We can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us. Or we can fight our way back. Into the light. We can climb outta hell. One inch at a time. - Tony D'Amato, Any Given Sunday
As someone who grew up loving bad sports teams, Pyre's central conceit of "sport as cult-ritual of the damned" seems more insightful than it does fanciful. The latest game from Supergiant, makers of Bastion and Transistor, Pyre is a fantasy sports game wedded to a visual novel role-playing game. Within its world, a magical three-on-three rugby-basketball hybrid is both a framework for religious philosophy and a path to salvation. Space Jam as the Stations of the Cross.
Pyre opens on a group of criminal exiles wandering a beautifully illustrated wasteland called the Downside. Their crimes are unknown, but you can make some guesses based on that fact that your own character appears to have been exiled from the crime of literacy. Together you begin performing these religious Rites as a team (Triumverate, in the game's parlance) called the Nightwings.
As you wander the world, your group encounters other teams, all of whom have a sharp institutional memory of your team but don't seem to notice that your roster is entirely new. Players from other teams will beg to join you, craving the release that your final victory will grant them. Everyone who doesn't win the overall contest in this sort of mystical post-season is damned to repeat it, while the hope is that the champions who complete the Rites will be allowed to just… move on, somehow.
If you followed Chicago sports in the late 90s and 2000s, Pyre isn't a fantasy game so much as a documentary about your life. I imagine the same is true of fans in a dozens of other star-crossed sports towns, where game days send fans to bed seething with anger and disappointment, where drafts and trades receive more scrutiny than any political candidate ever fears, and everyone becomes increasingly aware of how long The Drought has been going on. Because only a championship brings the rain. Everything else—every game, every play, every point—doesn't amount to more than a few dust-devils dancing in a dry breeze. That's life in the Downside.
Pyre's insight is that the boundary between sport and religion has always been a porous one.
Pyre isn't exactly a sports game, but it is a very good game about sports, fandom, and teams. I think that's why its air of sadness and regret is so appropriate: The teams you meet and defeat know that their passage through the Rites is at an end, and they're going to be stuck in Limbo a little longer, while you move closer to the deliverance that a championship represents. In no time at all, star players for other teams are begging you to take them with you, desperately offering assurances that they, too, have something to offer your increasingly stacked roster. What's stardom in Oklahoma City next to immortality, after all?
It wouldn't work nearly as well as it does, however, if Pyre didn't have a good game at its heart, one that grasps the fantasy of sport in much the same way that Tecmo Bowl and NBA Jam once did. Its design allows for skill and tactics, but also dramatic and fast-paced plays. Where games like Blood Bowl and Frozen Cortex find the essence of sport in deliberate, intricate tactics and careful risk mitigation, Pyre is all about the highlight-reel.
There was a moment in one of my early games where Rukey Greentail, an adorably mustachioed dog-jackal kind of thing, was cut-off by a defender at midfield. As the ball-carrier, Rukey would be vaporized when he touched the defender's circular aura ( Pyre really is a hell of a game) so he juked to freeze his opponent, who had to be prepared for Rukey to try to cut sideways and try to get around the aura. Instead, I used Rukey to pass the ball straight into the defender's hands. That caused the defender's aura to disappear, and Rukey's aura to return. Now Rukey, in the blink of an eye, closed the gap and banished the other player, creating an open-lane to the enemy Pyre.
Pyre's simple rules and character types provide an massive canvas for characters' special skills, clutch saves, and improvisation. Every play is a chance for Randall Cunningham's end zone heave, or LeBron's block in Game Seven. It's set up to create those moments people remember about sports and the people who play them, years later when the exact context and most of the details have vanished from memory.
Pyre's insight is that the boundary between sport and religion has always been a porous one, and these moments take on a hallowed a quality practically the moment they occur. It just makes this metaphorical truth into the literal reality of its universe: if your team wins enough games, you're released from your hellish existence of repetition and failure.
But if your team doesn't win it all, and you're left hoping once again for "next season" then you're left with a lot of question about meaning. When so much of yourself is invested in something so arbitrary, what did all those games over all those years really signify? If an arbitrary game played by arbitrary rules becomes synonymous with the false promise of release and redemption, is it fulfilling a need or displacing one?
Other games, like Mutant League Football, have tended to be tongue-in-cheek about the devotional aspects of sports. Pyre has a sense of humor, but not about this. Instead, its great achievement is that it goes beyond simply noting similarities between sports and faith, and starts asking what those similarities imply about the systems they reflect.
Pyre starts interrogating the role of the athlete in an extensive morality play written by the people who control the game and its structure, and gets into what happens when people attempt to change that narrative. It sees how, when competition is framed in terms of some morally redemptive arc, it can confer a moral authority on a system rife with corruption and pettiness.
Nobody in Pyre really wants a title. They don't care about a ring. They play a game because it is their way out of an extensive prison of exile and exclusion, and the champions are rewarded with freedom and respect provided they then pledge fealty to a system that exploited and oppressed them. If the game, like the faith, was once pure, Pyre observes that both have been poisoned and turned against the people who take part. But what, it asks, would happen if they all realized they are getting played?