes, you want to lose.
That’s an interesting little premise for a video game to have. Hardly the first, there have been games where the point was to “lose” before. But none of them exist quite in this sphere, or within the context. The only earlier examples I can think of are from RPG’s (where there are some bosses you can’t beat, and in losing you advance the plot) and The Con, a poorly-received fighting game where you made bets on the outcomes of each fight, and you could sneakily lose in order to maximize your profits.
This is a different ball of wax. In Pyre, you’re asked to look at the people in your care, who are trusting you to help them escape, and weigh them against your foes. Some are easy to brush aside and crush (and I mean easy, the game has a sudden difficulty spike in the middle but otherwise it’s pretty easy to get by) without a moment of guilt, but there are others: people who had been suffering for far longer, people with loved ones waiting for them at home, people who are kind and compassionate, people robbed of justice who don’t belong there.
Not all of your allies need to go. Not all of your enemies deserve to stay. And you find yourself wondering, if you were in that position, and you held that power, would you betray your friends to do the right thing, both for justice’s sake and the sake of this plan?
For what it’s worth, I threw a few games of Pyre. One, to give a team I liked a bit of an edge in the rankings, and another time to help one of the condemned escape the pit. Which meant one of my allies, another prisoner who also yearned for freedom, had to be left behind by the time the events of the game wrap up.
It’s a game that asks you to weigh performance with empathy. It’s a game that reminds you that any time you play a game, no matter the consequences, that the people you play against are human as well (or giants, or dogs, or birds), and have their own desire, and reason, to want to win.
The game lets you easily reset any Rite, so it’s possible and easy to win every single match. But the game asks, without literally asking: do you really want too?
Undertale gave me a much-needed reminder of how cool non-violence can be in a world where media glorifies it as “a necessary solution for a lot of problems”. NieR taught us that self-sacrifice can sometimes be its own reward. Dark Souls taught me that perseverance is the only true distinction between those who succeed in life and those who fail. And Pyre taught me that sometimes, it’s just nice to lose a game.
I’ll grant you, in most cases, that can be a bit difficult to pull off. To take an example from the MOBA I most frequently play, I might sympathize with my enemy team, who’s full of nice people who might be in the middle of their promos, and I might be willing to throw the match to throw them a bone… but then I’d also be throwing my own team under the bus, and that’s not cool. Maybe if you’re playing with friends, or you make an especially passionate plea, you could get them to surrender, but by and large the nicest thing you can do there is play honorably and give a respectable “Good game” at the end, for the sake of the people you were matched with.
But there’s no shortage of 1v1 games you could do this for. Hearthstone, for example. It’s fairly easy to tell when you’re playing against someone who doesn’t stand a chance, especially when the rankings does a soft reset at the start of every month. Throwing a match or two to help them get some backs and some extra steps forward could be an compassionate thing to do. In League of Legends, you might not be able to throw a game in-progress, but if you notice someone being a total jerk, you can spare your teammates the misery of playing with them by quitting during Champ Select, which will lose you some LP and net you a small-to-medium ban from playing in the future.
But you helped spare three other people (and yourself) from a terribly toxic player who might have thrown the game. That’s not nothing. It’s not exactly the nicest thing you can do in the world but it’s certainly a far bit kinder than most people would consider doing.
Pyre does an excellent job reminding people that there’s something intrinsically wrong about competitive games. You both put something on the line, and you both have something to lose if you should fail. Most of the times, it’s not as obvious as it is in Pyre, and it can be hard in real life to tell if the person you’re facing is just one loss away from putting their fist in the wall. But still, if you should find yourself in a situation where you have to weigh the happiness of a stranger vs your win-loss ratio, Pyre nudges you into thinking that maybe, serving your fellow man in even this small way is worth adding a big fat extra 1 to the end of that loss tally.
You have no idea how much that win might mean to the person you’re playing against. But you can rest easy knowing you lost by choice, so you can weigh the value of that loss on your life much easier.
So yeah, play Pyre already. In case it wasn’t clear, it’s very, very, very good.