Every character in Pyre has a story. Some are about the nature of freedom. Others focus on religion. Others invite you to scrutinize systems that purport to offer justice while privileging a select few. But the story that helped the game find its voice and its heart was the unlikely story of a dog's mustache.
I finished Pyre, a fantastic party-based occult sports RPG (yes, seriously) for PC and PS4, about a week ago, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it ever since. Recently, I got creative director Greg Kasavin of development studio Supergiant on the phone to talk about those thoughts.
Nathan Grayson: Pyre's structure changes radically after the first few hours, from an Oregon-Trail-style ground journey to a professional sports analogue where you fly around and challenge other teams over the course what are essentially seasons. It's a heck of a twist, but some people seem to be bouncing off the game as a result.
Greg Kasavin: Pyre puts story really up front. So for the player who's just not interested in having a narrative experience or having an RPG style experience, it's not going to be the game for them, and we're OK with that.
We felt that it was so important to establish the stakes and to introduce the characters that to sort of rush into the second part of the game before any of that stuff carried any weight would undermine the rest of the experience. If you get into those situations and ... they're all generic characters and you don't care about any of them, then there's no point to any of that structure.
I think there's a real misconception that games need to have a broad appeal to be successful in 2017. I think if you look at the Steam charts on any given day, you're going to find a bunch of really weird stuff. We have a certain amount of confidence that if we can make something that can express itself appropriately, we'll be ok. We don't get too concerned about why people won't like it so much as we want to make sure that our games assert themselves for the people who are willing to take a chance on them.
We did try versions of the game where it was much more nonlinear right from the start, and as we played it, we discovered there were some very good instances of this where it hit all the right notes and all the right characters came up at the right times, but there were other instances where we were like, "Wow, this is really busted if you're introduced to this concept before that concept, and this character before that character."
Grayson: There are some character situations that I wanted to focus on specifically. I'm going to go with a silly one first. The scene with Rukey's mustache: how did that even come about?
Kasavin: That Rukey mustache scene is probably the oldest surviving scene in the whole game. There are many scenes that we created and iterated on or just threw away entirely, but the idea for the Rukey mustache scene actually happened in a very natural way while Rukey was being designed as a character. He was initially designed with his mustache, and certain members of the team who shall remain nameless and who number more than one, really didn't like it.
The team was pretty split. Some members were like, "Oh my god, he can't have this mustache. He looks terrible. He looks ridiculous." And other people were like, "No, that's amazing. We have to keep that." So I was like, "Oh man, let's just put this decision in the game."
For me it was this perfect way of encapsulating the kind of moral choice that I wanted there to be in this game. It's not like, "Rukey, Hedwyn! Who lives? Who dies?" Instead it's like, "Dude, tell me, do I keep my mustache or not?" Which is still really important to this character, and it has game-wide implications in the sense that if you tell him to get rid of that mustache, you ain't ever going to see that mustache again.
Grayson: Another character I really ended up enjoying was Ti'zo. At first, he came off as this dumb little mascot character, but if you used him a bunch, it turned out he had long-running beefs with all these pivotal characters, and also he was the descendant of a Scribe and all this other wild shit.
Kasavin: He was the kind of character we wanted to introduce as being asymmetrical to everyone else. It's fun to have these characters like Jodariel, who's usually not funny. She is a pretty serious character overall. But then there are these characters like Ti'zo and Sir Gilman, who might seem silly on the surface, but then reveal depth later on.
From my standpoint it was also really fun to express that even in how you communicate. We knew this game would be full of stuff to read, so we wanted to make that feel as interactive as possible. It was a fun challenge to set up Ti'zo as this character with whom you have this Han Solo and Chewbacca type of relationship where he's saying these gibberish things, but you know what he means and you have this way of interpreting it through the mechanics of the game.
At the same time, though, we knew that players could easily go through the game without ever hovering over Ti'zo's text. If you don't translate any of his lines, he's just spewing gibberish. He's just this cute little imp guy, and that's it. That seemed OK to us too. We want players to be able to gravitate more strongly toward certain characters than others.
Grayson: I read the Rites as this system that initially seemed generous — criminals didn't get executed and instead got a chance to earn their freedom — but actually privileged a small handful of individuals while ignoring most people. On top of that, the player's team, The Nightwings, were privileged most of all as the standard against all other teams were judged. So it's this arbitrary, unfair system masquerading as justice.
The game also poses some pointed questions about freedom. Were you trying to position freedom and the way seemingly just systems can undermine it (while pacifying those who would ask for more) as central themes?
Kasavin: Yeah. We were absolutely interested in setting up these complex systems where it's not cut-and-dried, where they invite scrutiny, but as you scrutinised them you're faced with the duality of those systems and have to reconcile uncomfortably.
As part of the Nightwings and you get to come to terms with that however you want to. There's no strictly evil story path or whatever. You can't like go renegade and kill everybody or whatever. But there are ways to play and interpret the game that can be more hard-edged.
Some of the decisions you can make at the very end can be interpreted to be more selfish in nature, but for us it's in service of letting the game create a personal experience for the player, where you get to make a lot of value judgments along the way, but the game itself does not judge you for your value judgments. It allows you to make them and explore them and go through your thought process within this narrative framework that we've set up.
We definitely wanted a game where you would hopefully come to realise that winning is not always strictly good if you win by any means necessary every single time. We invite people to be thoughtful about the experience of what it means to win and what it means to lose.
Grayson: That said, you included an easily accessible option to reset Rites in the game's menu. If a player didn't want to lose, they never had to. Why not force them to confront losses and realise that life goes on afterward if that's such a central tenet of your game?
Kasavin: That is something that we looked at really carefully during development. We don't expect this game to rewire someone's hardwired brain. Most of us have been playing games for years and years and years that have taught us that we have to win, that it's unacceptable to not win. We want for the player to still be able to engage with this game.
The ability to restart a Rite is an option that we include for the player for whom it is an extraordinarily negative experience to not have that option.
For that player there is like a message that we took care to write, that every time you are about to restart a Rite we invite you to accept the outcome of your journey no matter what happens. We essentially tell people, "You don't have to do this." But then, if they want to do it anyway, it's their game. That's our stance. I think some pretty extraordinary experiences can happen as a result of that.
For example, when my daughter, who is now 11, was playing through the game shortly before it came out. She was one of those players. She refuses to accept defeat. She was on the very last Rite in the game against Oralech and the True Nightwings, and she had a lot of really close calls against them, but she kept losing and she kept restarting. She was starting to get frustrated.
But finally, she won. She beat them, and she was really, really happy. But then she got into the situation where she realised that she had the power to let Oralech go free. Before the Rite, she had it all planned out. She was going to let Sir Gilman go free in the final Rite, but she let Oralech go instead because she realised that she, basically by using these reset mechanics, has the story of having cheated this guy who'd already been cheated out of victory before [the game even started].
She had this experience like, "Oh man, I screwed this guy. I cheated against him by restarting over and over until I won, so I'm going to let him go." I was really struck by that.
Grayson: The themes you tackled — freedom and the idea that we should be critical of systems surrounding us, especially those that purport to dispense justice — are extremely timely. I think, for instance, people who voted for Trump did it because they felt it would preserve their idea of freedom, but in many cases that meant freedom from consequence more than it meant actual systemic freedom and equality.
In fact, what they have helped usher in instead is a situation where systemic freedom is eroding, even as perceived freedom is on the rise for a small subset of people. How much were current events in your mind as you put the finishing touches on this game, and even if they weren't, are you happy this is the game you chose to make given what's now going on in the US?
Kasavin: Well, I never intend for my stories to be allegorical, and a lot of this stuff was already done by the time the last election was rolling around. The direction of the story was set, but it was pretty interesting when this big debate about freedom and different values started to grow to a fever pitch.
It was like, "Well, at least we're working on something that's exploring aspects of this in its own way, maybe in a like a fantastical way with no real world connection directly, but it is exploring them." Freedom is integral to this country. It's been an ongoing point of discussion, and I find these kinds of debates very fascinating. What's freedom to one person may come at the expense of someone else's.
Even just that we're having this conversation, I appreciate our games can get people to reflect. I think that's valuable, and I think it's something important that entertainment can achieve. There's endless, in my opinion, tiresome debates about entertainment versus art, versus business, all that kind of stuff. The reality is entertainment is a really big part of our lives. It's really strongly connected to our sense of culture and our sense of being.
So when entertainment invites us to consider our own view on things or others' views on things, I think it's great. Hopefully, this game directly invites players to be introspective about some of these questions and then, if they take something broader from it I certainly welcome that.
Grayson: How did you arrive at the point of pairing themes like freedom and systemic injustice with what's essentially a religious sport? I mean, I can see some obvious parallels. For example, in a real world, there is a kind of tribalistic, almost religious zealousness that goes along with your favourite sports team. Also, sports themselves are, you could argue, a ritual. It's a series of arbitrary things that we do repeatedly, and what they represent often means more than the literal reality of what they are. Was there more to it than that, though?
Kasavin: The way you phrase it just now, that's kind of what we were thinking about and found very interesting. Not to mention that there are sports that have their origins in a kind of mystical tradition. If you trace certain sports back to their point of origin, they did not necessarily start as fun games intended for televised spectatorship. They have their origin and something that is maybe traditional or ritual or also just practical, if it's shooting or something like that.
I think religion is often just portrayed as bad. It's such like a cliche character of like, "Oh, here's the benevolent priest. He's actually bad." God, it's so common. I can speak to you for another hour easily about Final Fantasy Tactics or whatever, which has the evil priest archetype in it, that evil religious order.
I think it's more interesting to explore the duality of spirituality. Some people can use it to help them cope with life, and other people can use it toward a cynical or self-serving end, and anywhere in between. Having so many characters allowed us to explore a variety of different points of view on these types of subjects.
Grayson: Yeah, Gae — or whatever other people, who were wrong, unless they named her Bae, chose to name her — struck me as a very concrete example of that. While Commonwealth leaders manipulated the idea of the Rites and Scribes, Gae got exiled for claiming to hear the voices of the Scribes speaking to her. She initially came off as kind of a Joss Whedon "mentally addled girl" cliche, but she evolved into somebody who used religion to give her strength in a tough situation and formed interesting bonds with a bunch of different characters.
Kasavin: Yeah, I would say that's definitely the right read on her. I also wanted her to be open to interpretation, though. It's for the player to decide if she's just a religious nut job or if she's someone who is actually really strong in her own right. She has her worldview and she's getting by, she's surviving, she's making it happen. Where other characters are getting down in the dumps and just losing their minds, she's quite optimistic. But is she delusional? Should she be more cynical?
Grayson: Another element Pyre seemed, at least to me, to touch on is how we often tie a sense of morality to sports. In Pyre, people earn their redemption through a game. They become absolved of very literal crimes if they win. Meanwhile, real-life sports are rarely just about competition. Teams represent the cultures, ideals, and morals of places they come from, at least to some people.
Then, of course, there are more specific instances of morality overlapping with sports, like the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick and his, in my opinion, entirely justified on-field protests. To what extent were you hoping Pyre would get people thinking about those sorts of subjects?
Kasavin: While I wouldn't say that's at the forefront of our thinking, I think for sure that's another one of those areas where we feel this connection [to it]. Our characters take on a burden of responsibility that they didn't even necessarily sign up for, and they have to come to terms with how they're going to use it, if at all.
But regardless, it's like, "Hey, guess what? You have it. You matter, whether you like it or not. You may not think that highly of yourself, but your words matter, your actions matter. You can complain about it all you want, but it's not going to change a thing. Too late." In the case of Pyre, you're part of the Nightwings, and the Rites are coming to an end. You can't stop it.
There are going to be people who hate you for this. There are going to be people who expect a lot from you for this and you have to just come to terms with what that means and try to find a way to move forward from it.
People become heroes after the fact. It's not like, "Well, if I do this, I will be a hero." You're probably not a hero if that's your mindset. You're doing something that's more self-serving, but those actions can be really complex as well, like the Colin Kaepernick example. Some people think, "This is obviously his right" while others feel like, "How is he still playing football? This is un-American."
It's polarising. But things are complicated more so than, like, Twitter allows us to express. It's just interesting to look at subjects through different lenses. That's why I think storytelling should be interactive. I'm not into didactic or preachy storytelling. It's like, "Why didn't you just say that this was a fantasy story about how the war in Iraq was wrong" or something? I want things that make me consider the world around me. I just personally prefer that approach in my fiction.
Grayson: Final question: where did you fall in the debate over Rukey's mustache?
Kasavin: Oh man. God, I guess this is probably the really frustrating aspect of me. I'm so middle of the road. I was the person who wanted it to be a choice. Maybe this ties a lot of the stuff together, though. I think having it be a matter of perspective is what was really exciting to me, but the mustache is also really important because he's just kind of ... a dog without a mustache.
The mustache was important in making him appear more human and like the somewhat unscrupulous fellow that he is in reality. So, yeah, pro-mustache if forced to choose, in my case.