The video game “Pyre” comes to us from the studio Supergiant Games, whose last two works, “Transistor” and “Bastion,” have been some of the most aesthetically pleasing games to come out in a while. While I like both of them, I think “Bastion” just doesn’t live up to its older sibling. “Bastion” got a lot of hype for having a narrator in the game who seems to comment on everything you do as a player and had a great world and story behind the game, but the game almost felt lackluster in that once you beat it, you didn’t really feel the impression that it left.
“Transistor” is a different story. “Transistor” is the “Sicario” to Bastion’s “Prisoners” (if you read my review in last week’s issue, then you’re one of the five people out there who get this). “Transistor” gives me hope that these games are more than just the schlock that they are commonly purported to be. This statement isn’t exactly hyperbole either, as a lot of games out there are just plain immature. “Transistor” was everything that “Bastion” was not for me. It left a huge impression, one that only grows the more I replay the game.
“Transistor” didn’t pull any strings, as it told a story about a girl and a city in a way that only a game could accomplish. The story and characters reveal themselves based on how you played the game. What made this game even more memorable for me is how colorful it is. “Transistor” is a game where the player experiences the beats of a bluesy city on its downward spiral. This is an experience that could only be accomplished in the medium of a game. Additionally, with Supergiant’s new game, “Pyre,” I feel that Supergiant has even outdone “Transistor” in both providing an experience and in leaving an impression.
Simply put, I have never played a game that has pulled off the concept of choosing your own adventure as well as “Pyre” has. Usually these games fall into the trap of not letting the player know that the game—and hence its story—has a definitive ending that is ultimately chosen by someone else: the designer of the game. And what follows is a sense of disappointment as you realize that your story isn’t really yours after all. “Pyre” gracefully avoids this by letting the player know the ways in which this story could end and has the player work towards those ends.
What this allows for, and why I’m so impressed by this game, is it gives the player complete control to choose how the narrative develops while still enforcing the idea that something else is defining the narrative for you. This is to say that this game is all about the process and not the outcome. And this process is hugely satisfying.
The way the game works is that you, as the so-called “reader,” are the general manager of a team of exiles who have to conduct rituals to return to normal society. These rituals come in the form of three-on-three games of…I guess it’s closest to rugby. It’s very “gamey” and full of spells, banishments, auras and abilities, but it is fun to play and engagingly intense when it needs to be. I particularly like the use of an announcer who commentates the games and the way music swells with the score of the game.
I said earlier that you as the player operate as a sort of “general manager” for your team. This is by no means hyperbole. You manage everything about how your band of exiles plays their game. From who is starting to where you are playing, you are the decision-maker for your team. Most importantly, however, you get to literally decide the fate of all of the characters around you, and this facet of “Pyre” is what gives the player such an expansive plethora of choice within the game.
These rituals, despite being the “gamey-ist” parts of “Pyre,” are not what has kept me so entranced with this game. It’s the ways that this game contextualizes and informs the choices you make outside of these rites. What truly pushes this game above and beyond the status quo is the way in which every single choice you make in this game comes back to inform the narrative this game sets you free within.
The narrative of this game isn’t just about exiles attempting to obtain their freedom. Rather, it’s an in-depth experiment as to how you, as a leader, will control a social movement. Every choice you make in this game, from who you choose to play, who you choose to exalt and when you choose to lose your games affects the world around you. I could write much more about how this game beautifully encompasses failure into its narrative, but I only have so many words.
I have to be vague because of spoilers, but I will say that one of this game’s biggest themes is that of revolution and change. “Pyre” puts the player in charge of exiles redefining themselves, but they are also trying to redefine society. Supergiant has created a game where the player is in control of so many narratives that the player can’t help but forget just how much stuff informs their decisions—just like in real life.
This game is all about the intersection be- tween personal existence and the general func- tion of the world around us. I want to avoid making this game sound super important for our times because this game could have come out 20 years before or after today and it would still feel just as significant. But what I am trying to endorse for this game, and why I’m so dumbfounded as to why there’s so little press about this game, is just how affecting it is.
“Pyre” isn’t fun because it’s intelligent or wordy. Rather, it’s fun because it makes these larger-than-life situations feel incredibly personal for the player. It’s a game that puts you at the forefront of a plethora of choices, and asks you to shape yourself from the choices you have to make. It’s fun not because it’s bright, poppy and colorful. It’s enjoyable because you get to see so much of yourself reflected from the choices you make within the game.