Sacrifice in Supergiant’s ‘Pyre’

I recently made a very simple request.  “Give me some video game recommendations with great stories,” I said.  “It’ll be simple,” I said to myself.  “I’ll have a few recommendations,” I said to myself.  And then the list was longer than I could shake my fist at. But I started with a personal recommendation from a friend. It was a good choice.

Pyre, a 2017 release from Supergiant Games, is an interesting blend between action/fantasy RPG and, believe it or not, sports.  The game begins in a sort of underworld purgatory, where criminals, enemies of the state, deserters, and other types of unsavories are cast from the world above.  Exiles have a hope at returning to the world above, but only through the rites, a competition that feels a bit like fantasy rugby except not.

It really does function like a sports game, with each “championship” resulting in the possibility of one of the exiles on your team going free.  Except the game’s purpose is not to play until you get all of your exiles free and that’s all there is to it.  Rather, the freeing of your exiles is part of a plan to lead an enlightened revolution in the world above.  As we learn more about each exile we come into contact with (which includes harpies, demons, anthropomorphic dogs, and others), the story gains layers upon layers.  And when you free one of your exiles, there’s a catch – that character is actually gone.  With each choice, you are potentially handicapping yourself, but also asking the rest of the characters to continue sacrificing for the greater good.  And if you lose, the game still continues, leaving you to face down the disappointment of your fellow exiles.

The way this structure pulls you into the story is really interesting.  One of the things I read online as I was playing through the game is that you should keep back a couple of the characters until the end, because you’ll need them as the rites themselves get harder.  One of those characters was Jodariel, a demon warrior for the Commonwealth above (demons here have no theological element to them).  She’s a longtime veteran of this underworld (16 years), and is a strong but silent type.  She’s also one of the strongest defensive players in the game – every combination I found that worked for me had her in it.  I planned to keep her.

Then I heard her backstory, in which she was exiled for a rather remarkable act of mercy.  I liberated her the very next opportunity I had.

This was a completely illogical decision.  And, as expected, I had trouble winning several rites after she left the team.  But the consequences of each decision you make as the player made these people feel real.  It was a truly immersive gaming experience, and it made the sacrifices feel meaningful, and by extension, the liberations as well.  She was someone that I truly felt deserved it.  And this all hearkens back to a core element of storytelling: engaging fiction has real stakes, and the consequences of your characters’ decisions on those stakes must be real in order for the tension to be felt.  But when you establish consequences, convincing your reader or viewer or player that the stakes are real, then that tension is what creates an engaging story.  Pyre did that in a way that few games I’ve played have.  The ending has some other ideas surrounding the theme of sacrifice that are really powerful as well, but I’ll save those for you to experience – the game is well worth the price of admission.

Logan Judy (that’s me) is a science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia author.  His newest novel, The Prison in the Sky, is slated for release in September 2020.  You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon, and you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free ebook.

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