In a twist, your slip-ups can mean suc­cess

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD style@wash­post.com

His­tor­i­cally, most video games based around quick re­flexes have re­warded per­fec­tion­ism. Rack­ing up a high score on a leader board or get­ting to a new stage gen­er­ally re­quires zeal­ously avoid­ing mis­takes. Plenty of games use neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment — in the form of lost progress, lost good­ies, etc. — to guide play­ers into adopt­ing ideal strate­gies for over­com­ing ob­sta­cles.

Surely, a de­cent per­cent­age of you who play com­pet­i­tive games, from “Tetris” to “Mario Kart,” know some­thing about abruptly quit­ting out of a game (though hope­fully not in mul­ti­player!) when your skills are off or your luck has turned out­ra­geously sour. Alas, the habit is so in­grained in me that I had to con­sciously wean my­self from it as I played “Pyre,” a vi­brant, well-paced role-play­ing game that wants play­ers to em­brace their slip-ups. A high­light of the game’s de­sign is that no mat­ter how de­ci­sive a loss might ap­pear, the story rolls on in an in­ter­est­ing fash­ion with no “Game Over” screen in sight.

De­vel­oped by Supergiant, a small, San Fran­cisco-based stu­dio, “Pyre” boasts qual­ity writ­ing, art di­rec­tion and mu­sic, virtues equally present in the stu­dio’s pre­vi­ous games, “Bas­tion” and “Tran­sis­tor.” Un­like those ti­tles, which played out as thought­ful iso­met­ric ac­tion games, “Pyre” is a cross be­tween a text-based role-play­ing game and an oc­cult-like sports match. As­sum­ing you don’t re­flex­ively hate the game’s high fan­tasy set­ting with its demons, witches, harpies, talk­ing dogs and talk­ing trees, you’ll find a clever game that morally ques­tions whether it’s ben­e­fi­cial to self-growth to want to suc­ceed ev­ery time. As such, be­hind the word “pyre” lurks the threat of the Pyrrhic vic­tory.

At the be­gin­ning of the game, you, the player, are in for­lorn con­di­tion when you’re ap­proached by a trio of strangers who are oddly dressed in col­or­ful cer­e­mo­nial clothes oth­er­wise known as “rai­ments.” Like them, you’re an ex­ile who has been ban­ished from the Com­mon­wealth — the land of re­spectable so­ci­ety — and sent to live in the Down­side, a par­al­lel world from which it is nearly im­pos­si­ble to es­cape.

Af­ter be­ing nursed back to health, your new­found com­pan­ions take you back to their fur­nished wagon. There they ask if you can read. Whether you an­swer truth­fully, it soon be­comes ap­par­ent that you, the only lit­er­ate per­son in the area, are des­tined to be­come their “reader.” In that role, you’re charged with mak­ing sense of the group’s most pre­cious pos­ses­sion, “The Book of Rites.” In its pages you learn that it’s pos­si­ble for a team of three to square off against other teams for the priv­i­lege of par­tic­i­pat­ing in a grand com­pe­ti­tion. Out of that, an anointed mem­ber on the win­ning team is per­mit­ted to re­turn to the Com­mon­wealth.

Matches, or “rites,” play out with two teams sep­a­rated from each other on op­po­site sides of a field. Be­hind each is a lit pyre. At the start of each “rite,” an orb de­scends from the sky and lands in the mid­dle of the field. The ob­ject of the game is to plunge the orb into your op­po­nents’ fire, thus tem­po­rar­ily ex­tin­guish­ing it. The first team to ex­tin­guish their op­po­nents’ fire a set num­ber of times wins (the num­ber will vary based on a va­ri­ety of fac­tors).

Scor­ing is com­pli­cated by a num­ber of fac­tors. Op­po­nents can shoot at each other with pro­jec­tile beams of en­ergy oth­er­wise known as “auras.” If you dodge late and get hit, then you are tem­po­rar­ily ban­ished, leav­ing the other team a chance for a power play. There are numer­ous other tac­tics to come to grips with: when to change play­ers, when to pass, when to drop the orb to use a char­ac­ter’s of­fen­sive abil­i­ties, when it’s bet­ter to risk throw­ing the orb into the fire in­stead of run­ning or jump­ing into it. (Fling­ing your orb car­rier into the pyre is gen­er­ally an eas­ier way to score, but your char­ac­ter is then ban­ished for a short pe­riod of time. On the other hand, throw­ing the orb into the pyre avoids that penalty but gives an op­po­nent a chance to catch it out of the air, and po­ten­tially makes you an easy tar­get.)

At a cer­tain point in the story mode, you’ll un­lock dif­fer­ent mod­i­fiers that can be ap­plied to make the “rites” more chal­leng­ing. Such risk car­ries the prom­ise of added in­ten­sity — and more ex­pe­ri­ence points for your team should they pre­vail. Fans of ar­cade games may find much to like in the tempo of th­ese matches, which fa­vor short bursts of fo­cus as op­posed to pe­ri­ods of pro­longed con­cen­tra­tion.

As you lead your com­pan­ions around the Down­side, you’ll come to learn more about your op­po­nents. Some treat you with honor, oth­ers con­tempt, oth­ers be­come sim­ply fun to run into. Win against cer­tain foes and you’ll snuff out their hope for ever leav­ing the Down­side. The nar­ra­tive does a nim­ble job of hu­man­iz­ing the char­ac­ters, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to see a num­ber of your ad­ver­saries as less morally en­ti­tled to es­cape than your team­mates. “Pyre” demon­strates that video-game de­sign­ers may have much to gain by ex­plor­ing the costs of achieve­ment and the re­wards of fail­ure.

“Pyre” is a cross be­tween a textbased role­play­ing game and an oc­cult­like sports match. The ob­ject of the matches is to snuff out your op­po­nents’ fire. PYRE Supergiant Games PC, PlaySta­tion 4

SUPERGIANT GAMES

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