The Scribes, long gone myths who are praised as gods by the common folk, were the ones responsible for bringing a bit of hope to the Downside. This living purgatory built for those who commit crimes in the Commonwealth, is also a host for the Rites, an ancient competition that faces two teams against each other in a sort-of sport game. But, instead of competing for a monetary prize or mere glory, both teams are fighting for a chance to get out from the Downside, and obtain a way back home.
One of the things that I had wondered during my time with Pyre was the purpose of the Rites. If the Downside is supposed to be place exclusive for those who have been exiled, why give them a chance to be free again from the very beginning?
Stories tell that Soliam Murr, first of the eight Scribes once ruled the Empire of Sahr, but cared only for himself during his command. He was accused and pursued for abandoning his reign in order to search a treasure called the Celestial Orb; but in the end, he was given a second chance. Instead of the infamous emperor who deceived them, they found a changed man in body, mind and soul.
They could not bear to hurt him, but by disobeying their initial orders, the group condemned itself to a life of exile in the Downside. The treasure later became the key element in the Rites, and the pursuers were named Murr’s scribes, who became one alongside them in the process. That’s how it all started.
The group increased its numbers by meeting fellow exiles along the way, each with their own backgrounds and tales to share. And, one night, the stars started to serve as guidance, giving birth to the Rites in the process. Since then, people like to think that they gave their life so the rest could live free; a phrase that is always present in the game, and serves as the perfect example to illustrate how Pyre embraces failure.
In Pyre you command an exile left at the brink of death, who is rescued by long forgotten triumvirate called The Nightwings. From that moment you become their guide thanks to your ability to read and comprehend the Book of Rites; the same forbidden knowledge that sent you to the Downside in the first place. Both the book and the stars guide your way towards the rites, leading you to face other triumvirates, until you are eventually given the opportunity to participate in a Liberation Rite. Unlike the regular rites, these are your key to leave the Downside.
Something that you are not told, however, is that you as a Reader get to decide who will get the chance to return home. The remaining exiles at their side will not be joining but rather helping them to achieve freedom. “The three must act as one,” says the book, but nothing is settled for the relationships you can either create or tear apart with these decisions.
To add even more tension to your choices, Supergiant Games present an extensive cast of characters that carry unique backgrounds with one another. Some are shaped along with the story, but there are friendships and rivalries that precedes you. Thus, all the challenges you face serve a handful of purposes depending on what you decide, such as reuniting a fellow exile with their lover, granting peace to an old fellow who has devoted his latter life to raise an adoptive child in the Downside, or contributing to the Plan, a revolution that is simultaneously emerging in the Commonwealth while you’re fighting for freedom.
These are just a few examples of the stories you find throughout Pyre, but there is one that stood with me until long after the game was finished.
At one time during my playthrough, Pamitha (a harpy that joins your party early on in the story) ended up facing her blood sister Tamitha in a Liberation Rite. Aside from an initial dialogue between the humanoids, there was a crucial moment presented before me during the rite.
In the midst of the match the music changed for a moment, and Pamitha’s thoughts reached out to me. She was willing to give up her freedom so her sister could get out on her place, expressing her guilt over the fact that she considered herself responsible for Tamitha’s sentence. I stood there watching at the screen, speechless, thinking about everything Pamitha had gone through for an opportunity like this.
At the time my team were having the lead. Luckily, the characters I had chosen to aid Pamitha were working on perfect synergy; victory was at merely a few steps away. But I was stroked with doubt after hearing her thoughts. Could she really be willing to give up her place, even though the match’s result is pretty much settled?
I scored a few more shots, but I slowly started to give them the advantage; started to care less about the repercussions that this could lead to in the future. In the end I fulfilled her request, even though I was condemning the entire party to a wasted opportunity for either of them. All the effort that took to get there, the victories and failures along the way, have all been for nothing.
It was soon after that I found out the stars were starting to fade away, unexpectedly setting a limitation the whole party and freedom they were so anxiously craving for. And I had just thrown a chance by letting the opposite team win. For some, the enemy. But for Pamitha, her sister was no longer a part of the Downside.
All of the characters are trapped in this endless loop, submitted to a routine of repeating each cycle until all get to be free again. But it’s only when they found out that there won’t be enough Rites for each of them that their relationships and pasts start to intensify even further.
However, each and every one of the exiles already embraced failure the moment they set foot in the Downside. They are all aware that there are reasons for them to have been exiled, and yet, everyone is welcomed without hesitation, without judgement.
In the Downside, some tend to see their sentence as a way to make profit out of it, using connections in the Commonwealth and selling information back and forth. A few learned how to live with that weight, too, and use the Rites to either prove their worth or just have a good time. Lastly, there is people like Hedwyn, the exile who saves you at the beginning of the game, who accepts everyone who stumbles his way and wants only for his friends to achieve freedom. Or, in the worst case scenario, stay in the Downside together.
Pyre is about more than just friendship or union. It presents a moral choice in each and every one of your decisions, impacting in more people than you can possibly think. Losing gets a different meaning. Quoting the words of one of the characters: “If we prevail against them, it must mean… that they cannot go home. Even if they really want to.”
Every time your team wins a match, they are taking away one chance from all of the triumvirates, along with what could perhaps be the last opportunity for the person who was chosen to participate in the Liberation Rite. Just like Pamitha, it will depend on you whether you choose to fulfill a request in order to give someone the peace their deserve, reunite a romance or put an end to an endless dispute.
There is no good or bad in the Downside, despite what the people in the Commonwealth might think of the exiles. Having considered their backgrounds (which are slowly showed to the player as the story progresses), each character you encounter has a pending task on the other side. Thing is, sometimes this involves a sworn revenge by an entire clan, which are waiting for one of their most important members to return, which is the case for Tamitha.
But there are exceptions such as Dalbert, who choses to live faithfully to his clan, and shows signs of humble from the first time you battle against him and his adoptive son. Such is his devotion that he refuses to return to the Commonwealth after winning a Liberation Rite, and grants the opportunity to his son instead.
Pyre does not have a checkpoint system, nor it lets you replay each match to create a different outcome. You are bound to your decisions and actions, such as your teammates are bound with each other in the Rites. Supergiant Games created an unique and interesting mechanic that never stops to evolve throughout the story, and that makes each playthrough to be and feel unique as a result.
There is nothing compared to seeing all your party members, your friends, exchanging conversations and making promises to each other, even after they realised there won’t be enough opportunities for all of them to return home.
After finishing the game I learned how meaningless a checkpoint can be, as long as the right narrative is there to sustain the experience.