Historically, most video games based around quick reflexes have rewarded perfectionism. Racking up a high score on a leaderboard or getting to a new stage generally requires zealously avoiding mistakes. Plenty of games use negative reinforcement — in the form of lost progress, lost goodies etc. — to guide players into adopting ideal strategies for overcoming obstacles.
Surely, a decent percentage of you who play competitive games, from “Tetris” to “Mario Kart,” know something about abruptly quitting out of a game (though hopefully not in multiplayer!) when your skills are off or your luck has turned outrageously sour. Alas, the habit is so ingrained in me that I had to consciously wean myself from it as I played “Pyre,” a vibrant, well-paced RPG that wants players to embrace their slip-ups. A highlight of the game’s design is that no matter how decisive a loss might appear, the story rolls on in an interesting fashion with no “Game Over” screen in sight.
Developed by Supergiant, a small, San Francisco-based studio, “Pyre” boasts quality writing, art direction, and music, virtues equally present in the studio’s previous games “Bastion” and “Transistor.” Unlike those titles, which played out as thoughtful isometric action games, “Pyre” is a cross between a text-based RPG and an occult-like sports match. Assuming you don’t reflexively hate the game’s high fantasy setting with its demons, witches, harpies, talking dogs, and talking trees, you’ll find a clever game that morally questions if it’s beneficial to self-growth to want to succeed every time. As such, behind the word “pyre” lurks the threat of the Pyrrhic victory.
At the beginning of the game, you, the player, are in forlorn condition when you’re approached by a trio of strangers who are oddly dressed in colorful ceremonial clothes otherwise known as “raiments.” Like them, you’re an exile who has been banished from the Commonwealth — the land of respectable society — and sent to live in the Downside a parallel world from which it is nearly impossible to escape.
After being nursed back to health, your newfound companions take you back to their furnished wagon. There they ask if you can read. Whether or not you answer truthfully, it soon becomes apparent that you, the only literate person in the area, are destined to become their “reader.” In that role, you’re charged with making sense of the group’s most precious possession, “The Book of Rites.” In its pages you learn that it’s possible for a team of three to square off against other teams for the privilege of participating in a grand competition. Out of that, an anointed member on the winning team is permitted to return to the Commonwealth.
Matches or “rites” play out with two teams separated from each other on opposite sides of a field. Behind each is a lit pyre. At the start of each “rite,” an orb descends from the sky and lands in the middle of the field. The object of the game is to plunge the orb into your opponent’s fire thus temporarily extinguishing it. The first team to extinguish their opponents fire a set number of times wins (the number will vary based on a variety of factors).
Scoring is complicated by a number of factors. Opponents can shoot at each other with projectile beams of energy otherwise known as “auras.” If you dodge late and get hit then you are temporarily banished, leaving the other team a chance for a power play. There are numerous other tactics to come to grips with: when to change players, when to pass, when to drop the orb to use a character’s offensive abilities, when it’s better to risk throwing the orb into the fire instead of running or jumping into it. (Flinging your orb carrier into the pyre is generally an easier way to score but your character is then banished for a short period of time. On the other hand, throwing the orb into the pyre avoids that penalty but gives an opponent a chance to catch it out of the air, and potentially makes you an easy target.)
At a certain point in the story mode, you’ll unlock different modifiers that can be applied to make the “rites” more challenging. Such risk carries the promise of added intensity, and more experience points for your team should they prevail. Fans of arcade games may find much to like in the tempo of these matches, which favor short bursts focus as opposed to periods of prolonged concentration.
As you lead your companions around the Downside, you’ll come to learn more about your opponents. Some treat you with honor, others contempt, others become simply fun to run into. Win against certain foes and you’ll snuff out their hope for ever leaving the Downside. The narrative does a nimble job of humanizing the characters, making it difficult to see a number of your adversaries as less morally entitled to escape than your teammates. “Pyre” demonstrates that video game designers may have much to gain by exploring the costs of achievement and the rewards of failure.
Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.