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.