There's no such thing as a happy ending -- at least, not for everybody. Warning: this article contains Pyre spoilers.
Go to any story-driven game's forum, and you'll come across multiple threads asking the same thing: "How do I get the best ending?" Who, they ponder, should they rescue, backstab, and/or have sex with to avoid producing a demon baby possessed by the soul of an Old God?
Pyre, a fantasy sports RPG where you play as a band of exiles trying to earn their freedom after being exiled to a cutthroat hell dimension called The Downside, purposefully bucks that trend, despite some players' wishes.
The game theoretically has hundreds of different ending permutations due to its large cast, but no matter what, your ending will be at least a little bittersweet. Characters compete in Rites (read: fantasy NBA Jam matches) on teams of three, but only one character can go free every time there's a special Liberation Rite.
In the end, there simply aren't enough of these Rites to free everybody, whether it's your party or a handful of folks from rival teams that you've taken a liking to. Pyre's creative director Greg Kasavin acknowledged that it's a change of pace compared to a lot of other games, but that's the point: he wanted to subvert players' desire to min/max, to force them to confront some uncomfortable situations and, hopefully, find a bit of good in them.
"There is no best ending in Pyre," said Kasavin during a phone interview. "We really didn't want to be dishonest with the choices that players made along the way. We could've taken the story in the direction of like, 'Oh, everyone can go free now' or something like that. But it would have felt antithetical to what the story is really trying to explore. If you're seeing things in terms of good and bad, you have to broaden your frame of reference, because in life it's rarely that cut-and-dried."
Kasavin and company were careful, however, to avoid letting their game become cut-and-dried in a different way. It would have been easy to designate The Downside as a blanket "bad" and freedom from it as an unconditional good. Similarly, they could've created a relentlessly depressing game, where characters' bad endings saw them suffer for all their mortal years in what's essentially Hell.
Pyre, though, is at its strongest when it takes an initially simple dichotomy and gently, meticulously peels back its layers. Over the course of your journey, characters form relationships and have realisations about themselves. Some even find a sort of home and community in The Downside, and if you send them back too soon -- or in a couple cases, ever -- you doom them to a life of unfinished business.
"For us it was this idea of this sort of journey to enlightenment, to either physical or spiritual freedom," said Kasavin. "As long as the characters reached a deeper understanding by the end of the story, it really wouldn't necessarily matter where they ended up."
For example, I initially planned to free Gae, a young woman exiled after she claimed to hear the voices of the world's godlike Scribes, which was a big, sacrilegious no-no. As I played, though, she made friends with characters like Ti'zo, an unusually intelligent imp with far more ongoing beefs than any adorable creature should have, and Almer, a young man near her age whose (adoptive) father happens to be a dog.
Gae found comfort in her connection to The Scribes as well, and in The Downside, people just accepted that part of her. She had more of a life and family in The Downside than she ever did in the teetering, dictatorial Commonwealth. So I decided to leave her there with her friends and in the end, she was pretty happy, despite being trapped in a world deemed fit only for criminals and exiles. Gae's ending, then, had some good and some bad, and Kasavin added that elements of it are very much meant to be open to interpretation.
"It's for the player to decide if she's just a religious nut job, or is she someone who is actually really strong in her own right," said Kasavin. "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 in their own way, she's quite optimistic. But is she delusional? Is it bad that she's not more cynical? That's for you to decide."
In my playthrough of Pyre, I also made a choice that would almost assuredly lead to a sad ending in other games: I decided to keep The Reader, the character who other characters viewed as "me," in The Downside too. I had a shot at freedom, but I turned it down because I felt like Oralech, a medic-turned-frothing-vengeance-demon who once earned his freedom but then had it stolen from him, deserved it more.
That's the other lesson Pyre tries to convey: systems often unfairly prioritise certain people, and in this case, that means some characters' freedom comes at the expense of others. What do you do with that information? Do you take advantage of it to exclusively help your favourite characters and then yourself? Do you try to destroy the system by strategically freeing characters you think would best be able to lead a revolution in the Commonwealth?
Regardless, what happens to everybody you beat, who never even get a chance at freedom because you assumed your goals were more important than theirs?
"We were interested in creating complex systems where they invite scrutiny, but as you scrutinize them you're faced with the duality of those systems and have to reconcile uncomfortably [where you fit into them]," said Kasavin. "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."
When I decided to not free myself, it kinda sucked, because I'd already freed most of my favourite characters, so that meant we'd never be reunited. At the same time, though, my pals Gae and Ti'zo were still down there, and my character never felt like the sort to go settle down in the newly-liberated Commonwealth. Again, the game accepted that choice and, when I reached the ending screen, informed me that my character, Gae, and Ti'zo remained close and spent their lives working to make The Downside a more liveable place.
Kasavin told me that I could've lost a bunch of Liberation Rites, mostly freed characters from other teams, and gotten an even more extreme version of that ending where most of my party stayed in The Downside. He even wanted that not-so-good ending to be a little appealing, depending on your perspective.
"We want players to be able to express themselves that way of, like, 'You know what? I don't care [about leaving The Downside]. I just want to hang out with my friends. That's ok. We're all going to stay here,'" said Kasavin. "And to be able to have that playthrough. I think it's cool that the game supports any combination of that, because everything is from the point of view of the different characters."
The point of it all, Kasavin said, is to tell a fantasy story that's not so fantastical, one in which characters don't get to live happily ever after but do come away better off than they were before. They gain friends and relationships, and they learn about the impact they have on other people and the world around them. They find silver linings, even in the midst of tragedy. More than, say, an art style or music or a genre, that's the tie that binds Pyre to Supergiant's previous works: Bastion and Transistor
"Bastion takes place in the wake of like an apocalyptic event, and in that game likewise it's like, 'Hey, there is still beauty in this world after this apocalyptic event,'" he said. "I think all of our games have been interested in the idea of having to pick up the pieces and make do with the hand that life deals you, not to just give in to despair."