We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.
For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.
Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.
Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.
Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.
Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.
The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.
Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.
The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.
It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.
Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.
Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
Before I dive into the meat of today’s article I think a little disclosure is in order so you know where my biases lie. I’m undeniably an eSports fan, watching it grow from the tenuous beginnings to the burgeoning industry that it has become today. I’m also slightly invested in the whole idea myself, even though at my current skill level I’m still a worlds away from competing seriously. Still despite my biases my inner sceptic won’t stay quiet when there’s an argument to be had that seems to be rife with emotion and misinformation, which is what has pushed me to write about this today.
So since I’ve been elbow deep in writing about other issues this week I missed a massive Internet argument over whether eSports can be classified as a sport. The origin appears to be this article on Destructoid which, like previous articles to the same effect did, sparked a debate online which inevitably turned south as both sides duked it out. The latest instalment, and the one that caught my eye, was this post from Jim Sterling which focused primarily on the community’s reaction to the post and how such a reaction showed that eSports can never be considered a real sport because of it. After reading through it all and doing some digging on the matters at hand I’ve come to a couple conclusions and believe that both sides could learn a lot from each other.
The first, and I know this is probably pointless on the Internet, is that a level of courtesy would never go astray when you’re arguing with people online. It’s really, really easy to devolve into name calling and baiting when you’re arguing with a faceless wall of text but it does nothing to help your cause when you do so. It’s for that exact reason that I tend to shy away from writing any kind of emotionally charged piece here simply because it usually removes the meaning. The problem is exacerbated when you have to confine your words to the 140 character count of Twitter, leading to sound bites like this one which can be so easily construed as meaning one thing or another.
However I also know that reasoned pieces (like this one in response to the earlier Kotaku article I linked) tend to fall by the wayside, drowned out by the vitriol and hyperbole. This is because such articles tend to attract the most page views and discussion, generating a self sustaining organism of hate that proceeds to trample around the Internet. Such behaviour gives the false impression that one side is wholly represented by this vocal minority.
But that doesn’t mean some of the grievances raised don’t have some factual basis.
The crux of the entire matter appears to centre around the idea of whether or not eSports can be counted as sports. There are good arguments on both sides so let’s have a quick look at them, starting with the supporters. For them eSports counts as a sport because on the surface they share many similar aspects with the major difference being the lack of physicality. However the IOC (which Elsa mentions in her article) includes several non-physical sports in their definition of what constitutes a sport, lending credence to the idea that not all sports need to have the physical element. This is where Elsa’s article falls down for many eSports supporters as she writes that off in favour of her own opinion instead.
However Elsa is not alone in thinking this, in fact putting this idea to my close (relatively nerdy) social circle showed that most of them supported the idea that sports require a physical element. Indeed taking it further the straight up definition of the term “sport” usually gives something like this:
A human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.
Going from this it’s easy then to make the assumption that the general public would require the physicality aspect for something to be classified as a sport. This leaves us with quite the conundrum as both sides have a solid, valid claim to their arguments even if the expression of such hasn’t been done in the most respectful way.
As we all know just because the majority believes something does not necessarily make it correct. The general idea that a sport requires some physical aspect dates back to a time before we had the capability to compete in mediums like video games and thus I would argue that the definition of sports, as it current stands, needs to be reworked for modern times. eSports tick all the boxes of the generally accept definition if you take dexterity as satisfying the “physical skill” part of it. The term sport then becomes a much broader term and realistically covers a lot of things that we don’t necessarily consider sports today.
To use a space analogy it’s much like the definition of what constitutes a planet. For the longest time it was pretty much just the large heavenly bodies we had discovered in our own solar system. However as time went by and we discovered more planetary like bodies we had to start questioning what the definition of a planet really was, formalizing the idea. The definition of sports can then be thought of in the same light as we now have new entities that call it into question.
Sports then should be seen as a larger umbrella for skill based competition. The delineation then comes from the monikers that we then apply to the various sports in order to differentiate them from each other, although I can see many still using the generic term sports to refer to the heavily physical based variety. In reality this is just semantics that gives people an easy identifier to relate with others and should has little bearing on the larger argument.
Jim Sterling makes the point that he can’t take eSports seriously until there’s some actual debate about the topic as opposed to trolling and flame baiting. I was going to attempt to take him down on this one, saying there was a whole lot of reasonable debate to be had if he looked in the right places. Unfortunately it seems that there isn’t too much to be had out there, especially if you look at the comments on the articles in question and the various musing around on Twitter. We then seem to be at the mercy of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory where all of eSports most rabid fans are hiding behind the veil of anonymity where they can spout their vitriol to a large audience. This, I agree, does the case for eSports no good at all.
However it also does those on the opposite side of the argument no good to write something off completely because of the most vocal parts of the fan group. It is of course hard not to judge when all the evidence you have points towards the other side being full of childish twats, so hopefully this post can be the beach head into the realm of constructive discussion. I may be one small voice in the deafening choir that is the Internet but it only takes one to pave the way to a more rational debate.
These kinds of questions (are games art? can they be sport?) are a sign that games, both as an industry and a medium, are now as much a part of our society as print, movies et. al. have been before them. It’s unfortunate that such times are marred by the vocal few who so fervently support them leave their better manners at the door but that does not mean their ideas do not have merit, nor warrant further investigation. Even this rather long post barely scratches the surface of the questions that have been raised in my investigation of the topic and I’m very much looking forward to debating them openly, courteously and rationally with any who would take up the challenge, so long as they extend to me the same.
It was almost a decade ago when I got my first taste of real competitive gaming. Living 45 minutes outside Canberra meant that online gaming was usually out of my reach, except for that one precious weekend that came around every month or so when ACTGN was on. Coming into this world was slightly alien for me, having been a computer shut in most of my life with no one to share the experience with. The idea then that people would compete against each other for prizes was also rather foreign, but I happily competed even though I was sure I’d never be good enough to actually win anything (although in a team I eventually did, but that’s another story).
After a while I started to hear about tournaments on a more grander scale than just the local events I was accustomed to. The first one I can ever remember hearing about was the World Cyber Games which is in essence the Olympics for video games. It was amazing to think that games had reached that level where international competitors would face off against each other and I can remember catching fleeting glimpses of TV coverage of the events, fantasizing about what it would be like to be there. Then as ACTGN died a slow and painful death so did my interest in the competitive gaming scene and I hadn’t really paid much attention to it since then.
However my recent obsession with StarCraft II started to draw me back to this intriguing world. I had known that the tournament scene had grown considerably since I was last obsessed with it (I had heard rumours of 2 Korean TV channels dedicated to eSports broadcasting, amongst other things) but I really had no feel for how popular eSports was. One weekend though a friend sent me a link to the MLG Pro Circuit site where there was going to be a live broadcast of a StarCraft 2 tournament over the weekend. After tuning in and watching it for all of 5 minutes I was hooked and I’ve been deeply engrossed in the eSports circuit ever since.
Initially though I still thought it of somewhat of a niche phenomena, something that was isolated to StarCraft thanks to its insane popularity in Korean. However as time went on some really interesting statistics started to cross my path that started to change my mind. One of my friends and work colleagues is a big player of the free to play hero defence game, League of Legends. Just recently one of the tournaments, which was broadcast online, pulled in a whopping 1.7 million viewers with a peak concurrent viewership of 210,000. MLG is no slouch either shattering previous eSports viewership records with an astonishing 22.5 million stream viewers and 16,000 people in attendance at the actual event. When compared to traditional sports and TV shows those numbers are extremely impressive and shows just how big the eSports circuit has become.
And that’s when I realised what had awoken in me: my inner sports fan.
Being a stereotypical nerd I had never really been one for sports. There were ones that I enjoyed (I played basketball competitively for a good year or two) but I could never bring myself to watch more than 5 minutes of a game of anything before I became completely bored and wandered off to do something else. Even amongst my fellow geek friends that makes me something of an oddity as the vast majority of them enjoy sports in one form or another. There is one exception to this rule that I discovered back in 2004 and that is the Olympics, which I could watch for hours on end without getting bored in the slightest. I’d hardly call myself a fan of it though (since I rarely follow similar events outside of the actual Olympics) especially once I knew what being a real fan actually felt like.
eSports on the other hand captivates me in a much more holistic sense, seeing me seek out all the information I can get my grubby little hands on. For me the enjoyment is two fold: firstly I believe in doing so will make me a better player of the games that I so enjoy. From my own view it has as well with my StarCraft II game improving dramatically and a short stint of watching some of the Black Ops coverage on MLG had me changing my loadout and promptly kicking some serious ass. Secondly it’s just so damn enjoyable to watch other people play which is, I believe, what attracts sports fans to traditional sports.
Seeing games go from a simple distraction, to an underground culture and now to a mature medium that has a wildly successful competitive scene has been one of the most amazing things for me to behold. It seems that the passion of the gaming community is strong enough to bring what was once a fantastical idea into a reality, and one that’s not just a niche for the dedicated few. I’ve only just begun to tumble down this rabbit hole and I can see myself doing so for a long time to come as my inner eSports awakes from his near decade long slumber.