Pyre and Weight of Low Stakes
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Pyre was probably the most stressful game I played this year. That isn't to say that it was the hardest or most intense, but that I was more afraid of losing in that game then any other game I've played. This seems strange given that the stakes for the game are much lower than most other games. There is a revolution, but it is a distant thing for a place that you --the player-- have never seen. Rather, the stakes for each match are much more personal. To try and settle a grudge, to win a bet, or to show a bully you won't be pushed around. Maybe it is because the stakes feel more relatable or maybe it is because the stakes are so small the game can actually let you lose.
In a game like Destiny 2 where the stakes are the end of the world I'm not really afraid of dying. It would be an inconvenience, I would have to redo some stuff, but I know that the world isn't actually going to end. The threat is grand and operatic, but also totally without teeth. It doesn't matter how many times I die, the sun isn't actually going to explode. But in Pyre, I can let my friends down. I can screw up and put them more in debt, be unable to help them stand up for themselves, or help them get the forgiveness and absolution they deserve. All those things can happen because of your failure and the game doesn't stop and ask you to try again, you just have to live with it.
Your soldiers can die in XCOM, will die in XCOM. On one hand this made me fear for their lives but it also made me emotionally distant from them. I might spend some time customizing them or giving them nicknames, but I'm always ready to let them die if need be. But in Pyre your failures don't just disappear, they stick around and tell you not to worry, its okay. They’ll figure something out. Really, they are okay. Its okay, it wasn’t like they cared. It is fine, they are fine.
This hurts more. It wasn't a noble sacrifice that gets a plaque on a wall of heroes, it was just you screwing up and letting down someone who counted on you.
I don't particularly care when a game tells me that all time will be destroyed if I mess up. In part because I know I can screw it up and I'll get another chance, and in part because I have no conception of what everything being destroyed would look or feel like. If, on the other hand, a game tells me that if I screw this up I'll be late to pick someone up from the airport... well now I can't bear to lose.
This isn't me saying we should stop making games where someone threatens to blow up the world. What I'm saying is that when games engage in this Armageddon arms race where each game struggles to come up with a bigger and badder way to end the world, solar system, universe, EXISTENCE, they miss what makes a game's stakes emotionally compelling. Pyre doesn't threaten to undo existence, it doesn't even threaten to kill any of your friends, yet I've never been so afraid of letting down a virtual character before.