RPG Grind Time – The Sophie’s Choice Of Pyre
This past weekend, I finally finished Pyre and I haven’t stopped thinking about what a unique and entertaining experience it was. SuperGiant Games’ party-based sports RPG has a lot going for it, especially how it presents choices and makes you connect with characters. I’m surprised I haven't heard more chatter about the game, so I wanted to take this column to explore what it does well and how I hope more RPG developers take note of its finer points.
Player choice is popular in games, especially RPGs, and we continue to see developers experiment with how effective it can be. From choosing between two characters’ lives in Telltale’s The Walking Dead to pursuing character’s loyalty missions in Mass Effect, these decisions we make connect us to the narrative and characters, and the best ones often say something about who we are.
Pyre has an interesting premise: You’re exiled from a world of privilege down to a hazardous wasteland called the Downside. Think of it as being in hellish circumstances and just waiting for your chance to leave. The only way out is through mystical ceremonies called Rites. Here you bring in a team of three and try to extinguish each other’s flame in an NBA Jam-style match of passing, using special skills to knock off opponents, and making use of your stamina at the right times. If you win a Rite, you can grant one of your team members freedom, allowing them to go back to the life they once lived. This constantly makes you pick between choosing the characters you think should to be free versus losing their ability to help in matches. I always decided to go with who I thought deserved the trip back home the most, starting with sending a man who yearned to be reunited with his lost love and then helping a talking dog return to his mother to help pay the bills. Truth be told, I took an early liking to the talking dog, named Rukey Greentail, so letting him go and not being able to interact with him anymore wasn’t an easy choice.
As time went on, I got more flustered by trying to decide who to part with next. My strongest combatant was Jodariel, who was a beast on the battlefield. I held onto her as long as I could, but part of me started to feel guilty about this choice. She had obviously been in the Downside longer than most characters by her features, and her grim outlook on life made me want to give her some happiness. I remember at one point turning to my fiancé, saying how badly I didn’t want to let her go because I had become so dependent on her in Rites. He thought poorly of my strategy of picking freedom by who I liked instead of factoring in their value to the team. That’s when I realized the game had done its job well. Everyone will have different reasons for who they pick to free. Maybe, as my fiancé would, they’d eliminate the characters they were weakest with, while others might pick the ones they enjoy the most, or even opposite find the most annoying.
All these characters have interesting backstories that they share with you throughout the journey, giving you extra information to consider when making your choice. This is what got me thinking about who should be free and could better the world above. Once a member leaves, while everyone says they’re happy for them, there’s a somber mood that they’re no longer with your group. You press on and fight without them, but you don’t forget them. When you get an update about what they’ve done after being freed, it holds that same bittersweet sentiment, but it’s also one of the most fulfilling parts of the experience. These “Sophie’s Choice” moments make the game a challenge outside of the Rites themselves. In a way, you’re almost playing God, deciding who gets another shot at a decent life or who will stay trudging along in the miserable Downside.
The best part of Pyre, however, is no matter what you decide, you can’t really lose. The story branches to adapt to these decisions. Lose a match? That’s okay. Someone on the opposing team gets their freedom. Sacrifice a great player like Jodariel? You can still win matches and power up someone else. Selecting characters to leave my party offered me more experimentation than I ever would have with my team if I had access to everyone the whole game. Littered throughout Pyre are also small choices about your next destination that offer you certain perks with characters to always consider. This is another nice touch, as you’re constantly picking between what advantage you might get versus what character you want to help.
I don’t want to spoil how Pyre ends, but I’ll leave you with this. As I got to my final Rite, I paused and stared at the screen for a long time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. To me, that says something. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this in a video game, having a choice matter so much to me that I wasn’t sure I wanted to make it. Life doesn’t promise happy endings and there are no perfect answers to its hardships, and Pyre accurately reflects that.
Making choices meaningful in games isn’t an easy feat. We see various levels of success throughout the industry. RPGs are so focused on characters and leveling them up; you’re constantly growing your attachment. Pyre turns everything on its head, encouraging you to set free the ones you’ve come to know. It makes the choices mean a little more, no matter your reasoning.
For more on Pyre, you can read Matt Miller’s review.