by Adi Stein
I’m still playing catch-up with regards to big 2017 video game releases. I started my year with Night in the Woods (which maybe would have been my number one game last year had I gotten to it), then I moved on to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and most recently I completed Supergiant Games’ Pyre. From Pyre’s announcement I had heard that this was a game with style. Fantasy Space Jam meets visual novel with bold, bright colors and a quirky cast of characters? Sign. Me. Up. But what no one told me about Pyre was how much this game has to say. Pyre is an anti-establishment, Trump-slamming ode to revolution, and it was exactly what I needed in our current political climate.
Pyre tells the story of a rag-tag group of exiles who have been banished from their home, The Commonwealth, for varying reasons. Over the course of the game, your team grows and develops as it participates in a ritual known as The Rites. The rights are a series of competitive games in which one team tries to get an orb into the opposing teams pyre. Depending on who get’s the orb in, points are taken off of the opposing team until one team is eliminated. The best description of this sport that I’ve heard so far comes from Giant Bomb’s Alex Navarro who describes The Rites as a sort of “cosmic basketball.” By completing The Rites and besting your opponents, you have the potential to earn freedom for one member of your crew at a time.
Quickly you gain a team member named Volfred, a grey Ent-like being. Volfred has an ambitious plan. Through success in The Rites, your group, The Nightwings, shall plant the seeds of revolution throughout The Commonwealth. Each character that earns their freedom will return to The Commonwealth and begin to assemble a coalition to bring down this ancient and elitist government.
From here I could talk about the pressures this puts on the game. How each decision as a result of this plot point bears significant weight. How each match of The Rites means more and more, especially once you find out that there will soon be no more Rites to compete in. But there’s something more interesting happening here.
Supergiant Games is making a statement about the world we currently find ourselves in. America is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave. It is a country run by money. A country in which the rich gain wealth on the backs of the poor. In which minorities suffer under the weight of those who seek to keep them suppressed. Nowhere is this more evident than in our failed judicial system. We are plagued by mass incarceration that systematically targets minorities while letting those with money and white skin walk free. It’s a problem that I regularly look at and cannot see an easy solution for. Time and time again I find myself thinking, “Maybe we just need to burn this mother down.” After all, what better way to fix something than to dismantle it entirely and start from scratch, with new knowledge and the ability to make informed decisions based on past failures?
This is the central thesis of Pyre. The Commonwealth disproportionately favors those who already have power. It has a judicial system that doles out brutal life sentences for seemingly minor crimes. So what’s the solution presented by Volfred? Revolution. Start from the bottom and build up strength until you can overthrow those who sit too comfortably from their luxurious posts of wealth and power. Turn this broken system on its head.
It’s a thought I’ve had more than once since the election of our current administration. In a country shattered by continuous gun violence, this administration proposes the death penalty for drug dealers. In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, this president regularly advocates for the elimination of due process. It’s a terrifying landscape in which I regularly think that the only solution is to start from the ground up. We find ourselves living in less of a Democracy and more of an Oligarchy, and that won’t end unless we as a people stand up and say enough is enough.
Now am I saying that Pyre is advocating for a full scale French Revolution-style social upheaval? No. Of course not. But what I am saying is that, like all great pieces of art, Pyre is holding up a very clear mirror to our society. It shows a reflection that, though bright and colorful in visuals, is dark in tone.
I keep wondering when enough will be enough for this country. What’s the straw that will break this camel’s back? I have no idea. What I do know is that we can’t lose more of our fellow Americans to police brutality, gun violence, and mass incarceration before we wake up. Because if we do, we’re just as doomed as The Commonwealth.