This piece contains spoilers for Pyre throughout.
In Pyre, Supergiant Games’ 2017 sports sim, players take the role of a faceless and nameless “Reader,” a character who is able to read both the stars and the written word. Having been convicted of some loosely defined crime, the Reader is exiled from the world above and forced to wander the wastelands. Over the course of the game, my Reader found themself committing to bigger and bigger causes: to friendship with the three weirdos who ultimately recruit them, to the sports team they form in an effort to escape exile, and, ultimately, to revolution. In 2021, this revolution felt peculiarly prescient—not because it represented reality, but because it represented what it’s easy to want reality to be.
I went into Pyre knowing almost nothing about the plot. I knew that it was mostly composed of visual-novel-esque dialogue interspersed with bursts of action-style gameplay in the form of “rites,” games of a weird basketball-slash-reverse-ultimate-frisbee-type sport. I knew that there were a lot of decisions involved, and that doing well at the sports part of the game would often mean saying goodbye to favorite characters as their exile ended and they got to go back to the surface (I don’t question why being the best jock is the path to institutional clemency). I knew I would probably like it. I did not know that the plot’s main focus was around laying the groundwork for a revolution.
The characters in Pyre are all exiles from a place called the Commonwealth, which exists somewhere above the game’s main setting. If your team wins the “ascension rite” at the end of each short tournament cycle, your chosen teammate (or, if you lose, your rival’s) is allowed to rejoin society on the surface. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth is quickly revealed to be a dystopian, war-torn aristocracy with truly abysmal censorship laws; reading might be illegal, and unendorsed printing certainly is. Meanwhile, living in exile means speech is a little more free… but you have to live in the wastelands, where food and shelter are in short supply and there’s a weird magic vibe that sometimes makes people grow horns. Returning to the Commonwealth—and thus three square a day, reliable shelter, and your loved ones—is widely desired, but the nation itself is unambiguously corrupt and broken.
Once I and my three initial companions had assembled all the other members of our team, a mysterious benefactor revealed himself. He asked us to join his cause: to, as we won ascension rites, carry his revolutionary ideals back to the Commonwealth with the intention of tearing it asunder and building something more humane in its place. How the revolution would go—its violence, its immediate outcome, its legacy—would depend on our agreement, and on how many ascension rites we could manage to win.
I agreed immediately, and proceeded to win every ascension rite. My revolution was bloodless and decisive; my ascended teammates were, as Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett sing in the game’s end credits, true to the end. As they returned, they used the connections they made as exiles and the Commonwealth’s own resources to foment revolution. By the time we played the last rite, conditions were such that our faction could seize power with little meaningful resistance, and the transition to a new status quo was smooth, if lengthy.
The relative moral purity of Pyre’s revolution doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but, frankly, I’m not particularly interested in scrutinizing it. I played in 2021, around the anniversary of 2020’s protests against police brutality—I know that real revolution is marked by infighting and compromise; hard wins and shocking losses. I know that the arc of change is long and exhausting, and that swift change almost always comes with other sacrifices. But god, I spend every day mired in the realities of labor law, the prison industrial complex, and whatever the hell is going on with queer infighting this week. Sometimes it’s just nice to play a game about a successful and morally acceptable revolution before turning back to the world beyond my television screen. Pyre’s revolution isn’t realistic, but it is cathartic.
A key part of this catharsis is the complicated appeal of the Commonwealth: it’s corrupt, but characters want to return, and the narrative doesn’t condemn them for it. Their reasons for wanting to go home are understandable: it is fundamentally easier to have your base needs met in the Commonwealth, and several characters desperately miss the loved ones they’ve been ripped away from. Pyre’s narrative allows two things to be true: return can be “good” and desired by the bulk of the characters, while also being “bad” on a sociological scale.
In 2021 (and now), that contradiction was distinctly relatable. Unlike the impossibility of Pyre’s revolution, the double-edged sword of the Commonwealth feels very much like the choice and desire to engage with Having A Job in the modern west. I actually like working (if I didn’t, this article wouldn’t exist), and I’m even passionate about the work I do for my day job. But regardless of that passion, the deepest, truest reason I’m employed is because it comes with a salary that pays for my rent and groceries, and with benefits that allow me to do things like go to the doctor. Despite the drawbacks—complicity in a system that inherently exploits workers, capitulation with content I find morally objectionable, generalized exhaustion—Having A Job is desirable because with one, it is fundamentally easier to have my base needs met. I might like aspects of it, but I want it because what I really want is to eat and not die.
Pyre’s revolution works for me because it starts with a flawed world I can neatly compare to my own and presents me with a fantasy of a solution. I want a revolution that acknowledges the compromises inherent to staying alive, and that allows me to maintain some semblance of security while it all goes down. I want one that doesn’t require death or suffering, even from those who would see it fail. I want a revolution that stays true to its ideals throughout the struggle, and I want the ability to build and maintain a better world once the revolt is over. I know I can’t have these things, but I want them.
It’s nice to have them, if only in the fiction.
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.