Video games are a fantastic source of inspiration despite what some might think. In fact, they are probably more so than other mediums besides maybe narrative-heavy comics, which are similar. The reason why is that games allow a kind of breadth in design that you don’t see in film. RPGs of all kinds and Visual Novels are good examples of this; some of them have larger word counts than traditional novels. But they are also very graphical too.
This makes them rich grounds for inspiration and conceptualization. One such game for me has been Pyre.
I absolutely adored Pyre. It’s a game where you are convicted of being literate (because, you know, books give people dangerous ideas) and are then thrown in what is effectively Hell. Denizens slowly turn into a hulking horned demon the longer they stay here, and the place itself is already pretty inhospitable. The only way out is to compete in fantasy basketball (you read that right) where teams of 3 use their magic/powers to try and dunk a ball into the opposing team’s pyre (hoop), which is where the game’s name comes from.
You can make this easier by ‘killing’ members of the enemy team, but they are just made incorporeal and eventually they come back (hey, the characters say the experience sucks). Anyway, win enough times and you face a championship match. Win it, and one of your members gets to ‘ascend’ and return back to the real world.
This is where all the beautiful little nuances of the story shines through and what makes the story so fucking amazing. Only one person gets to go despite matches being a team effort, and it doesn’t even have to be someone from the winning team. You are given the option to let someone from the competing team go instead, and they have mostly fully fleshed out characters too. For example, one of them was previously a member of your own team and was supposed to have ascended, but was betrayed at the last moment. His lover-turned-traitor died because the ascension wasn’t meant for her but he lost his chance anyway, and the rage stayed with him all that time. Do you send one of your own to freedom or right a wrong you weren’t present for?
This is made all the more difficult when, pretty early on, you are told that there are only a few matches left due to events caused by the story. In other words, only so many more people will have a chance at freedom and the game strongly begins hinting that not everyone will get to go.
Since all the characters are wonderful and developed you find yourself wanting them all to go home, so it makes choosing hard. You also lose them from your team when they go obviously, so if they are winning characters for you then that makes winning in the future even harder.
I loved every bit of this premise, from the fantasy sports teams to the moral dilemmas of this Hell. Everyone there is supposedly a criminal, but from the very get-go, you know this is just a label. You were thrown in just for getting cozy with a book in the privacy of your home, after all. So all the characters have ‘sins’ they committed, and some don’t even want to leave (or don’t think they deserve to) which makes it all the more complicated.
It’s soul-twisting to choose someone for freedom only to have them beg you to send their jackass evil sister in their place because of misplaced loyalty and a debt you grudgingly acknowledge but refuse to let matter. Or maybe you do let it matter; she wants to stay anyway, but the choice is ultimately yours. There are no good endings in the game, just the continuations of everyone’s lives which are told to you in the epilogue. Some are happy with their lot, some are not; all of them are traumatized in some way by their experiences.
The problem with Pyre, then, is that this compelling story is utterly ruined by a tedious and not all that great gameplay mechanic. Worse, it’s basically a visual novel but is marketed as a game first, something VNs decidedly don’t do even if they have gameplay elements. So people play the game and grow upset they spend more time reading than playing, and it doesn’t help that the not-basketball game gets old really fast.
I found myself rushing through already too easy matches, impatient to get to what I cared about: the story. I was also a little displeased with how some story beats were handled. Overall though, Pyre remains one of my favorite ‘games’ even if I prefer to call it a VN instead.
I’d still easily recommend Pyre; it’s a very rich story for anyone who wants some examples of good strong characterization. Especially if you want to see great examples of characters reacting to the plot and setting. In fact, that’s the reason why I will continue to make posts like this every so often. I know not everyone is a gamer, but there’s just so many good sources of inspiration out there that deserve some kind of highlight. Maybe someone will stumble on this later in the years and return back to it; who knows.
Either way, you can’t go wrong with Pyre despite its issues.