Supergiant Games has thrived on its ability to create games that are like no other. And it has done that again with its demo of Pyre, a fantasy role-playing game with a very unusual combat system.
Pyre has an unusual two-dimensional art style with a lot of text-based dialogue. It is deliberately old school in its approach to graphics, but it has gameplay that is very original. Pyre is the third game created by San Francisco-based Supergiant, which also had big hits with Bastion and Transistor.
In the story, you start out by joining a band of exiles who are looking for escape from a mystical purgatory. They can only do that by winning a series of ancient competitions that resemble a three-on-three soccer game. It’s a very ritualistic event. The combatants on both sides try to launch an orb into their opponent’s pyre, damaging it.
It is perhaps one of the strangest games I’ve ever seen, and that’s what Supergiant is going for. Greg Kasavin, a writer and design at Supergiant, told me in an interview at a recent indie games event that the team was inspired to create a game based on old 16-bit classic video games.
“We’re never ‘trying’ to be very out-there or do something off-kilter,” he said. “Our inspirations are a lot of 16-bit classics, games we grew up with. Our games do tend to mash up a lot of those elements, but at the same time, we’re trying to capture a feeling that those games created in us. When you play a game that’s directly like one of those games, it’s not the same.”
But there’s no question the game is on the weird side. We’ve find out more in 2017, when the game debuts on the PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Greg Kasavin: We announced the game on April 19, so it’s been almost a month. It feels like it just happened. We had it playable at PAX East a few weeks ago. This is essentially the same demo, just for the benefit of folks who didn’t play it there.
GamesBeat: Does this start at the beginning of the game?
Kasavin: Yeah, it’s essentially the beginning.
GamesBeat: Can you tell us more about the story?
Kasavin: It’s a game in which you lead your band of exiles to freedom through this series of ancient competitions spread across a mystical purgatory setting. The story starts off with your characters at death’s door in this purgatorial land, the Downside. You’re discovered by three masked wanderers who need you for some reason — they need you for your ability to read, which is uncommon in this world.
They have in their possession these ancient books that describe a process through which it’s possible to get free from this place — thought to be a place where convicts and criminals are sent to just live out their days. They have their plan and they need you as a part of it. Through this sequence you discover that this competition called the Rites is very much real, and by the end of the sequence these exiles find their way into it. They know where to go and what to do now, and they set out on their journey to freedom.
GamesBeat: It seems very much like a Supergiant game. Very heavily story-driven. Does it share anything else with your company’s lineage?
Kasavin: Everyone who worked on Bastion is still working together at Supergiant. So long as we’re all together as a team, our goal is to stick together and keep going as long as we can. Anything we do, you’ll feel the same fingerprints on it, because it’s the same small team.
At the same time, we’re in a unique position as a studio that’s been able to achieve some level of success at a smaller scale. We’re not totally bound by our successes. We’ve been in this lucky position where we’re able to make something new with each new game. We went from Bastion to Transistor and now to Pyre.
In a lot of ways, this is our biggest departure. It’s a whole genre change for us. Our previous games we considered to be action-RPGs. We’ve tried to push ourselves out of our creative comfort zone with each game. By keeping things interesting and challenging for us in that respect, we hope it translates into an interesting experience for players.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on this one?
Kasavin: We started talking about it and doing stuff with it back in July 2014, a few months after Transistor came out. Transistor is two years old this week, which has flown by. We were eager to dig in to something new.
A lot of what we gravitated to as we set out to make a new game was this idea of a game with a larger cast of characters. That was something we found very appealing, having made these games that deliberately have a pretty solitary feel to them. In both Bastion and Transistor you’re at once alone and together with this narrative presence, the voice-over. We were excited by the idea of a game where you could travel alongside a colorful group of characters and pick up new characters as you go, learning their stories and getting closer to them as the experience unfolds.
GamesBeat: Is there any particular inspiration for this? Did you come up with any part of this first?
Kasavin: That aspect of it as at the heart of the inspiration. I’m terrible at speaking to this, because it’s so many things. In a lot of respects our inspirations are very personal to individual members of the team. We don’t even necessarily have a shared set of inspirations and influences. We try to get everyone working in as personal a way as possible and pull it all together.
But for us it is this idea of the group of characters having to work together to succeed. That was something we found we could relate to a lot, as a small team ourselves. We found that to be a wellspring of ideas. And we were quickly drawn to this premise of exiles struggling to regain their freedom from some sort of purgatory-like setting.
That raises a lot of questions. If they were exiled, why? And then once you learn why you start to think about where they came from. Are they truly these hardened criminals? Are their reputations unfair? That kind of thing felt very rich to us, narrative-wise. We wanted to explore that?
GamesBeat: Would you say it’s in a particular genre? It seems like a blend of western and fantasy.
Kasavin: In terms of video game genres, we consider it a party-based RPG, albeit one interpreted through Supergiant. It’s not necessarily so conventional. But in terms of the story genre, we do consider it a fantasy. It’s more of a fantasy setting than Bastion, in a way. Bastion had some of these almost steampunk components – rifles and pistols and things like that. The world of Pyre is intended to feel much older, filled with mysticism and legends and things like that.
GamesBeat: It feels very much like something that hasn’t been done before. It doesn’t look like anything else out there.
Kasavin: We’re never “trying” to be very out-there or do something off-kilter. Our inspirations are a lot of 16-bit classics, games we grew up with. Our games do tend to mash up a lot of those elements, but at the same time, we’re trying to capture a feeling that those games created in us. When you play a game that’s directly like one of those games, it’s not the same. If you play another Final Fantasy game, maybe it rekindles your memory of playing Final Fantasy in the ‘90s. But we’re trying to make the kind of stuff that makes you feel the way you felt when you first played those games. That’s our hope.
GamesBeat: What would you say is the gameplay hook that pulls us through to finish this?
Kasavin: We hope it’s an expanding series of interesting decisions on the overworld map layer. You’re deciding where to go and how to spend your time, which characters to interact with and how. You develop relationships that way as you navigate the world and try to make it to the next one of these competitions on time.
Then, once you get into the competitions themselves, there’s a growing number of characters and abilities and environments in which you compete. It expands in all these juicy RPG-like ways that we enjoy ourselves. We think the combination of those things and players getting more invested in the stories of different characters—that’ll all lead to interesting results. You yourself feel like you have an influence over what happens to all these characters you meet, both the characters on your side and the characters opposing you. We like that whole framework. We’re excited to explore it.
GamesBeat: The first gameplay sequence seemed a bit like ghosts playing soccer.
Kasavin: Yeah, that’s fair. [laughs]
GamesBeat: Does it change a lot after that?
Kasavin: What you played there is a sort of ethereal sequence where you discover what the Rites are. Later you participate in those kinds of competitions for real, against flesh-and-blood characters. But that’s representative of what the core action in the game is like.
GamesBeat: What’s your next milestone in development?
Kasavin: We’ve just completed preproduction on the game. We’re about to go into full production. For us, the preproduction phase of development — we spend a long time figuring out what game we’re making. Our development process is very fluid. We don’t start with a design document or whatever. We build our games very iteratively. We’re at the point where we think we understand the game, the tone, where it’s all going. Now we just have to build all the rest of it
It’s a ton of work. In a lot of ways, though, we’re where we’re most comfortable as a development team. When we just knuckle down and build stuff, we can go pretty fast. We have a long way to go for sure, but we’re at an equivalent point to when we first showed Bastion and Transistor. We have the whole rest of the game to build, but what’s there, we hope, is evocative enough for folks to get excited about where it’s going.
GamesBeat: Do you know which platforms you’re aiming for?
Kasavin: It’s coming to PlayStation 4 and PC next year.
GamesBeat: I assume you’re more financially comfortable after a couple of successes. Do you feel a bit less pressure on that front?
Kasavin: We’ve been fortunate to be able to self-fund all of our games, including Bastion and Transistor. Each one has done well enough to pay for the next one. We operate out of San Francisco, which is not the cheapest place in the world to do business, but we’re a small team. Our games don’t need to sell 10 million copies or whatever to be successes. We’ve been able to reinvest everything into our next project, and that’s what we’re doing again this time.
The pressure that comes from that has only ever been positive for us. It’s not the driving pressure. We’re still a small studio. We’re not infinitely wealthy or whatever. We’re a dozen people, which is exactly where we want to be.
GamesBeat: Does it feel a little more elevated now? A sort of super-indie, maybe?
Kasavin: That’s for other people to decide. I think “indie” is such a loaded term now. We’re an independent studio of 12 people. That’s what I say. Independence is important to us, and that’s expressed through self-funding our projects, which means we get to decide what they are and how we make them.
We have a lot of strong-willed people on our team. It can be difficult enough to convince each other what to do, much less have to answer to other folks outside the studio. Thankfully an audience has always been there for all the stuff we’ve made. We’re excited by the initial response to this game. It’s another departure for us. We don’t take the internet’s good graces for granted. That would be insane. We’re just very relieved and excited that the overall feedback has been so good. It emboldens us to keep going and try to realize the game’s potential.
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