You’re not the hero of Pyre’s revolution, and that’s the point

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How many times have you played as The Hero of the Revolution? Where you get to lead the charge against an evil government, backed by a rag-tag rebel group, as a rough, gruff outsider. You’re the one who drives the action, at the head of every important rebel action – it’s your guts and your guns that will win glory for the revolution. You’re the face of change, in that you literally show up on all the WANTED posters. The rebels cheer for you when you walk close. Everyone assures you history will remember your name.

Pyre’s not that game. You’re just a hero of the revolution, no capital letters, and certainly no glory. No one will remember your face, much less your name.

Extensive spoilers for Pyre follow.

Nearly everyone you meet in Pyre has a similar story: they did something deemed unacceptable by polite society, and were exiled to the Downside. Exiles are flushed down a river to beautiful, brutal land that serves as combination penal colony and death world. The Downside doesn’t quite exist on the same plane as the rest of the world; there’s only one way back out, and it involves a magical upwards-flowing pool of water that opens up only when the stars align. To earn the right to escape, exiles must join one of nine triumvirates, or groups of fellow exiles, and fight their way to the exit through a set of ritualized ball games called the Rites.

The polite society, called the Commonwealth, was originally founded as a better alternative to the empire it replaced. Eight hundred years later, the Commonwealth is now an oppressive, authoritarian nation. Ever since its founding, it has been embroiled in a ceaseless war with its neighbour, the Highwing Remnants. The Commonwealth’s rulers banned literacy, in an attempt to keep their grip on power, two hundred years ago. And the practice of exile, intended to be used for the worst criminals, is now the de facto form of punishment. Your crime was being able to read. The crimes of the exiles you meet include conscientious objection, refusing to execute children, and simply not fitting into society.

Early on in the game, as you near the final Rite that will determine who goes free, you are told about a revolutionary plot. Created by your teammate Volfred Sandalwood, this Plan (always capitalized in game) is a scheme to topple the Commonwealth. The core of the game still revolves around trying to secure freedom for your companions, with an added twist in that you’re asked to consider how they might contribute to the struggle on the other side.

But, while the game makes a big deal of the Plan’s slow progress, the revolution is inevitable. No matter what you do, the government will be toppled, the difference only in how violent the revolution becomes. No matter which of your Nightwings you send home, they will help in their own way. And if none of them make it home, well, the Commonwealth falls regardless, and the Sahrian Union will take its place.

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As Reader of the Nightwings, your contribution consists of choosing who gets to go home, and trying to make sure that they’ll make it there by winning in the Rites. But, ultimately, you’ll never directly participate in this revolution. You can’t even participate in the Rites, since the game indicates the Reader is crippled somehow. Your character never gets a name, only a title, and their face is never seen. The game’s epilogue states that all accounts of the Reader, in the future, are fragmentary. No one’s even sure if you definitely had a hand in creating this new nation.

So who’s The Hero of the Revolution in Pyre? There are two candidates, Volfred Sandalwood and Hedwyn the Deserter. Hedwyn most closely fits the mould: he’s charismatic, idealistic, and joins the revolution with little hesitation. Wherever he ends up, he forms the charismatic core of the rebellion and if he returns home he becomes a popular leader of the new government. He even manages to have a romantic subplot, seeking freedom so he can be reunited with his lover. Initially, he’s the one who gets the group to accept you, saving your life. He settles disputes and it’s clear that of the original Nightwing trio, he calls the shots.

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Volfred Sandalwood is the mastermind of the entire revolution, a former professor whose old colleagues and students form the core of his revolutionary network. He’s the one who did all the legwork, finding new recruits, organizing communication between those in the Commonwealth and the Downside, and ultimately was the one who gave Hedwyn the idea to dig up an old wagon, grab two friends, put on some robes, and start playing fantasy basketball. Volfred is the driving organizing force behind the game after the first cycle of the Rites. The game calls him the leader of the Nightwings, and though he’ll defer to you when it comes to conducting the Rites, he is always there to steer you and the Nightwings to where he needs you to be.

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None of this is a knock on Pyre’s story. In fact, it’s to its benefit, and manages to make the Plan one of the better representations of revolution. Instead of depicting the toppling of an old government as the work of a single determined individual, Pyre emphasizes how much of the groundwork is laid out in slow, incremental, yet vital community work. Nor is it a coldly logical take on the issue. Pyre champions a gentler, kinder take on revolution: Volfred might have laid out a network of contacts, but it’s your bonds of friendship that carry you through. And Hedwyn might be the poster boy of the revolution, but it’s his relationship with a Harp, sworn enemies of the Commonwealth, that symbolizes what’s at stake. The pair represent a brighter, kinder future where people aren’t persecuted for stepping out of line.

Your job in this operation is to hold everyone together. In Pyre’s fictional language, “Reader” is “liguratus”, close to the Latin “ligare”, meaning to bind or to unite. While everyone has their own motivations for seeking freedom, your contribution is to organise them and remind everyone why you carry on. You form the emotional core of the group, helping each member of your team grow and realise that freedom means more than merely escaping the Downside. In effect, the game recognises that there is more to organizing and executing a revolutionary plan than cold-hearted efficiency. Compassion, care, and companionship take center stage in Pyre’s revolution, whether it is used in service of inspiring others to join the cause or simply showing a little kindness to those who deserve it the most.

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Pyre’s focus on compassion and kinship as core values of social movements are welcome in the current political climate in Europe and North America. Protesters face mounting persecution from governments keen on cracking down. In the United States alone, legislators are introducing bills aimed at protecting those who kill protestors by hitting them with cars. As fantastic and mythical as Pyre’s world is, its issues and themes regarding broad social change are as relevant as ever. It is a rare game that is willing to sideline the player’s character in favour of showing that change requires coordination and community. It is rarer still to find popular interpretations of social change that focus on collective action, rather than individual action, as its main driver. Even as the urgency of the Plan mounts, your revolutionaries decide to rely on their trust in one another: they trust that you, as Reader, will make the right choice, and on your part, you trust that those exiles you send home will do their best to further your goals. Pyre’s gentle revolution is one that understands that a monument that honours the mastermind of the revolution ought to honour his entire organization; it knows that the values of liberty, mercy and kinship can find material expression in something as simple as a tranquil, sunlit library.

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It’s a respectful and ultimately optimistic stance on revolution. Inch by inch, the denizens of Pyre’s world build a better future for themselves, whether they are stuck in the Downside or not. Throughout the game, there’s no guarantee that this plan will succeed, and the progress of Volfred’s Plan is given to you as a percentage chance that will never quite hit 100%. The last time there was a revolt, the government banned books and literacy, leading to what you see in the opening menu of the game: a pile of burning books, your Reader kneeling among them, and a window showing the downward-flowing river that provides your one-way trip to the Downside. The Voice, Pyre’s bombastic narrator and a ruler in the Commonwealth, shows up to lambast you frequently as your revolutionary leanings become more obvious. But you never stop trying – indeed, giving up is never an option – even as the stars go out, and it becomes clear that not all of you can return. Not even the end of an age is enough to stop the quiet determination of Pyre’s revolutionaries.

34 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    calcifer says:

    Great take on what Pyre really is, I couldn’t agree more.

    While I enjoyed Bastion, really, really liked Transistor, I love Pyre. It has everything that makes Supergiant unique and somehow they have once again managed to do outdo themselves.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      Agreed, in no small part because it has so many interlocking characters this time, who react dynamically to what happens in the game, rather then a static “after-the-fact” exploration of an enviroment.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Huh, I didn’t expect the revolution to still fire when none of you make it, although I suppose years of planning and the instability brought about by some other actors would cause some big issues. Mainly I just never would have the heart to intentionally set my team up for failure.

    • Premium User Badge

      calcifer says:

      Yeah, that was surprising to read. Especially since there is an in-game counter telling you how likely the plan is to succeed.

      Like you, I just didn’t have the heart to leave anyone behind on purpose. At the end, I left the 3 people who I taught would better cope with life in Downside: Me (the reader), Volfred and Ti’zo. In theory I could have saved one more, but I just had to set Tamitha free :/

  3. Bluestormzion says:

    Okay, gotta stop reading here for a second, because your claim that “legislators are introducing bills aimed at protecting those who kill protestors by hitting them with cars.” is kinda BS, here.

    It’s specifically referring to those “protestors” who are illegally blocking roads/highways by standing in front of and surrounding motorists, menacing and beating against their cars. These people are FAR from the peaceful protestors who file their permits and march, which we are all in favor of. I don’t know about you, but if I’m driving along with my family in the car, and a mob surrounds my car menacingly, I’m going to run them the hell over to get MY FAMILY home safe.

    • Kolbex says:

      Yes, I perfectly understand your not at all insane sentiment, what with all those people who’ve been dragged from their cars and beaten to death by protesters.

      • Premium User Badge

        Grizzly says:

        The Saint’s Row approach to traffic negotiation

        • Kolbex says:

          The Saints freely indulged their sociopathic impulses without hiding behind the fig leaf of “muh family,” unlike your average Internet Tough Guy.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      Oh, so the “I feared for my life” defense is being extended from cops to civilians? Truly the land of the brave.

      I wonder when “I smelt weed” is going to come into fashion as a defense.

    • Jaunt says:

      Thing is, self-defense and necessity are already legal defenses in the good old USA. You don’t need any special laws to protect MUH FAMBLY in your SUV from the squishy meat bodies of those evil protesters, unless your game plan ab initio is “hit protesters, and then go ‘oops I didn’t MEAN to hit them'” as you laugh your way out of the courtroom.

    • hennedo says:

      It’s funny that most responses to your sociopathy have focused on the muh fambly portion. I think it’s more ridiculous to look at your muh rodewayz argument (I misspelled the words for you to symbolize the inner workings of the argument). Keep rollin’, not-so-easy-rider!

      • Jaunt says:

        I was being charitable and assuming when he looked up from his phone he was 50 meters deep into a protest with no way out. I too find obstructing a road to be worthy of no more punishment than the actual sentence, and often less.

      • Kolbex says:

        They’re both bad!

    • ravenshrike says:

      In point of fact the laws sprouting up come from an incident where a bunch of idiot protestors walked onto a busy highway at night and one of them got run over. They have nothing to do with being surrounded and fleeing for your life as that is already covered in most jurisdictions under self defense.

  4. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Really liked this article even though I haven’t played Pyre (don’t really plan on it either, I’ve never gelled with Supergiant’s control schemes.) Glad to see you writing for RPS again, Claudia!

    • Claudia Lo says:

      Pyre does allow for completely remappable controls! But each to their own. I’m glad you liked the article!

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Control scheme might be the wrong phrase, perhaps game-feel is better even though I don’t think anyone uses that term anymore.

        I really wanted to like Transistor and in a lot of ways I did. The problem was I was never sure how the game wanted me to play. Is it like a CRPG, a twin stick shooter or an isometric action game? Does this game solve any of those problems?

        • Jaunt says:

          I think you have to accept the controls on their own terms.

          Fwiw I found transistor clunky as much as I loved it, and had no complaint about pyre’s controls.

        • Truemas says:

          I totally agree with your statement about the Transistor combat system. As someone who really adores all of their games, i really wanted to love Transistor more than i do. The combat system is a really great idea, but it falls short on the real time portion, because it seems hamstringed on purpose to make the turn based portions more viable. Yes, you can spec into skills that make RTS more viable, but it still seems a bit unnecessarily clunky. It is a gameplay idea i really wished people would expand on and make both Layers of the combat viable.

          • SigmaCAT says:

            Isn’t that the point of the game though? You’re frail in real time, so you have to hunker down and can only act in short planned bursts; i guess it works with the story, since she uses the sword or something to shift perspectives and that’s what allows her to defeat a bunch of things the others couldn’t

        • shde2e says:

          Pyre doesn’t exactly “solve” the problem, because it uses almost entirely different mechanics.

          You can basically divide the game in two different parts: the visual novel-type gameplay where you drive around the map and talk to people (which is a substantial part of the game, not just connective tissue), and the actual Rites themselves.

          For the Rites, the game is in real-time and almost entirely focused on movement and positioning. The closest you get to combat are the zones of instant death surrounding each character (except the one with the ball), and the abilities with which many characters can manipulate this zone (often leaving them vulnerable in return)

          Also, every player is a one-hit-wonder, except instead of dying they get a temporary time-out. Players can “die” really quickly if their opponent uses their abilities well, but if they manage to avoid or counter them the opponent usually “dies” instead.

          Ultimately, you win matches by outmaneuvering your opponents, using you movement abilities properly, and by being able to juggle the various team members and use their abilities to support each other (as you can only control 1 at a time).

  5. kwyjibo says:

    If I were the head of an authoritarian regime, I’d banish enemies to somewhere they can’t escape via sportsball. Such a fatal flaw.

    • Truemas says:

      Haha, true! But Supergiant were thoughtful enough to explain ingame that the empire is bound to this tradition.

    • shde2e says:

      Apparently they also get rewarded with wealth and power? Though I might have misunderstood that (Sandy does like to be vague and pompous)

      • Claudia Lo says:

        The original idea, in-game, is that by having to go on such a difficult journey to earn your freedom, you grow as a person and earn back your place in society, and that the Commonwealth should be led by those redeemed and transformed exiles.

        In practice it means that freed exiles buy back into this corrupt system and start sending down people who oppose them. Because it’s so difficult to get back out, it’s practically a death sentence.

  6. Mirarii says:

    I don’t mean to sound ignorant but I am honestly confused at certain trends in stories.

    What is with the obsession of being the head of a revolution? Games (many of which are great, btw) like HL2 run their story on such an aspect of a main character and I simply do not understand it. Pyre, looks great–don’t get me wrong, and this article was interesting–but I don’t understand why it is so popular to fixate oneself on the ideas of disobedience, discord, and revolution.

    • Jaunt says:

      Because power fantasies are popular with the disenfranchised, who often have an axe to grind with traditional power structures.

      Were you being rhetorical? Are you also curious why manshooters are so popular? That seems a bit weird to me too.

    • Seafoam says:

      It’s not that hard to get.

      Player character is the protagonist of the story. Protagonists are important and driving forces for change. Thats why YOUR’E always the leader, because YOUR’E the hero!

      It’s only natural for a video game to have the player character to be the protagonist. If they dont lead then theyre atleast second in command.

      • Josh W says:

        Oblivion for example makes the strange choice of making you a side character at the climax but the primary character during the game, you close all the portals, do all the dirty work, then at the end, random monk becomes a dragon and saves the world.

        It has logic to it in that it makes the side quests you do earlier in the game seem more important, and leaves the conclusion under the designers control, so that they don’t have to make 5 sequel timelines converge. But on the other hand, in an open game, where you’re very often slacking off the main quest, joining every organisation simultaneously and messing around with the economy, it actually makes more sense to have the problems solve themselves when you aren’t there, with you being able to finally end things by taking some main quest chain to it’s end.

      • MegaTiny says:

        It’s what lots of people didn’t like about the end of The Witcher 2. You show up after 40 hours of adventuring and all the important people (read: not you) make the actual important decisions. It was pretty novel, but I did feel like it fell a bit flat.

  7. Phantom_Renegade says:

    I’ve only played the game you describe in the first paragraph once. It was called Fable 3 and it was pretty good at doing that.

  8. Josh W says:

    I can’t decide quite what I think of Pyre’s themes of revolution viewed as a message:

    On the one hand, like you say in the article, being a supportive background figure trying to create a more compassionate and secure revolution is a good start, although I wonder about basing the success of the revolution around a mirror of the team building sports metaphors of the general gameplay:

    It’s great on the one hand to propose that characters have an ability to shape the revolution, and so based on that influence, it’s important to get people involved, but is it a good message to say that success is a matter of getting the right people? The background structure of the game may involve large amounts of compassion, but if the conclusion is more about the composition of an elite revolutionary cadre, and less about the methods it adopts, then it can never completely embody that idea of revolutions based on broad acceptance and humanity (and maybe the pinker-style theme of literacy promoting empathy and reason).

    But maybe that’s for the next Supergiant game! I would love it if they have a slow progress from games about individuals focused on rebuilding, dissident artists, political prisoners in a distant revolution, and onwards to dealing with the difficulties of being actual revolutionaries..

    • shde2e says:

      I ran into a similar problem, namely that I found it very hard to get warmed up to this revolution because I had very little idea of what the Commonwealth is actually like, and even less so of the revolutionaries themselves.

      How damaging is the Commonwealth really? We hear a lot of bad stuff about them, but then everyone we meet is someone who didn’t fit in and was deliberately thrown out of the Commonwealth into the Downside. For all we know, 98% of the citizens are doing basically alright under their rule.

      And who are these revolutionaries? What are their goals? How do they intend to accomplish them? How realistic are their goals? How messy is this revolution going to be? And how much is actually likely to change? How do they want to prevent to fall into the same problems as the Commonwealth itsself did?
      The only real source of information we have is the guy who started it all, has an unspecified level of information and a habit of not telling you important information if it furthers his goals.

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        Grizzly says:

        To me, the most critical argument against the commonwealth, atleast early on, is Rhae, the girl whose name you can pick. How did she end up in the downside? What manner of just society would cast down people like that?