Rating: E10+ for Fantasy Violence, Tobacco Reference, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol
Available for: Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux
This post will contain some minor spoilers for Pyre.
I didn’t expect to play another game by Supergiant Games so soon after Transistor, but with hearing all the buzz about the recently released Pyre (2017), I knew I had to try it out for myself. Once again, I found myself enthralled by the beautiful art style and music that Supergiant Games continues to deliver and was ready for the story that was about to unfold.
Pyre is the story of exiles banished to the Downside after being marked guilty of crimes committed in the Commonwealth. You, the player, are a character in the game, newly exiled and deemed Reader as one of the few with literacy skills (something banned in the Commonwealth) and are given the responsibility of guiding your fellow exiles in a tradition called the Rites. These Rites are the key to freedom from the Downside and returning to the Commonwealth, where this feat is rewarded with a high ranking position in the Commonwealth. Your companions are called the Nightwings and have been instructed by a mysterious contact to find more companions to “fit each of the masks” used in the Rites. On your journey, you encounter different triumvirates who are also seeking Liberation as the Rites seem to be quickly coming to a permanent end.
Ultimately, Pyre’s story centers around the question: what does freedom mean to each character? And in a story that focuses heavily on different definitions of freedom, there is a surprising amount of emphasis placed on the player’s decision or rather, judgement. Being an integrated character, you are to be the deciding factor of who should be set free first, and as you progress through the game, your companions will reveal more about themselves to help you make your decision. More or less of certain character arcs were revealed based on what order you decided to set people free, provided that you managed to win that particular Liberation Rite. That mechanic, the fact that the story could and would move on even if you failed a match, made Pyre especially interesting. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to gaming, so the fact that the game would move on even in failure felt like getting a bad grade on a test and realizing it would affect your final score. However, unlike test grades, failing a match didn’t necessarily mean you would get a “bad ending,” it would just affect particular characters’ final endings.
Choosing who would be granted Liberation ended up being a tricky business, much more so than expected. Pyre takes the time to examine each character in the game, even your opponents, and in doing so, it highlights how each character has different desires for what they want their life to look like. The problem is: you find out fairly early on that there are a limited amount of Liberation Rites before they would be finally over for good, meaning that not all of your companions were going to make it out. Moreover, Liberation meant you could not use that companion ever again to play out a Rite, even if you do favor their Abilities over another’s. So, do you make the decisions based on emotion, especially when some of your companions ask you to be set free? Or do you make the selfish decision based on who is more useful in a Rite? To make matters more difficult, finding out more information on your opponents and their respective reasons for exile meant you could intentionally throw the match in order for you opponent to be set free, a decision I contended with a couple of times. All of these considerations put you in the uncomfortable situation of evaluating everyone’s reasons for freedom and making that final call. There is a third, story-specific reason for deciding who should be Liberated, because you also participate in a Plan to overthrow the Commonwealth and their oppressive regime. So who will be more beneficial to the revolution once back on the Commonwealth side?
With a Plan set to fight for everyone’s freedom in the Commonwealth, the player was reminded that the Nightwings were not just looking out for themselves. Yes, they each had their own goals, but they were not so blinded by their desires that they would fall easily back into the system that exiled them in the first place. They realized that something had to change, not just for them but for everyone else in the Commonwealth and the future generations that would come. It was a good way for the story to come together and also unite the Nightwings more solidly. Each character was very different, but they found companionship in each other, making each Liberation Rite more difficult than the last. Another interesting point was the fact that at the Gates before the Liberation Rites, each companion had to state their purpose, something that could also potentially influence the player’s ultimate choices. Realizing that not all of the Nightwings would be leaving the Downside, considerations for what staying in the Downside meant for the characters also took effect. At this point, the player also had to decide who could potentially be happy staying in this exile. Fortunately for the player, not everyone wanted to return to the Commonwealth, preferring their freedoms in the Downside.
Pyre is a story that illustrates what it means to be free by describing a course for unified freedom and while also defining it differently within each main character. The characters have a common goal of overturning the Commonwealth, showing that when the Nightwings fight for freedom, they fight for freedom for all. These same characters also have their own personal goals, what they would like to do once obtaining freedom. Making the player a central character serves to make this responsibility more personal and more emotional, but at times still reminding the player that game mechanics such as Abilities might also be in contention with their emotional decisions. There is no “True Ending” for Pyre, meaning that this is no true “right answer” for characters’ fates (though some might be better than others). This game is not meant to be so black and white, something that is reinforced by each of the varied, personal endings characters have: freedom can be found in many different ways. I enjoyed Pyre immensely, particularly for its ability to force the player into making uncomfortable decisions while still emphasizing the themes of their story, and I definitely recommend it!