This article contains some spoilers for Pyre, mostly for the first half of the game.
Whether we’re shooting, jumping, levelling or puzzling, these cycles of repeating actions are the basic and most central appeal of games. We play a Mario game to jump not once, but many times in ever-escalating situations, organised as a chain of levels that create a distinct rhythm. Playing often means immersing oneself in pleasant repetition where the surprises are variations on a theme rather than shocks to the system. We’re supposed to find enjoyment in the moment, rather than paying any attention to the fact that we’re participating in a routine.
Few games consider this repetition as anything other than The Way Things Are, a basic element of design in creating compelling gameplay loops. But once in a while there comes along a game that recognises the potential of repetition to drive home a point, to create thematic coherence. Dark Souls and Papers, Please are great examples of this, and now we have another; Pyre.
Supergiant Games’ new offering is a triumph of artistry. What ultimately convinced me of its brilliance wasn’t the amazing artwork or soundtrack, the witty writing or even the satisfaction of snuffing out your insufferably smug opponents’ pyre in a desperate Hail Mary. Rather, it was that most unsexy of things: its structure, and the way it imbues all other aspects of the game with meaning. In Pyre, your aim is to lead your band of exiles, the Nightwings, through a series of ceremonial ball games called the Rites against rival groups, leading up to a final encounter — the outcome of which will decide which team will get to return to the Commonwealth and which ones must remain in the Underside with the other exiles.
Or rather, this is how you think it works at first. After a few hours, it is revealed that only one member of the winning team will be allowed to ascend, and that you – the Reader – must decide which one. The game, of course, doesn’t end there. Every time someone ascends (either a member of your own or a rival team!) the cycle, orchestrated by the stars themselves, starts anew.
This is an interesting idea as it is, but it is transformed into something ingenious thanks to the details. First, the characters that you choose for ascension are permanently lost to you. And since only characters with lots of experience points can ascend, you’ll likely lose your most useful and beloved team members; which doesn’t just mean that the game becomes harder, but also causes some heartbreak. Second, the revolutionary plans of tree-man Volfred Sandalwood will only succeed if a certain number of Nightwings manage to return to the Commonwealth. Thirdly and most importantly, the stars are fading and there’s only so many cycles before the Rites (and with it, the game) end and doom every remaining denizen of the Underside to eternal exile.
Pyre is never shy about its repetitious nature and rarely allows the moment-to-moment action, no matter how engaging it may be, to distract from the big picture. You’re always aware that you’re participating in an escalating series of cycles punctuated by climactic confrontations that end one cycle and lead to the next. But rather than becoming tedious, these recurring actions contribute to a slow accumulation of meaning that lends gravitas to each repetition. As the cycles keep turning, you gradually grow more familiar with your fellow exiles. The outcome of the Liberation Rites seems weightier with each ascension to the Fall of Soliam, as the stars fade and you truly get to know both your own allies as well as your opponents, whose freedom you try to deny even as you become more and more aware of their motivations and tragic pasts.
In the final hours of the game, the refrain-like incantations of the song “Never to Return” and finally the phrase “May she return in glory” are goosebump-inducing moments, precisely because they are as immutably preordained as the sun rising in the morning. Repetition gives the events of the game an incredible pull, a sense of an overwhelming cosmic order that cannot be denied. Pyre conveys a sense of experiencing the turning of a world order that is slowly coming to an end.
The repetitions of Pyre feel too significant to be called a routine. It’s not a stretch to call them rituals instead; after all, the religious connotations of Pyre are not exactly opaque. There are god-like beings, various spiritual movements and a holy book that resembles extremely rare devotional manuscripts from the middle ages, the Black books of hours. At the very end, all the characters you’ve met are even shown with nimbuses around their heads! More central, however, is the ritualistic enactment of self-sacrifice and subsequent rebirth that unfolds during the rites as team members plunge into their opponents’ pyre, as well as the ever-present notion of sacrifice and devotion – not only to ‘gods’ such as the Eight Scribes or the Titans, but also to the cause of the revolutionary Nightwings.
And, brilliantly, the ascension itself is ripe with religious connotations. Described as a liberation this ascension is, from the point of view of the players if not the Reader, a sacrifice. To the player, it makes no difference if, say, Hedwyn is dead or ascended; either way, he is gone for good. The Commonwealth is as unreachable to the average exile as heaven would be to a sinner, and it is no coincidence that ‘ascension’ brings to mind spiritual rather than bodily escape. From the perspective of the ascended, however, the event is closer to a rebirth – ‘sins’ of the past are not only forgiven, but forgotten, and they are allowed a fresh start.
Pyre is rife with echoes of real-life ritualistic customs. Consider the Mesoamerican ballgame, which was not just a pastime, but had strong religious and cosmological significance. Notoriously, the Mayans sometimes offered losing players as human sacrifice, decapitating them as an offering to the gods. The pyre, and fire more generally, is also associated with sacrifice, as well as transitions from one world to the next. It can also act as a purifying force that tests an accused one’s innocence.
Think, for example, of the pyres that consumed the bodies of warriors in Viking funeral rites; the unrepentant heretics and ‘witches’ burnt at the stake; or the human sacrifice by fire to the Canaanite god Moloch. Think of the trials by ordeal, such as the trial by fire, in which an accused person had to prove their innocence by walking over burning coal. There’s a smorgasbord of potential associations that Pyre invites and the point is that none of them quite fits perfectly, but all their elements are reconfigured into something new. As you progress and learn more about the legends and histories behind the rites and damned souls that must brave them, the endless rotation of toils and redemption begins to become meaningful, even though the mission at hand is the dismantling of that very cycle.
The way Pyre accomplishes all this seems almost effortless. It’s a game that manages to be both fun to play as well as to communicate the machinations of its world by letting the player dive head-first into its rules and rituals. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does look at the cart and put it together in a new way. The cycles of Pyre turn in familiar ways, but transport the player to a unique destination.