revolution

Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

I can’t recall a sports video game that captures the feelings that develop before and after a team-based contest like Pyre does. Although the rules and intricacies of Pyre’s fictional sport are fascinating, developer Supergiant Games’ greatest accomplishment lies in how it subverts role-playing game conventions to up the emotional ante and affect roster options, as when two party members, due to bad blood, refuse to compete at the same time. By the conclusion of this game, you take away a deeply personal win-loss record that can have world-altering effects on Pyre’s fantasy setting, including one possibility that speaks to a compelling type of political resistance.

As the mysterious Reader (think head coach), you lead a group of exiles on a mission to win Rites, three-on-three competitions where the object is to throw an orb into the opposing team’s fiery goal until the fire is extinguished. Every so often, a team member has an opportunity to return home to the Commonwealth, a place of prosperity, by winning what the game calls a Liberation Rite. Once a character is freed from exile, he or she is effectively retired and can no longer play on your team.

The catch is that only characters who have been leveled up a particular amount can be eligible for liberation. This rule means that if you stick to a favorite trio to increase your odds of winning Rites, you will have to do without a preferred athlete permanently if you are the victor of a Liberation Rite — an ingenious punishment for following the old RPG standard of leveling up with abandon. This set-up creates questions about how your strategy must change after you lose an essential piece of your team (a parallel might be losing, say, Kevin Durant to season-ending injury). Pyre forces you to learn how to use characters who seem less appropriate for your system. As such, the game works as a believable simulation of maximizing talent as a coach, with all the pride and frustration that comes with the job between significant matches.

At the same time, you are not required to win matches in Pyre. Here, the game deviates again from the norm: in most RPGs, losing a battle means you can’t progress. But Pyre continues even when you lose, which can set up a variety of emotionally charged situations. Before one Liberation Rite, one of your team members may plead with you to allow the opposition to win, as her sister plays for the other team and has an opportunity to be forgiven of her past misdeeds. In another case, if you win and choose to liberate a character before he has an opportunity to fulfill a promise to friends, you will be told about his guilt, so losing in that case might seem more fulfilling. Or what if you win every Rite with the exception of contests against a specific team? You then become acquainted with a nagging status that the New England Patriots must bear: a dynasty that nonetheless can’t defeat its archenemy (in the Patriots’ case, the New York Giants). With a storytelling fervor inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Supergiant Games homes in on the friendships, rivalries, and other connections that make sports a lesson in theater and psychology.

Prye’s emphasis on motivation and ego shines the brightest with a character named Volfred Sandalwood. At first, Volfred seems like nothing more than an intelligent control freak, as he goes on and on about you and your team fitting into a plan to overthrow the powers that be in the Commonwealth, so that no other person will have to suffer the injustice of being exiled. But as your journey develops, Volfred develops humility under your authority. By game’s end, you can choose to set Volfred free, and if you do, the Commonwealth undergoes a nonviolent intellectual revolution. This fantasy scenario stands opposed to the adolescent hero-ball resistance presented in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, showcasing how rules-based competition can change society via individuals who inspire unity by speaking truth to power.

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Female Protagonists: How An Indie Revolution May Never Happen

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: “AAA” is in quotation marks throughout this piece because of its presumption of high quality.

I have no great expectations for Ubisoft — or any other “AAA” company, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I want big-budget games to be good, especially the ones that I spend money on. But I have zero faith that a “AAA” game will inspire a revolution in regard to any worthwhile or interesting idea.

Anyone who keeps up with game writing knows that “AAA” female protagonists is a highly discussed topic. This discussion often comes in three forms:

1. Some people say a “AAA” game should have a female protagonist for purposes of representation and/or a new approach to a series. In response, some people say the company/developers/artists should have the freedom to do what they want with protagonists, while others dismiss the concern about female protagonists as something not worth thinking about, sometimes via insults and generally immature attitudes. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which was announced by Ubisoft at E3 (which has gone from a necessary informative event that excited me as a youngster to the most annoying game-related thing of the year that clogs up my Twitter feed, generally rendering any attempt to talk about games outside of a marketing context as futile, unwanted, and irrelevant). Even Time featured an article about the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

2. Some people say a “AAA” game needs to handle its female protagonist in a different way. In response, some people do the exact same thing I described above. Others argue that perhaps the female protagonist in question is a good thing. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Rise of the Tomb Raider — another E3 announcement. Leigh Alexander wrote the most interesting piece on this subject.

3. Some people point out a “AAA” game will or might feature a female protagonist. This discussion doesn’t typically result in as much heated debate. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is the Zelda Wii U game announced by Nintendo at E3.

At this point in the year, it’s fairly obvious that if you’re talking about female protagonists, you’re talking about “AAA” female protagonists. While I don’t begrudge people for having these discussions … OK, that’s dishonest. Frankly, the “AAA” focus is a disservice to any current discussion about female protagonists. At the same time, it’s not impossible to understand why these discussions occur. Ubisoft is the reigning king of moronic PR. Male protagonists do tend to dominate “AAA” games. Leigh Alexander makes several fair points about how male and female “AAA” heroes are treated. And even I, the guy who hates E3, am intrigued by the idea that the new Zelda could star, well, Zelda.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt an indie revolution in regard to female protagonists can occur if the misleading “AAA” bias continues. When the most reassuring article about female protagonists focuses on “AAA” games featured at E3, we have a problem. In a world where we can read about indie games more than ever, it seems counterintuitive to say indies don’t receive the credit they deserve, but it’s true. Braid, Journey, and company have accomplished virtually nothing for indie games from a critical standpoint. Sure, people write and read about indies a lot. Yet discussions overwhelmingly lean toward what’s happening in the “AAA” sphere. The discussion about female protagonists is prime evidence of this trend.

Nevermind the question of whether it’s even a good idea for an immoral game series like Grand Theft Auto to include female protagonists. How about the fact that indies are doing things with female protagonists that critics rarely reference? When Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out, many will discuss Lara Croft’s therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder, but will many bother to mention that The Cat Lady featured a female protagonist talking about her life and depression in therapy sessions? What if the new Zelda stars Zelda? Will anyone mention Shipwreck, the Zelda-inspired indie game starring a female protagonist? Indies even have trouble getting attention for doing completely different things with female protagonists. Last year, writers were happy to talk about Choice: Texas, a then-unreleased indie game about abortion featuring multiple female protagonists, when they could deem it a potentially controversial game. However, since going live on May 14, Choice: Texas can’t seem to get much attention from anyone. So much for controversy in regard to indie female protagonists, right?

Indeed, going by the current dialogue, readers will be lucky if they learn anything other than what big game companies announce, or fail to announce, at E3 in regard to female protagonists. The impression I get from many commentaries is that “AAA” games must function, at all costs, as the vanguard for female protagonists in gaming. Sounds like a nice prophecy to me: if “AAA” games do somehow spark a fantastic new trend in female protagonists, many can be happy that they, in a small way, contributed to the cause. An indie revolution is truly impossible when people look to the big studios for every answer to their critical concerns about female characters.