Choose your destiny: Pyre and organic, branching storytelling
The main feature of videogames as a medium is the interactivity they provide compared to books or movies. Controlling a character and having an impact on the narrative is something unique to them. However, the boundaries of technology often limit player interaction. Even though the aforementioned boundaries have been expanded over the past two decades, it’s not uncommon to be wary of games with self-professed interactive narratives.
While there are many games that tout their branching storylines and nonlinear gameplay, a seasoned player already knows their journey will have a few moments where they can pick between A or B in a sidequest then continue on the path to final boss, where they’ll pick between one or two endings (sometimes between three colors).
Some games present a very linear path to focus on other aspects, such as story or gameplay, like most JRPGs in the 4th and 5th generation of consoles, while others offer a degree of interactivity, such as Persona 5 and its confidants, Chrono Cross’ branching paths and giant roster or Fire Emblem’s support system.
Some games, however, go above and beyond; delivering narratives that are hard to believe were crafted for an electronic game. Rare cases like the seamless morality of Silent Hill or the detailed ending sequence from Fallout: New Vegas do exist and I’m here to talk about one of those games: Supergiant’s 2017 release, Pyre.
Pyre is hard to explain. It’s tagged as Action, Indie and RPG, but it would be hard to fit it in a shelf. The story is told through a visual novel, first person perspective and the main form gameplay is a 3-on-3 magical basketball match with RPG elements such as stats, skills and equipment, topped off with the usual Supergiant treatment of fantastic art and soundtrack.
The story kicks off as the player is rescued from near death by a trio of nomads. The game wastes no time in setting up its world: you and everyone else are exiles from the Commonwealth, condemned to a life of suffering in the barren land of Downside. The protagonist’s crime was reading, as literacy is forbidden in the Commonwealth.
The exiles ask for a favor from the Reader: to decipher a book they found. It details a series of trials exiles can go through and, if successful, regain their citizenship. These rites require you to command them and dunk your way through other exiles with similar goals.
Your globetrotting band of misfits starts its exodus, facing other triumvirates in the good old slam jam while travelling, sharing the difficulties of the desolate territory. As soon as one rite ends, the Reader reads the stars for the location of the next one. The player then chooses which paths to take, leading to different interactions with their crew. Between matches you acquaint yourself with your band and the world you are bound to, meeting new people along the way.
Pyre has a smart approach to exposition. Information about places or people that your character should already know is available through textboxes that appear as you hover over terms. Supergiant could have taken the easy way out, making your character have amnesia so the characters could deliver exposition about the world, but they didn’t. Every piece of dialogue is a treat to the player and not just information being relayed for the sake of the plot.
The overall simple plot takes a backseat to the characters and that’s where Pyre shines: visual novels can feel distant at times but the writing made me care more about those amazingly illustrated cardboard cutouts than most fully voiced, fully modeled characters from other games. All the choices you make flesh out places and people: choosing a path recommended by a teammate, choosing certain players in specific rites, answers given in conversations, all of them result in different dialogues without intrusive “relationship meters” or “intimacy levels”.
So far, it all sounds like the usual RPG fare, from the somewhat “chosen one” nature of the protagonist to the buffet of party members from different races, but Pyre soon takes a departure from the traditional shenanigans.
(Spoilers for the first big plot point and first fourth of the game ahead)
Shall your triumvirate be victorious in the rites, you’ll be summoned to a final match that will determine who shall go free. There’s just one issue: even in triumph, only one person can return. That person needs to be a player in the rite. The Reader is excluded.
Not only you cannot escape life in the Downside, you need to say goodbye to one of your allies. The choice is absolutely grueling. If you are fond of a character, do you want to spend more time with them by your side or free them from this prison? The conflict is amplified for gameplay reasons as you cannot depend on a single character to carry you across the game. Building a team and playing around everyone’s strengths and weaknesses becomes essential.
The aftermath of the Liberation Rite is bittersweet at best. Yes, one of your friends is free, but you will never see them again. The only way to progress is to keep participating in the rites, hoping for freedom. This makes every interaction hold a lot more weight. You never know if the small talk you had with one of them will be the last time you two interact. Some of the details on a character’s background might never become clear, such as their origins, their crime or their years of exile. There’s even the possibility of failing and having one of the opponent exiles being freed. Defeat isn’t a game over screen, it’s something you’ll have to live with it, much like all the characters dealing with their situation in the Downside. All of that is supported by Pyre’s writing and cast, making you crave for every opportunity for interaction with your group.
Pyre’s branching narrative comes from the bold decision of letting the plot simmer in the background while letting the cast be the driving force behind the story. Your choices won’t have world-bending consequences and the structure of the liberation rites remains the same, but the experience will be different for every player. Every choice shapes the game to be unique with each playthrough.
By keeping decisions close and personal, Pyre makes them impactful without introducing dissonance akin to a peasant treating you with indifference even after saving the world. In fact, it does the exact opposite, as characters will comment and sometimes reminisce on liberated exiles. The scope of the game is much narrower than an open world RPG, focusing on the members of your team instead of the world or how it is affected by your decisions, but that laser focus is its greatest quality: it makes every choice and every interaction have extreme importance, as its open narrative doesn’t come from side content, it’s directly woven into everything. Some RPGs might give you plenty of options on side quests, but Pyre delivers a massive amount of branching paths that matter to the meat of the game.
Pyre’s choices get even tougher as more of the plot is revealed. The organic storyline stays true all the way to its ending, but I’ll refrain from talking more as I’ve already said too much. Discussing Pyre with the few people that played it in my Steam friendlist was great, as we all had completely differing journeys across the Downside and it only made me want to start a new playthrough on the spot just to see how things could have turned out.
With its meticulous focus and storytelling, Pyre manages to deliver a truly organic, branching narrative without chasing the fool’s gold of the David Cagean “cinematic experiences” or outright ignoring the player like Mass Effect. While it wants to tell a story, it doesn’t strive to be anything other than a game and, by unashamedly embracing that, the result is something that could only have been done through gaming, and it’s this kind of effort that pushes the medium forward.
(Images come from my playthrough, press releases and this video by imonfire)