Reflections on Pyre; or, “Yeah, I’m Pretty Much a Sports God Now”

The Nightwings were having a rough season. After their initial Liberation Rite in which they successfully returned the exile Hedwyn to the Commonwealth which had banished him, they spent some time recovering before a new “season” of Rites commenced. During this time they would face a number of their previous opponents for a second time in preparation for a new Liberation Rite and a second opportunity to free a member of the team from exile. And now the stakes were even higher – each freed member of the Nightwings was a key piece in a revolution boiling in the Commonwealth. For the odds to favor a freedom that was more than fleeting, victory in the Liberation Rites was essential. Unfortunately, the matches since that first victorious Liberation had been anything but simple.

The first obstacle presented itself in the form of the Withdrawn. A group of serpentine bog witches who worshipped a dark and terrible god, their desire for freedom was driven by their wish to someday see the dark god returned. In a standard season match against the Withdrawn the Nightwings were quickly dispatched. The bog witches were fast, could jump for vast distances, and had a talisman that added to the strength of their pyre, forcing the Nightwings to need to score more goals in order to prevail during a match. With no clear method available to them to balance the odds against the crones, the Nightwings lost to the Withdrawn in their next Liberation Rite and no one went free.

Things didn’t get better from there. The next Liberation Rite pitted the Nightwings against the Essence, a group of harps from the Highwing Remnants who considered themselves fierce enemies of the Commonwealth. The Essence were led by Tamitha, sister to one of the Nightwings and an aggressive competitor in the Rites. During their match with freedom on the line, the Nightwings fought valiantly but time and again lost points to the harps flying above their heads. When the match came down to the wire, Tamitha’s aggressive playstyle led her to move all of her team’s starting positions closer to the celestial orb. With the Essence starting each round in control of the orb, the Nightwings faltered and lost the match.

On second thought, please feel free to kick my ass anytime.

This is the story of my Nightwings, and by extension the story of my experience with Pyre. Pyre is a sports RPG by Supergiant Games where you fight for liberation from exile in a competition where two teams try to dunk a celestial orb into the opponent’s pyre of flame. It is a game where – once the training wheels came off after the first “season” – I struggled for quite some time. A lot was working against me in Pyre. I primarily play turn-based RPGs and strategy games, neither of which require serious hand-eye coordination or the ability to react and make decisions in a split second. I’m also primarily a console player, so controlling a game with mouse and keyboard simultaneously felt awkward to my hands. When little moments of truth would pop up during a match, my slow reaction time combined with my lack of muscle memory for the buttons would lead me to make key mistakes. I was discouraged by Pyre for a time, but after taking a break I decided to channel that frustration into an opportunity to learn.

Each of my defeats had a clear lesson for me to learn, a skill for me to master. Against the Withdrawn I learned the importance of having a wide selection of talismans for my team, and that I would need to counterpick talismans in order to customize my approach for the match to the opponents I was dealing with. By not having any tools in my toolbelt to heal my pyre or give it a starting boost, I put myself in a position where the Withdrawn could defeat me with four goals while I needed six at minimum with the players I had chosen for the match. I took a break from emphasizing choices between matches that gave me insight to instead earn money so I could purchase new talismans and upgrade them.

Against the Essence, I learned a fatal weakness in my playstyle: I hadn’t learned to block airborne opponents. When someone with the celestial orb in hand jumps, you can’t blast them with your aura or tackle them by sprinting. You have to jump into them yourself to knock the orb from their hands and put them back on the ground. I had to practice reflexively hitting the jump button when an opponent flew over me or took to the air with a big jump. Without getting this skill under my belt, any opponent – but particularly the ones with flyers like harps or imps – would be able to shut me down without much effort.

I emerged from this crucible discouraged but ready to prove myself. I had things I knew I needed to work on and I set about perfecting these new skills. There were a few other things I needed to work on to, chief among them passing the celestial orb to maintain control of the ball and throwing the orb into the pyre from a distance in situations where it wasn’t safe to dunk. Aware that the failure to learn these skills would translate to fewer Nightwings freed and a lower chance to bring down the Commonwealth, I did some practice matches and made sure to be very intentional about practicing the techniques where I was weakest.

The results were exhilarating. Having lost two consecutive matches, the next Liberation Rite ending in my victory felt amazing. It had been a close match – coming down to the final goal – but the fact that I came out victorious gave me a huge burst of enthusiasm for pushing through the next leg of the game. As Pyre moves closer and closer to its conclusion, the Liberation Rites become more and more common. The fifth one came quickly after my fourth, then the sixth more quickly after that, and the seventh almost immediately after that. Each time, I could see the skills I was learning solidifying more and giving me more and more of an edge. I went from barely winning to having a comfortable amount of energy remaining in my pyre at the end of each match. Each bout was still competitive, but I’d become good enough at the game to have more control over each match and to step away with more points each subsequent time.

When credits rolled on Pyre, I felt like I had earned the bittersweet but ultimately victorious ending that awaited me. Just as my lost matches became the fuel that made me better at the game, the mistakes I made during my journey still ultimately played into my hand at the conclusion of the story. As I sat back and listened to the credits roll, I reflected on the progress I’d made since identifying early on that Pyre would be a challenging game for me. I may not have become an expert at the end, but the arc of progress I’d traveled allowed me to demonstrate marked improvement as the game reached its narrative climax. When I dunked that final goal in the last Liberation Rite, it truly felt like I had fought to earn that victory rather than just easily sweeping all of the opposition aside.

I left Pyre deeply impressed with what the game was able to accomplish. Not just the way it uses narrative consequences and failing forward to keep the story going even when you fail, but to tie those failures meaningfully to the final outcome of the game. The losses are bitter but also serve as lessons that make it clear what techniques you still need to practice in order to improve your skill at the Rites. And the feeling of satisfaction that comes from mastering the gameplay and plunging into the pyre to free one of your teammates – it’s good stuff. I’m quite glad I gave Pyre a try and fully recommend it to others to play as well. Even if, like me, you worry you may not be great at the game, you may be surprised by what you can overcome if you give yourself the chance to practice and improve. And the personalized story that awaits you at the end based on your decisions, your victories, and your failures is well worth the effort.

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