**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Pyre.**
“Choice” is a buzzword in the gaming community—one that, more often than not, rings hollow. Take a random sampling of marketing blurbs from the last ten years, and chances are you’ll find a fair share of games that sell themselves on the merit of choice: that you, as the player, have the ability to take different routes to achieve varying outcomes. Some choices in games are small—what skills you hone, what clothes you wear, or what color your character’s hair is—while others are unfathomably large—what characters live or die, which side to take in a civil war, or how best to save the galaxy from its latest Impending Threat.™
The problem with the ubiquity of choice in video games is that the vast majority of those choices are cheap—free of cost, moral weight, or personal consequence. In 2012, Bioware’s sci-fi epic Mass Effect 3 came under intense scrutiny when players discovered that the thousands of choices they’d made over the span of five years resulted in 1 of 3 endings, each of which looked almost visually identical. Destroy the enemy, and a red light envelopes the universe. Spare the enemy, and the light’s inexplicably blue. Join forces with the enemy, and now that light is green…for some reason. For a game whose choices narratively affected the lives of billions, most players were left feeling cheated. Why save the universe if all it changes are the RGB values on your screen?
Pyre’s choices are ties that bind, bearing mutual burdens, comforts, and cares.On the other end of the spectrum, some games offer a vast array of political, ethical, or personal outcomes—but still fail to attach a proper sense of weight to these consequences. In 2018, Quantic Dream released Detroit: Become Human, a science-fiction tale about a near future in which life-like androids, produced for menial labor, suddenly gain sentience and free will. The game offers a fascinating world that asks difficult questions about what it means to be human, and its gameplay allows for thousands of narrative permutations. However, the game falters in that it allows the player to alter these outcomes at a whim. At any moment, the player can pause the game and access a branching tree that outlines exactly what outcome each of your choices results in. With this flowchart a few clicks away, each decision is seemingly emptied of existential weight. For a game theoretically about human nature, each outcome is detailed with inhuman precision, as though our lives are simply the composite result of various combinations of metadata.
For most games, choice is synonymous with unrestrained freedom, and as a result, player agency is devoid of consequence. How, then, can a game infuse its narrative choices with a sense of responsibility? In Pyre, the third offering from Supergiant Games, the answer is found in an unlikely place: community.
Pyre is a fantasy role-playing games that takes place in “The Downside”—a land of exile for convicted criminals of the Commonwealth, the ruling empire of this mythos. As the game chillingly describes in its opening moments, the Commonwealth is “founded on principles of mercy and kinship, whose exact meanings evolved through many centuries.”
A narrowly-defined mercy is no mercy at all, and as the player quickly discovers, most of the criminals exiled to the Downside were cast out for reprehensible reasons. In the opening moments, the player meets Hedwyn, who was sent to the Downside after he fell in love with a woman from one of the Commonwealth’s sworn enemies. Another character, Jodariel, was arrested after she refused to euthanize a group of children orphaned by the Commonwealth. Even the player character, known only as the Reader, has been exiled because they committed the “crime of literacy.”
In the Downside, however, there is one hope of redemption, found in “the Rites.” The Rites are a quasi-religious ceremony where different groups of exiles compete in a sport-like tournament. At the end of the tournament, the two remaining teams participate in a “Liberation Rite,” in which the winning team can choose one member for redemption: to have their sentence lifted and be re-instated to the Commonwealth.
This is where Pyre finds its core gameplay loop: the Reader joins one such team, the Nightwings, and travels the Downside, participating in the Rites and developing relationships with other exiles. And it’s also where Pyre’s narrative choices find their moral weight.
From the opening moments of Pyre, the Reader is beholden to a community. Every choice the Reader makes directly affects the livelihood of the Nightwings. Win one of the Rites, and morale is high; each team member rejoices as one and yearns for the hope of liberation. Lose, and despair spreads like a virus, as the possibility of redemption slips away. The player never has the luxury of independence; you are part of a fellowship, and when you falter, your community falters with you. And just as the Reader is beholden to the community, so is the community beholden to a liturgy. Each team must read celestial signs to find the location of the next Rites and each carries the banner of one of the Eight Scribes, the mythological deities of this world.
Within this context, it’s clear that Pyre subverts the common tropes of many games today: the player isn’t a lone wanderer, traversing the lands in search of fortune, battle, and glory. The player is embodied within a religious practice, among a community, bearing each other’s burdens while seeking redemption and absolution.
Speaking of redemption, if the Nightwings make it all the way to the Liberation Rite, the Reader must choose which of their team members they will compete to free. Suddenly, the Rites take on a whole new weight. Each step and misstep can mean the difference between your teammate being reunited with their kin or left to continue in exile. For example, one of the Nightwings, Rukey, admits to the Reader that before his exile, he was the only provider for his infirm mother and extended family. Liberation means returning to those who once depended on him. Hedwyn seeks to return to his lost love and rebuild a future stolen from him. Who do you choose to liberate? And how do you look the others in the eye when you’ve made your decision?
The responsibility of caring for this community grows even heavier when you discover that the Liberation Rites are coming to an end. The celestial signs are growing dim, and it is painstakingly clear that you will not be able to liberate every member of the Nightwings. In this unjust world, redemption is as narrow as the Commonwealth’s mercy, and you will inevitably pay for the freedom of some with the imprisonment of others. Pyre puts the moral ambivalence of each choice front-and-center through its characters. Teammates show joy when their friends are liberated, but moments later, the hope fades from their eyes when they realize that’s one less chance for themselves. Community in Pyre demands unconditional love and sacrifice, giving up one’s own life for the sake of another.
Perhaps the starkest example of this can be seen in a startling moment near the end of the game. The Nightwings reach a Liberation Rite in which they will compete against another team, named the Essence. The Essence is led by Tamitha Theyn, who is a military leader from one of the Commonwealth’s enemies—but she is also the twin sister of one of your teammates, Pamitha. At first, Pamitha is cold and aloof, but as you develop a friendship with her, you learn that Pamitha is the cause of her sister’s banishment, and her sister hates her for it. Pamitha lives in isolation and shame because she knows her actions have condemned her sister to a life of exile.
The Liberation Rite begins. The Nightwings and the Essence fight valiantly, trading blows in equal measure. In my playthrough, the match is close, and it’s unclear who will come out on top. Suddenly, right when I, as the player, am about to make a winning play, the game halts and allows you to overhear Pamitha’s thoughts:
“Reader…someone…please….Let her prevail. Let her prevail. Please, let her prevail, here, this once. If this thought makes me a traitor, so be it! But please, let Tamitha prevail…for she is here, wrapped up in all of this, because of me.”
The match resumes, and the player is left to decide whether to continue their fight for personal victory or to throw the match, losing another chance at freedom for the sake of an adversary. To its credit, Pyre doesn’t force you into a false extension of grace. If you wish, you can simply forge ahead and dismiss Pamitha’s plea, allowing another of your friends to be absolved of her wrongs.
Yet, in my play-through, I couldn’t do it. Pyre had done its job. Sure, I could continue to seek my own good, but Pamitha’s good was now tied up in my own. As part of an embodied community, her restoration was enmeshed in mine. I threw the match. Pamitha’s sister was liberated, and my teammates returned to their camp in despair, all except for Pamitha and the Reader, who knowingly share this life-giving secret.
For all the high-stakes, pulse-pounding, universe-ending action sequences that video games have had to offer, it’s this moment that has given me the most pause in my past year of gaming. A moment when the player is asked to relinquish their own rights for that of another member of their community. The gameplay loop falls into the background as love of neighbor takes the fore. And as Pyre requires you to do after every Liberation Rite, the player must click a button in the middle of the screen that simply says, “Accept this, for it is done.”
Much has been written of digital technology as a tool that inherently disembodies its user. Christians and non-Christians alike can hide behind the anonymity of pseudonyms and incognito browsers as they dehumanize the marginalized, the oppressed, the political opposition, or their religious counterparts. And yet, games like Pyre utilize the narrative power of interactive fiction to remind you of a simple truth: that you are not your own.
The choices that Pyre presents you with are not a means of unfettered freedom. They contextualize you within a community of others, making your good part and parcel with theirs. Pyre’s choices are ties that bind, bearing mutual burdens, comforts, and cares.
Near the end of the game, the Nightwings turn to you, the Reader, to offer a word of encouragement before the final Liberation Rite. As expected, the game offers a variety of options to choose from. But in light of all that transpired, my choice was clear: “Mere distance cannot separate our spirits.”