And why it shines through the indie market as if favored by the stars.
Written by Cherish Princess Socro, a game designer at The Studio of Secret 6 Inc and a freelance digital artist. She is a gamer, a geek, a digital artist and a fashion enthusiast. Originally posted in Gamasutra.
First there was Bastion, then there was Transistor. Now, Supergiant Games recently released a title that many were not expecting. An arcade sports game that features a captivating world through its art and music, accompanied by a narrative that spices up its already intense and unique gameplay. Pyre shines through the indie market as if favored by the stars themselves.
There is no better way for me to explain the experience that is Pyre than in the words of T.J. Hafer in his Pyre review for IGN. “Watching Pyre’s emotionally gripping story unfold alongside its exciting real time tactical battles is an experience on par with hearing a world class musician perform a difficult piece with equal parts talent and soul.” Pyre is the epitome of what fans have seen in the previous works of Supergiant Games, and more.
As a fan, I could easily turn this article into a love letter to Supergiant Games. Instead, let’s deconstruct the unique gaming experience that is Pyre, and the company’s development principles that shone through Pyre that made the stars align. Suffice to say, there are spoilers ahead. If you’re looking to read about this game and see if it’s for you, there are plenty of articles out there. In this article I will be covering a detailed breakdown of the game, including pivotal parts of the story. You’ve been warned.
Having released two memorable action rpg titles, Supergiant Games surprised many when they announced a sports-based, visual-novel-esque game. Pyre, despite the familiar Jen Zee brand of art and Darren Korb’s flavor of music, offered a completely different experience.
In the past, both Bastion and Transistor focused on the story of one mysterious character waking up after a momentous event that is unknown to the player. The game then unravels the recent events, slowly revealing the world, its characters, and what became of them after said life-changing event. In contrast, Pyre brings you along to experience the build up to a momentous event. Each encounter with various combinations of characters is a trial and a decision on how the future will turn out.
The game’s core battle system is a team based sports game akin to Soccer. The players need to guide a character to the ball and find a way to get it to the enemy’s pyre, with or without their character. Once again, Supergiant Games shifted their focus from a single character to a wide variety of members. From the complex skill system in Transistor, Supergiant Games transitioned to something just as complex, if not more. Pyre’s large ensemble of characters also offers varied skill sets that can be enhanced through trinkets, narrative decisions, and team stat level ups. Each providing a different strategy for different combinations resulting to different playstyles.
Supergiant Games’ marketing strategy for their past games is something called a “Long tail”. This strategy means that months or years after the initial release, their games are constantly selling to a certain amount so that it generates enough profit in the long run to become a commercial success. Their first game, Bastion, had 100k buyers after a month, that grew to 500k after 6 months. Their 2nd game, Transistor, had sold 600,000 copies after 8 months. Based on these, it seems like Pyre is following the same trend with a steady growing user base with 100,000 players and a growing user graph according to Steamspy.
Another thing to note is that Pyre, as a sports style, team-based rpg, differs from Supergiant Games’ past games. Their fanbase is almost split between liking the shift in focus from a single character to a large ensemble, and disliking the lack of visual and gameplay narrative that Supergiant Games has been known for. A number of reviewers voiced their disappointment when they realized that despite the enthusiasm over the unique fantasy sports experience, Pyre doesn’t have an option for online multiplayer.
However, their visual and audio branding shines through in the game’s high level of polish. Despite the unfamiliarity of the gameplay, once its complexity and variety of playable characters come into play, the matches become intense and engrossing. All these giving Pyre a userscore of 89% and a metascore of 82% according to Steamspy.
The Supergiant in Pyre
The first thing new players notice when introduced to Supergiant Games is the superb visual imagery of their work. One of the major stars of the company Jen Zee, the artist and art director of Pyre, brought a whimsically morbid hand-drawn style to the game. The art being something akin to a generously colored Lovecraftian world. With a ritual called “Rites” as the main gameplay of Pyre, there are obvious nods to ritualistic elements in the game such as candles, summoning circles, flames and enchantments. Jen Zee’s concepts pepper the world with these elements along with the obsession of heavenly bodies effectively creating a believable world where the characters, art and narrative seamlessly align. There are even two characters based visually and narratively on the sun and the moon. The game, therefore, creates a tragic, gritty, desolate, but also hopeful, lush and dangerously curious world.
If these doesn’t make you want to immediately acquire HD posters of Jen Zee’s art … I don’t know what will.
Don’t get me started with the game’s visual presentation in particle effects because boy, do they go to town with it in Pyre! The ever present pyres in every ritual adds a looming vulnerability and opportunity in every game. The particles add depth to the 2D and 3D mixture, which create impactful moments. There is a tantalizing excitement when the ball drops and the dust spreads from the center of the arena. You can feel the dread and the weight of your mistake when a character is hit by an adversary’s aura and they slowly disintegrate into thin air. There’s even the feeling of celebration tinged with remorse as your character dives into the enemy pyre with ominous effects and animations, knowing that they will be unavailable for the next round.
In contrast to Supergiant Games opting to focus on in-game text rather than visual narrative, there are actually parts of the world art and character designs that tell more story than what is written. For example, Tariq, the designated minstrel of the player’s traveling party has a counterpart named Celeste. Tariq holds an instrument called the White Lute while Celeste plays with the Black Mandolin. In some of their interactions, you can surmise that they have a connection in the past. Tariq would like to be in Celeste’s presence more than what the old gods, or Scribes, would allow. They are a great example of a trope called star-crossed lovers. However, that’s not all there is about them. If you look closely into their character design, you would see that Tariq and Celeste are opposite sides of a coin. Tariq’s character design includes moon motifs with very cold color schemes while Celeste’s design includes sun motifs with a warm color scheme and a star on her black mandolin. Unlike Tariq, she doesn’t travel and can only be seen at the gates of a mountain, acting as a guardian. The details of their designs suggest a deeper relationship and perhaps a hint on why they cannot be together.
On the other hand, the overworld map players traverse as they move from one rite to another shows curious vistas related to the locale’s history. For example, many of the fallen titans have been reabsorbed into the landscape. Some formed mountains as their enormous head sticks out of the ground while others formed caves with their chest half sunken in the soil. What is new with how Supergiant Games tell story through background narrative is that they now expound about what you see in the background through text. Players playing as a character literally called “Reader” could read the book inside the team’s wagon and learn more about the Scribes. When the titan stars are unlocked, small tidbits about the them are revealed. Compared to Transistor, Pyre’s world is less shrouded in mystery given the amount of detail Supergiant Games went through to let players explore its rich story. Yet it doesn’t stop us from wanting more.
The narrative is presented just like a node based choose your own adventure game. They allow the player to set details of the game narrative that, although minor, makes the player feel like their choices have influence over the world they inhabit. For example, the player is given the choice to assign a pronoun for themselves, set their own origin story and at one point, even name an NPC character through dialogue. Supergiant Games succeeded in delivering an organically branching story by putting the narrative charm in exploring the stories of characters instead of the central driving plot. Pyre’s branching narrative is able to balance the hand-crafted polish to a written story and personal moments that are unique to each player.
Aside from the character interactions, players can read about the background story of the world in the Book of Rites. There are also tidbits of information that pops up when the player mouses over highlighted text in the dialogue, interactable objects, and points of interest in the map. Supergiant Games made sure that the player is sufficiently informed about the details of the world, without having to expose them to multitudes of exposition through dialogue. The player character is treated like an inhabitant of the world without having to use the amnesiac trope just to make sure that what the character knows, the player knows as well.
There is an emphasis on exploration in narrative. The player is encouraged to explore their team’s background story through interaction and involvement. This also applies to exploring the story of enemy characters. At one point, the player gets the freedom to choose which team they would like to face next. Frequently facing an adversary team opens an avenue for more interactions hence pushing the story forward between the opposite team’s members and the player’s as they interact.
Although there are some moments that you encounter information more than once given there are different ways the player can pick up the story. Some information that you read in the book may have been mentioned by a character just moments ago. Hence unlocking the page doesn’t really feel as rewarding sometimes.
Another aspect that Pyre shines brightly on is how player agency in narrative marries well with player agency in gameplay. In the story of Pyre, the player gets to choose which of their companions is liberated in a special match that serves as a rite of passage. (I see what they did there.) If the player has been interacting enough with this character, the player is left feeling like they have served a good friend well. But at the same time, there’s a tinge of melancholy for parting ways both in narrative and in gameplay, as the character will no longer be accessible for the rites. The moment this is revealed, there is even more added weight to the player’s choices.The act of having to liberate the characters you worked hard with, or working hard on characters so you’d be able to liberate them, breaks the party monotony most team based rpg games tend to have. As the player is forced to utilize other characters once they get invested in the story.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Supergiant Games is how they always floor me with superb originality. Pyre’s team based sports arena gameplay made sure that the game have something new and interesting to both fans of the Supergiant Games and those only discovering them now. It’s their third game and they’re still outdoing their previous work.
First, the aforementioned obligatory switching of team composition due to the liberation mechanic. Even If you decide to keep the original team until the end given you’ll be leveling them up the longest, the player is still forced to play with other characters in order to be able to liberate them instead of the player’s star team. Some character’s personal story arcs only progresses if they are utilized in battle, and interacts with key characters in other teams. There are also moments where in characters won’t join in the battle due to sickness, injuries, trauma with the enemy, or even a disagreement in the team.
Per character there is a unique skill tree that turns them into formidable allies. Although, your team is not the only character that progresses. As the game goes on, the player will face previous enemies in a rank based tournament-esque scenario. Each cycle, adversary characters levels up and progresses their skill trees as well. Further cementing the idea that whatever the player is facing as they go through the cycle of the rites, other teams experience as well. There’s even a chart to show how the other teams are doing.
Supergiant games is not afraid to save good twists in mechanics for surprises. They reward the player’s commitment to the game by opening up and changing how the game plays in small but exciting ways. As a rite progress and the player does well, the enemy team gets frustrated and attempts to tips the scales by any mechanical means they deem necessary. When the player is ready to commence the right that will free them, they discover that only one can be free every cycle. When the first cycle of the rites finishes, the map traversal changes from star searching to airship exploration. Even with the characters. You’ll face bog dwellers and tree people but the player won’t be able to guide one in their team until later in the game. Supergiant doesn’t put all their egg in the basket. They make sure there is something new to look forward to as the game progresses.
If I have to have a complaint, it’s that there are moments wherein Supergiant Games experiments with a twist in gameplay, only to never return to it again. One instance was during the night that Nighthowlers attack. Where in, instead of a team fantasy sports match, the player has to defend the caravan from waves and waves of imps. A similar one-shot mechanic-exploration happened in Transistor where there was this one short moment that the game had a puzzle element. When Red had to open a blockade via solving a floor trigger puzzle. These instances seemed like good mini-games that I wish they explored and expounded on.
Is it successful? Because of what?
As a fan of Supergiant Games, I can definitely say that they outdid themselves once again. The sheer time it took me to complete Pyre shows that they are no longer looking at creating short game experiences . Although they decided to do away with the beloved narrator accompanying the player throughout the experience, the company of a band of unique characters and unraveling their story provided a good exchange.
Supergiant games is a company full of heart, soul and talent, creating new experiences and genres as a challenge to other Indie developers. They create unconventional games and beautiful worlds that they believe in, passionately and confidently. This confidence can be seen and felt in all three of their games. With each game they release you can experience the hard work and dedication the team has to creating unique experiences.
Pyre’s genre may be more niche than Bastion and Transistor, but Pyre stands as a testament for other indie developers and companies that despite how long the game industry has been around, and how saturated the market is, there is still a lot to explore and create. There are still multitudes of genres that can be mashed together. With enough passion and dedication, even the oddest formula can become a fantastic journey to freedom.