The Virtual Life – Struggling For Freedom In Pyre
Minor spoilers for Pyre ahead.
I don't know why I put off playing Pyre, Supergiant's latest, for so long. I love Bastion dearly. I was colder on Transistor but I appreciated its beautiful worldbuilding and pleasing soundtrack. But something about Pyre made it get bumped down my priority list. Maybe it was the sporty-looking gameplay or the mere fact that it arrived in the wake of the Fall release onslaught. Whatever the reason, I finally made time for Pyre this past week and, wow, this game.
From the get-go, Pyre had my number, its long branches wrapping around my limbs and keeping me strapped in place. I started the game with the intent of playing maybe an hour before hopping off to something else or doing some work, but Pyre's pull is powerful. It's a game that seems to have everything I want: great dialogue, an enthralling world, interesting and non-violent gameplay, a pleasing acoustic soundtrack, and a requirement for players to make hard moral choices. Anyone who knows my gaming habits knows that last feature is my kryptonite. I bend and I break with hard choices. It's an exquisite kind of torture, upping my anxiety and curiosity, making me want to replay games and see how the branches of every decision play out. I also find these hard-choice-simulations to be fascinating, no matter how great their quality ultimately is, because they all implicitly create several thematic conversations that occur in the background of whatever game you're playing.
For example, Mass Effect is about how far you're willing to go to save the world. How do you lead people? With understanding? With sympathy? With practicality? With distance? Even the so-called "practical" choices you can make have overtones of evil to them, like deceiving the Krogan into thinking you've cured the engineered disease that's been keeping their populations in check so you can have their support and the support of their enemies, the Salarians. Other, more quiet choice simulators find their thematic footing in subjects like forgiveness versus resentment, between letting go of the past and moving on, like Oxenfree and Life is Strange.
Pyre finds a balance between the two. Yes, the game's world is high fantasy, taking place in a purgatory called the Downside. Yes, there are fantastic creatures like harpies, ents, imps, and demons. There's magic and rituals. All your fantasy staples are here. And yet Pyre chooses to root its journey and choice-making in the affairs of the mundane. The game's characters might seem like fantastical, powerful creatures, but they're also traumatized and wounded people who have made mistakes and are seeking redemption and freedom from their exile. However, Pyre reaches a level of complexity with this that I was not expecting, making these affairs murky and anxiety-inducing as well as emotionally powerful.
All across the Downside are triumvirates (think of them as sports teams) that engage in rites (essentially basketball matches with a glowing orb). There are certain rites that are called liberation rites. During liberation rites you choose one your triumvirate members and "anoint" them. If you win the liberation rite, they are returned to the world above, freed from their banishment. One of these characters that you've journeyed with and have heard their plight, that you've grown close to, they're free at last. All thanks to you. You hero. You absolute winner you. Sounds great, right?
Well. This is where things get complicated, as in The Good Place's Chidi Anagonye moral dilemma levels of complicated.*
Liberating one of your characters is great for them, as they get to return to the world above, but there are practical drawbacks for you and your triumvirate. Namely, you lose a player on your triumvirate. A player with certain power advantages (like being super speedy or having a powerful charge attack) that help make your team more distinct and equipped for any situation. You're basically throwing away a tactical option with every player you set free, thus making the road to freedom for the rest of your triumvirate even more difficult. And if that wasn't enough, Pyre has another wrench to throw in the works as well.
The other triumvirates you play against are not faceless A.I. opponents. They're actual characters, with stories that are fleshed out alongside your triumvirate players, and all of them are looking to get out of the Downside just like you. And you better believe their stories pop up at just the right moments to make you freak out over your liberation rite choices too. The most difficult (and my favorite) one choice I've had so far revolves around the harpy Pamitha Theyn and her sister, Tamitha. Pamitha joins your triumvirate early on after trying to make right with her sister, who is furious at her about some perceived betrayal or event that landed both of them in the Downside. Pamitha spends a large amount of your journey as one cool bird, betraying no signs of distress. Until you play against Tamitha in a liberation match. During the match, as you close in on your victory, you hear Pamitha's thoughts as she hopes desperately that you lose the match and that her sister can go free.
So, player, what do you do? Who deserves to go free? Do you do what's right by your triumvirate and win the match anyway, setting one of your teammates free? Or do you take pity on Pamitha's plight and throw the match so her sister can go free instead, and she can live with a clean conscience. It's an uneasy situation to be put in and in the end, I made what I thought was the right choice: I won and released one of my characters. I did what I thought was right for the collective over wanting to see this sisterly situation resolved.
I still don't know if i made "the right" choice, and that's kind of the point, and what Pyre excels at. Where many games aspire to have moral grey areas, they often connect them to things that have such stark and dramatic resolutions, like a character living or dying or a civilization falling, that the grayness is diminished by the effect of these events. However, much of Pyre's choices come down to making characters' lives easier, but sometimes you can't win. You will fail. Maybe a lot of the time, but Pyre's characters soldier on anyway, making the best of what they can with the systems and means they have. In that way, Pyre is probably the most moral game I've played in years in the sense that it reaches as it deep as it can into complex situations and makes it clear how hard it is to be a good person, even when there's no road of evil temptation to be lured down, when all you're trying to do is make the best possible choice for everyone involved.
I would love to see more games aspire to Pyre's moral sophistication and not just be content with the usual How Far Would You Go To Save The World decisions that are commonplace in games. Also, the sports ball game is pretty cool too.
For more on Pyre, be sure to read our review.
* If you haven't seen The Good Place, just trust me: it's a good reference.