Until the Stars Align

Spoilers ahoy.

Pyre is a wonderful game, and I’m yet to see an expression of any feeling about it that isn’t, at the very least, warmth. I bought it knowing nothing about it, but trusting that Supergiant knew what they were doing as far as aesthetics go if nothing else. Both Bastion and Transistor were stylish, vivid, immersive experiences, combining satisfying gameplay, unique art styles, Logan Cunningham’s amazing voice work as a narrator figure, and Darren Korb’s soundtracks as a fully-fledged part of the narrative, rather than just pleasant background noise.

As far as the narrative itself goes, however, Supergiant’s games have always given me a feeling of – well, not exactly disappointment, but more of unfulfilled promise. The prominent presence of a narrator as a character within the story suggested to me an interest in exploring stories themselves as a subject matter – how we tell them and why, what we add and what we omit – but in Bastion and Transistor, I felt that these elements were mostly afterthoughts, that there was very little to be gleaned from reading these games as more than they are at face value.

And what they are at face value isn’t bad by any means, either. Bastion is a very beautiful post-apocalypse, and a story of its survivors uncovering and overcoming the social divisions that caused the end of the world. Transistor is maybe the less interesting one to me, a cyberpunk love story between a woman deprived of her voice and a man uploaded into a sword, set against the backdrop of a futuristic city being devoured by a computer virus. The backdrop itself was much more engaging to me than the romance, with its somewhat unfortunately drawn gender roles; it felt well-intentioned, but maybe not thought through all the way in the aspect of what kind of wider societal narrative is being helped by the idea of women’s enforced silence, and how that might undermine any displays of partnership or affection between the couple. I still think they’re both good games, but narrative missteps and missed opportunities like these are why I would hesitate to call them great.

I thought Pyre was great, though. Not unreservedly, of course, and I’m sure you’re already excited for when I get to the nitpicking part, but there’s just a lot to love about it.

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All three of Supergiant’s games feature some kind of troubled or fallen city/state: Caelondia in Bastion, Cloudbank in Transistor, and the Commonwealth in Pyre. The Commonwealth is a theocracy where literacy is outlawed, and for the crime of reading, you – the main character – are banished to the inhospitable Downside, a dumping ground for all sorts of criminals and undesirables. Immediately it turns out that there is a way out of exile through victory in the Rites, half sport and half religious ceremony, kept secret for almost a thousand years by the Commonwealth’s elite. The origins of both the Commonwealth and the Rites are intertwined, and accessible mostly only through a mythologized account found in the Book of Rites, allegedly written by the state’s founders and larger-than-life religious figures, the Eight Scribes.

On learning about this historical/sacred text, I immediately assumed it must be a merry assemblage of lies, omissions and thin justifications, because that’s the sort of reader I am. Nevertheless, the only way forward, as many characters tell you repeatedly, is to put your faith in the Book and in the Scribes, or at least act like it: don the ceremonial masks and raiments, and throw yourself into a cycle of magical ball games, at the end of which, it is promised, lies liberation. Pyre certainly makes room for distrust of its own central historical premises, and to some extent encourages it, but never really verifies these premises one way or the other. Maybe the Scribes really are among the stars, watching; maybe the whole thing just started as a sham and gradually accrued the portentous weight of tradition. However, it is still the only way out of the Downside, which suggests that we are meant to take the Rites as something meaningful and transcendent, but stripped of its “true” meaning by the passage of time.

Reinforcing this interpretation is the character of Volfred Sandalwood, once a respected academic in the Commonwealth, now convict, exile and revolutionary. Sandalwood believes that the original and true meaning of the Book, and the moral lessons it was meant by the founders of the Commonwealth to impart, have become lost and twisted. Victors in the Rites are returned to their homeland with the highest honors, absolved of all crimes (regardless of whether they had committed any in the first place), and offered positions of great prestige and privilege, all the way up to head of state; once there, they become complicit in maintaining the very system that dispossessed them. Reading the Book itself in the game makes it clear how Sandalwood arrived at his interpretation: the Scribes speak of mercy, of cherishing difference and elevating those who have strived and suffered, and – perhaps – conceived of the Rites as a symbolic commemoration of that striving. One of Volfred’s former companions in the Downside, having earned his liberation, now sits at the very top of the theocratic hierarchy casting down whomever they please, and his disembodied voice is the hostile and taunting narrator/announcer of Pyre, clearly delighting in watching the convicts fight among themselves for scraps of “mercy” and “freedom.”

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Volfred won’t stand for it. He plans to make use of the Rites to send members of your ragtag band of exiles back topside, one by one, to serve as agents and prepare the ground for the overthrow of the theocracy. While it’s hard not to be onboard with this idea in a general sense, and exciting to have this be the final goal, the finer points of what’s being said really make me wonder: what is the precise character of this revolution? There seem to be several leaps of logic in Volfred’s thinking that the game doesn’t really encourage us to question: if the Rites are real, then the Book is a faithful historical record; if the Book is faithful and the Scribes represented themselves truthfully, then their original intent for the state was wise and benevolent. I don’t think either of these propositions necessarily holds up.

What the Rites represent to me is a religious enshrinement of meritocracy: when cast into the Downside (the physical location of which is vague to the point where the entire place might be purely metaphorical), you may yet earn your rehabilitation and acceptance into proper society through hard work, sacrifice, and ruthless competition with equally unfortunate people. The conceit becomes troubling on closer examination, because what it says is: yes, you can effect political change – as long as you play by the rules. Your characters taking on the masks, raiments and symbolic identities of the Scribes themselves speaks to an idea of cyclical history, as you find yourself reenacting a version of the fall of the feudal and militaristic Empire that preceded the Commonwealth; the theme of stars and constellations guiding your way likewise suggests that this has all happened before, and will again. I believe what it adds up to is a tone of fatalistic, metaphysical determinism, where some injustices are simply “part of reality” rather than deliberate consequences of how we conceive of our societies.

At the same time, I find myself constantly questioning my own reading of the overarching themes, because it is difficult to imagine a revolutionary effort to transform society that works out precisely the way it’s intended, with no false starts or holdovers from the former social order, no unexpected consequences and no tragedies. Maybe the fact that Pyre acknowledges this messiness, the weight of tradition, the presence of human error and the interventions of outside forces, while still valorizing the abolition of unjust systems as something to be sought, makes it all the more interesting. The reason why I strain against this reading (but still acknowledge it as deserving of attention) is that I’ve encountered this narrative a lot as an argument for why social change is scary, dangerous and best left to a safe minimum: the formulation of this that really sticks in my mind is the way Warren Ellis put it in Transmetropolitan, “humans will fuck up every revolution” – and, it’s implied, this means it’s foolish to even try. To its credit, Pyre doesn’t appear to claim the latter point necessarily follows, but it still appears to draw upon that very popular and dismissive narrative in a way that makes me suspicious.

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Perhaps I might be accused here of simply wanting a happy ending for everyone, but I don’t think that’s the case. No matter what you do throughout the game, many characters’ arcs will end on some kind of sad or bittersweet note, especially when those who have become friends in the Downside are separated; I think that’s a strength and not a weakness of the story. The characters themselves, and the relationships between them that emerge, are really what makes Pyre work so well for me, especially in comparison to Supergiant’s previous two games, which had much smaller casts. Both your team and your adversaries are expressive, vibrant and have a variety of believable motivations, ranging from Volfred’s revolutionary plan, to a knightly quest for honour, to settling family matters, to simple greed and pettiness. The way your opposing teams become not just abstract gameplay obstacles, but fully fledged participants in the wider story, makes the Downside feel populated and alive, and your wins and losses in the Rites can shape people’s relationships in unexpected ways.

In the past I’ve done a lot of complaining about “choice” in games, but the way Pyre implements branching narratives is possibly the best I’ve ever seen it done, because rather than giving you the godlike power-fantasy feeling of manipulating the outcomes as you please, the characters end up responding to your actions in ways that make sense in terms of who they are.

It feels to me that a game so thematically invested in the concepts of a (sacred/canonical) Book, a Reader, a godlike Voice in the sky, the legendary Scribes and so on, should be much more interested in metanarrative than it is. It doesn’t spend very much time at all reflecting on its own nature as a story or a game, or its presence within a wider cultural context.

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Of course that means I end up supplying my own understanding of these aspects, and here it is in summary: through the double metaphor of sports and religion, Pyre wants us to think about how video games are like sports, and how they resemble religion, and how these two aspects shape their social function. Think about the high-stakes spectacle of professional esports contrasted with the grim reality of exploitation that many of the players face: is being forced to play a MOBA over and over for barely enough compensation to buy food really so dissimilar to the cruel and unusual punishments so enjoyed by the Commonwealth? The Downside may as well be called the “underside” of this world, right?

Sure, it’s a reach. I doubt it was intended that way. But that’s what it makes me think of.

As for religion, faith isn’t a wholly negative presence in Pyre, although institutional religion clearly is. Again I get the sense of there being some kind of “true teaching” of the Scribes that has been distorted or corrupted by the imperfect, worldly interpretations of their successors. It’s a familiar idea, and not one that sits comfortably with me: it still locates the capacity to produce truth and meaning squarely in the hands of some distant authorial/authority figures, and relegates everyone else to the task of uncovering the hidden, ideal essence of their wisdom. To me this is terribly at odds with the supposed revolutionary ideals the text otherwise seems to espouse, because it guarantees that the order of authority and deference, of Voices who make the law and Readers who can merely act in accordance with it, will reassert itself in some form or another.

I’m very curious how far the rules of the game will bend, and for a second playthrough, I have a plan of my own. I’m going to throw every single Rite – just flat out refuse to participate – and see how that affects the outcome. My suspicion is that this will lead to some kind of Bad Ending, but I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised. There are certainly times when the game makes losing in the Rites feel preferable, and it’s very good at giving you a sense of resentment for being forced into this pointless spectacle, pitted against people for whom you bear no ill will. However, even the fairly optimistic outcome of the revolution I got on my first run did not include the possibility of properly abolishing the prison system that the Downside undoubtedly is, and making right its injustices. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect so much from this story? But that’s just the kind of reader I am.

At any rate, I think it’s a measure of how much Pyre does right, and how deeply it managed to get me invested, that I spent almost the entirety of this article dissecting the aspects that don’t feel exactly one hundred per cent perfect. I strongly encourage you to give it a try; the journey is sure to be memorable.