Pyre: A lesson in allyship and leveraging privilege
If your New Year’s resolution involves taking more political action, reading the news can be a disheartening experience. How long, you ask yourself after yet another terrifying report, will communities stand by while the people who run them consistently undermine the interests of those they represent? Why isn’t anyone planning anything better? What will it take to change things around here?
For me, this line of despairing questions unspooled over the holidays not while reading push alerts from the Washington Post, but while playing a video game, Pyre, published by Supergiant Games last July. Pyre builds a deep world with compelling characters while using sports game mechanics to deliver fist-pumping yell-at-the-screen fun. As satisfying as the gameplay is, the experience stayed with me because of the questions Pyre asks about who can change the world, rather than how the world can change.
In Pyre, you and almost all the other characters are exiles from a high-minded and socially stratified country called the Commonwealth, which has taken to banishing its malcontents as a one-size-fits-all solution for “crimes” ranging from sedition to mental illness. Because Pyre is set in a fantasy world, exile means not prison or deportation but being tossed into the Downside, a sort of interdimensional purgatory planet. You were exiled for your literacy, yet because you are one of the few in the game’s world who can read, a band of fellow exiles offers you an almanac that reveals the time and place of certain celestial events, thereby appointing you the de facto coach (“the Reader”) of their team in a ritual sport (“the Rites,” a cross between the Mesoamerican ball game and NBA Jam). Long story short (and spoiler warning from here on out), the Rites are not merely entertainment but a means by which one player on the team that wins the season-ending match is pardoned and returned to the Commonwealth.
In Pyre’s world, many Rites champions take cushy jobs the Commonwealth offers them on returning in the hopes of reforming the system, only to become part of the system themselves. But a long-suffering character ropes you, the Reader, into a plan (“the Plan,” of course) to topple the Commonwealth and install a new government by sending back exiles who will refuse the deal and incite the people’s passions. You get to choose who your team sends back -- you may even throw matches and send back a deserving or politically expedient member of a rival team. The catch, as the game slowly reveals to you, is that the Rites are ending, and not everyone will get to go home.
I harbored suspicion of the Plan throughout much of Pyre. Even if it succeeded, what would stop the cycle of political rebirth and decay from continuing? What made the Plan’s architect, a professor in his past life, a worthy leader in the practically-minded world that had already rejected him? Some of my teammates seemed happier trying to eke out a life in the Downside, free from the expectations of a failed egalitarian community back home. Why burden them with this dim hope of something better?
My teammates taught me otherwise. I was a new exile, both in the context of the game and as a player outside of it. Some of these characters had lived in the Downside for years, or decades. They talked of their belief in the Plan in the abstract, but many of them eventually voiced their own views on what it meant. One wanted to speak peaceably to her long-estranged sister on the other side of an endless war. Another hoped to care for his mother without having to resort to crime to make ends meet. Still another spoke of seeking a fulfilling life outside of the belligerent culture into which he’d been born. Instead of casting aspersions at the Plan, I should have been listening to how it resonated and grew practically in the minds of those whom it was meant to help. They were laying the groundwork for a functional Plan in their communities, while I was spitting on it from on high.
The Plan’s success in Pyre is determined by how many worthy exiles you send home. You, the Reader, don’t count as one of those worthy exiles if you are able to return. Many of us politically conscious strivers aiming to somehow “do more” this year are Readers. We are well-trained in theory and potentially dangerous to governments that are deaf or openly hostile to the needs of the communities they purport to serve, but we are not worthy exiles. Rather than quitting the game, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, or charging onto the field with absolutist visions of progress, we can best serve as quiet coaches and friends to those whose plans for justice and fairness have already taken root in our communities. Where those implementers don’t exist, we can strive to recruit them. As a last resort, we can lead only in the absence of alternatives, and even then only if we can muster the humility that comes with constant attentiveness and the knowledge that we may always be mistaken.
The choice to stand aside and offer help unnoticed isn’t always comfortable, especially if, like many people of privilege, you were raised to be the hero in your own story. This kind of thinking follows us even in situations where there are no real-world stakes, like in a video game. At the end of Pyre, when I was on board with the Plan, my Reader was offered the last-ever trip out of the Downside. My cursor hovered over the option to accept the deal for ages before I refused it. I didn’t sympathize with the rival character who went free instead, or understand the choices that led him to fight for the chance in the first place. He was a former physician who faced repeated injustices in the Downside until he hardened into a vengeful nihilist. It was a risk to let him return, but if I went home, I finally reasoned, my own prejudices would follow me there. Despite everything I had learned, I would ultimately try to do what I thought was “the right thing” for others instead of actually listening to others. Maybe the man freed by my refusal would pay forward the only thing I could offer him: compassion for an unknowable stranger. Perhaps that compassion, rather than me, could help build a just society.
I’m indebted to two other essays about Pyre for sparking this one: You’re not the hero of Pyre’s revolution, and that’s the point by Claudia Lo for Rock Paper Shotgun, and Pyre: A Trophy Named Mercy by Nic Reuben for Cliqist.
header image: screenshot from Pyre / supergiant games