While Madden, 2K, and FIFA refuse to change, a small indie game re-discovered the true heart of sports game by daring to go deeper.
Every year, we see the same massive sports franchises offer solid experiences with slight alterations. The most recent Madden added a single player story and 2K18 added a social, street corner hub, but these are fundamentally minor changes for a genre that’s based on establishing a status quo and upholding it. This kind of annualized iterative development is the modus operandi for most AAA franchises, particularly the Maddens, NBA2Ks, and FIFAs of the world.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Brand loyalty isn’t the only reason games like 2K and Madden sell well; they’re also just a joy to play. They make us feel like pro athletes at their best. And in the end, sports games really only need to fulfill one desire right? We need to feel like winners.
The concepts of competition and winning are at the core of all sports and the games that emulate them. But wouldn’t it be crazy if a sports game questioned the very concept of victory? Wouldn’t it be exhilarating if a sports game took the time to reflect on what it means to win, to mine sports for thematic depth?
We actually got that game. Released just last year, Supergiant Games’ Pyre was willing to explore a side of sports that most traditional sports games don’t. In doing so, it cemented itself as one of the best sports games in recent years.
I can hear you shouting at your screen, “Cody, Pyre is not a sports game!” And to a certain extent, you’re right. Looking at Pyre from the outside, it’s a strange game. The latest release from the critically-acclaimed indie studio behind Bastion and Transistor, Pyre mixes the choice-driven RPG elements of a visual novel and the intense action of a sports game.
At its core, Pyre retains Supergiant’s focus on storytelling and worldbuilding, but the sport that these exiles compete in is the reason Pyre succeeds. Players are dropped into a world and forced to play as a team of exiles in a 3v3 football-meets-dodgeball game in order to win and secure their freedom from a horrible wasteland.
Rites, the ritual form of competition the game centers around, pits you against an AI-controlled team. The two teams compete to throw a glowing orb into the opposing team’s pyre (read: goal) in order to whittle down its health.
What starts out as a simple idea quickly gains complexity, as Supergiant adds mechanics onto the basic 3v3 matches. Player positioning and movement are vital on both offense and defense since you can only control one character at a time..
Exiles without the orb have a circle, or “aura,” around them which eliminates any opponent who touches it for a short period of time. On top of that, you can fling your aura forward as a long-range attack in order to stop your opponents from getting too close to your Pyre.
Add to all of this the unique abilities that each of your party members and opponents has along with the various items that buff those abilities, and Pyre’s fantasy football matches become incredibly strategic bouts. Picking the right team composition and skill sets before a match impact the outcome as much t as dodging enemy auras and executing your strategy during it. Given its solid design, the sport of Pyre could probably sustain an entire game all on its own.
The fact that the games are called Rites is key. It demonstrates that the competition, like real sports, is much more than a game. It’s a ritual that carries as much importance to those who participate in it as any religious ceremony. That’s a heady concept — sport as ritual — that Pyre tackles with subtlety through its gameplay.
However, the most impressive thing about Pyre’s approach to the sports genre is that this all operates in service of something larger.
People who play sports – and video games – understand that there’s an inherent dichotomy. You win or you lose. But Pyre, doesn’t forget that there are two sides to the assumed win-lose duality. Your loss is an opponent’s victory, and for the exiles in this desperate competition, a victory is a glimmer of hope. A loss is not a fail condition in Pyre. Instead, it adds to your story – and your opponent’s.
Pyre’s biggest victory comes in the way that its writing and gameplay work in tandem to humanize your opponents. Over the course of Pyre’s story, you’ll get to know the other groups of exiles by facing off against them multiple times. Before each match, you’ll engage with them in conversations that range from hostile to downright friendly.
Unlike the opposing teams in games like Madden and FIFA, these AI-controlled characters have a radiant humanity and relatable motivation that make each game a more complicated affair. Just like you, a win for your opponents can lead to freedom. That means you’re the biggest obstacle between characters that you’ve bonded with through the competition and their freedom. The temptation to let the other team win can be all too real. You come to understand that with redemption on the line, victory is a worthwhile endeavor on both sides.
Your first opponents, an honorable old dog and his adopted human son, respect the game and its rituals. The old curr has clearly been in this cycle of victory and defeat for a while and his valiant efforts despite the odds make it hard not to root for him – even though you’re the obstacle that stands in his way.
It’s a brilliant spin on the standard idea of victory and defeat and drives home an oft-unexplored idea that’s central to sports culture; in the heat of competition, opponents often form bonds built on respect despite the circumstances. In Pyre, those relationships carry weight.
Most traditional sports games allow us to feel the thrills of professional athletics like buzzer beaters and penalty kicks. Pyre made its mark on the genre by exploring the meaning behind those thrills – the bonds forged between opponents, the ritualism of sport, and the complexity of victory. It’s still an odd game, but looking back on it, Supergiant Games crafted a smart and engaging sports game, one of the best in years. In a genre obsessed with maintaining the status quo, Pyre sticks out as a refreshing reminder that the competitors are always the heart of competition; that victory comes with a cost.