I had mixed feelings about Pyre, the recently released tactical RPG by Supergiant Games. Despite my misgivings on how the story and gameplay were structured, I was fascinated by Pyre’s complete lack of a traditional Game Over screen. Unlike most video games, Pyre forces you to accept the consequences of failure.
Warning: Spoilers for Pyre!
Pyre is dressed like the beautifully crafted, voiced, and orchestrated RPG that we’ve come to expect from Supergiant, developers of Bastion and Transistor. But its unique combat system is modeled after a sports match, closely resembling 3-on-3 basketball.
The initial narrative follows a linear journey through the prison world known as the Downside. You and your recruited team face-off against teams of other competitors, all eager to escape this world by competing in the Rites. Naturally the Rites involve trying to get a mystical ball into your opponents’ goal, er, pyre.
The story accepts your results whether you win or lose any given match. That’s a shockingly mind-blowing way of handling an RPG, where falling in combat usually requires you to either restart the battle or reload an earlier save.
But Pyre is set up more like seasons in sports, which encompass multiple games of wins and losses. While you can certainly attempt to finish the game with an undefeated record, the story doesn’t require it. In fact it presents a rather nasty difficulty spike during your second championship match: the Liberation Rite.
The speed and efficiency of my suddenly very competent opponent caught me completely by surprise. I lost the match handily. I grew upset at how I felt cheated by this suddenly very aggressive and competent AI. I expected to be treated to a Game Over screen so I could try the match again.
But it never came. I watched as the enemy team’s leader was granted her freedom, and my own team fretted. We returned to the wagon, licking our wounds and promising to each other to do better next time. I realized the game was teaching me an important lesson: it’s okay to lose, even on the big stage.
Video games have relied on the Game Over crutch for decades. It’s a simple feedback loop – if you can’t complete this task, keep trying until you do. Occasionally an RPG may force you into an unwinnable battle, knocking out your green team while showing off the strength and power of the big bad. Your team gets beaten up and flees, or is captured, or the big bad laughs and runs off. It’s a scripted event, one that the game designed for you to fail as part of the story. Success was merely an illusion.
Many modern western RPGs and adventure games like to offer you real choices and options, from where you go to whom you ally with. There could be many different ways to role-play a character. Sometimes you may have to decide who lives and dies. Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Fallout love giving you tons of options and freedom with exploration and quests.
But these choices and paths rarely include failure as a real option. They’re still telling the same story, and require you to mostly play along, tweaking some details here and there. But should you fall in battle, your character isn’t captured or slain, and you aren’t forced to live with the consequences. It’s Game Over, man.
Pyre’s story can change dramatically depending on how often you fail. A caveat is built in to the story to make sure you always reach the Liberation Match in each season, despite your W-L record. This does make individual matches mean a lot less in the long run, though you’ll gain better experience by winning.
Winning and losing the Liberation matches are where the story can really change direction. As an additional quirk, winning the championship match also causes you to lose a player, as they ascend from the Downside. You need to release these players in order to improve your chances at receiving the better endings. Losing thus comes with a consolation prize: you’re not down a player for the next season.
As a lower budget indie game Pyre can alter its ending quite dramatically. The ending is told through simple vignettes and slides of the various players, both friends and foes. The concept of multiple endings is certainly not unique to Pyre – Chrono Trigger had over a dozen back in 1995. But your ending is directly related to how well you perform in the Liberation matches, as well as the choices you make with which of your characters can earn their freedom. Even if you manage a perfect record, there’s not enough tickets for everyone to make it home.
Many action games as well as Telltale’s episodic adventure games could greatly evolve by learning from Pyre. Games like The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy tell heavily scripted stories that offer dramatic choices throughout key moments.
I love that in most of their dialogue scenes refusing to say anything is a valid option. However during action moments if you miss a quick-time event a character typically dies or fails, and it’s Game Over. Likewise many action games like Tomb Raider employ quick-time events during tense dramatic moments. You fail, Lara dies, Game Over.
The dramatic tension of these situations are quickly drained when you have to restart the whole scene. How much more interesting it would be if your character were injured from the failure, and you had to keep going?
A few modern examples do provide interesting twists to failure. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s entire Nemesis system is built around falling to one of Sauron’s Uruk. Any Uruk who survive an encounter with the player, or even manage to slay them are promoted to captains, gaining new abilities and powers. It provides a unique system that catapulted Shadow of Mordor into a memorable experience.
State of Decay also plays around with failure using permadeath. In a zombie-infested world you can locate randomly generated survivors to add to your growing colony. As a third-person action game you control one of these survivors at a time as you scavenge for supplies. But should you get overrun by the undead, that survivor is gone forever. They drop whatever they were carrying, morale is shaken at the colony, and you have one less ally on your team. It creates a tense, pulse-pounding scenario when things get bad, as you can’t rely on the crutch of reloading to save a favorite character.
Pyre’s failure isn’t as dire as killing off characters, but I appreciate a game that can cleverly incorporate real, meaningful failure into its narrative. More games should learn how accepting failure as a valid option can enrich the experience, provided the other gameplay systems support it.