Tyranny is a CRPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate and Pillars of Eternity that has a novel concept: you play the bad guy. And we’re not talking a mischievous cackling Snidely Whiplash huckster, either. No, you are a capital-B bad person constantly doing evil things to the denizens of a fantasy land. I sat down with fellow editor Matt Miller, who reviewed the title, to talk about playing a game that lets us play the evildoer in year filled with despair and chaos.
Javy: Heya Miller. So let’s be real here for a sec: This year has sucked. This year has sucked hard. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen dead. The environment continues to fall to pieces. Tumultuous events happening all over the world. Despair around every corner. Real breaking of the seals kind of stuff, in a way.
I’ve had kind of a weird relationship with games this year. Like, they’ve always been escapist devices to me ever since I was a kid, but 2016 was the year they straight up became coping mechanisms in a way that’s maybe a little unhealthy? Titanfall 2. Wolfenstein. No Man’s Sky. All great ways to push my own problems, and anxieties about the world around me to the side and just not deal with things head on.
But then we have Tyranny, and Tyranny is a capital-I interesting game to me in that even though it’s about as fantastical as you can get, its dark world and the game’s inclination to force you to always be…well, pretty evil is an interesting experience to play in what feels like a pretty bleak time for humanity.
You ended up reviewing the game for us. What did you think of it? What’s interesting about it to you?
Miller: Well, I share your sentiment about this year’s frustrations. I’m a pretty optimistic guy by nature, but some of the events of recent months have really tested the bounds of that optimism. I’m of the opinion that games have a powerful ability to act as a catharsis for our feelings, including an outlet for aggression, a channel for our need to compete, and sometimes just as a way to step back from the frustrations of day-to-day life and inhabit a different mindspace for a while.
With those thoughts in mind, Tyranny arrived at an unusual time. No matter your take on the recent election here in the United States, in the forefront of everyone’s mind is the idea of leaders who might be acting in ethically questionable ways. Tyranny is a game that is fundamentally about enforcing and encouraging a corrupt and evil government, so it hits home for anyone whose mind has been considering the implications of power and corruption – whichever side of the political spectrum you happen to fall.
For me, Tyranny’s focus on corruption, manipulation, and strong-arming comes at a time when that’s not exactly what I’m looking for out of a gaming experience. But, at the same time, there’s no doubt that Tyranny is a solid and artful exploration of the concept of evil, and I can’t help but appreciate its approach to communicating about the nature of power.
You had a chance to explore the game as well, I believe. What was your experience like?
Javy: I came away with mixed feelings from my time with Tyranny. It was interesting; I actually got to chat with the dev team when they revealed the game, and one of the questions I asked was if there would be a “morally grey” path that, while not falling into lawful good or anything like that, would let players try to rise above the evil and they implied there would be that option.
However, most of the choices in Tyranny seem to fall between “be mildly evil” and “be incredibly evil,” and I just don’t know how I feel about that. It’s certainly a unique experience in the realm of games, especially when most games that let you be the bad guy often have a sense of humor (like Dungeon Keeper 2 or Overlord). However, it’s so somber and serious and out to make you be a bad person, there doesn’t seem to be a way to rise above it and man, I don’t know. I really feel like you’re holding out on the player by not offering them the opportunity to try and bring light into that world even if that attempt ends in failure.
Miller: Yeah, from a design perspective, the mostly evil choices in conversations and actions has an unusual effect. As I talked about in my review, I think there’s an unusual limitation on the sense of narrative freedom when you take one whole end of the moral spectrum out of the equation. If I’m playing a game with the choice to save an innocent, and then I brutally kill them instead, that instills a genuine sense that I’m playing an evil character. When that choice is taken away, and my only choice is to either kill him, or torture him, it lessens the impact of the choice for me.
Now, that said, I think Tyranny does some very interesting things to provide narrative agency in other ways, and I really appreciate that the game has so many branching paths even within the spectrum of mostly evil or barbaric choices. Do you know what I mean?
Javy: Oh yeah, for sure. Even though it restricts itself with that limited moral spectrum, it carves out that space and offers the player loads of narrative possibilities. The game’s opening, which has you making tactical choices on a battle map over a period of a few years during a war, is one of my favorite intros in a game in years because it literally shapes the game to come: the land, the factions, how people respond to you. It’s kind of astonishing at times. I loved how people would recall my actions during the war or how I had burned on faction or another.
I also really liked how the game managed to come up with factions who have their own interesting stories and clashing philosophical beliefs even in a world where, well, most people are scumbags. I think that’s the best thing I can say for Tyranny: it takes up a niche and then stretches that niche to its breaking point.
Miller: Yeah, you had mentioned “lawful good” before, which is an interesting idea to unpack. In Dungeons & Dragons, the moral spectrum is defined both by good and evil, but also law and chaos, and I think the latter of those two is where Obsidian went to find complexity. The two major factions you’re dealing with in the game are sort of representative of law and chaos. One leader and his forces are this very regimented and ordered group of soldiers, even if they’re still pretty evil. The other faction is this chaotic army of killers who have no respect for rule of law or the way things are supposed to be done, but they get their tasks completed through pure mob rule.
Between those two ideologies, there are some significant ideas to play with, and I think Obsidian did a good job of exploring that more nuanced understanding of morality in Tyranny.
One of the other topics I wanted to get your take on is the party members. For me, because most of my companions were pretty awful and unlikeable, I struggled to find a connection to them in the same way I would in some other similar RPGs. Did you find that to be true, or was there something refreshing or novel for you about AI teammates who were self-proclaimed murderers and traitors?
Javy: Initially i found it refreshing, but I think one of Tyranny’s failings is that it couldn’t make those characters interesting. It’s one thing to have monstrous characters as your companions, but you’ve got to make them intriguing in some way beyond how awful they are. Like, honestly, everyone who was my ally in this game felt like some third-rate Game Of Thrones henchmen who gets killed off by a random bandit. Evil and interesting is definitely a character type that’s possible, as proven by Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic’s HK-47 or even Saren in Mass Effect.
But yeah, notable companions is something that Tyranny doesn’t really do that well, and it’s bummer because it would be fascinating to find yourself working together with people who are downright villainous but have compelling reasons for being that way.
Miller: I think a couple of the characters had that quality. The most memorable for me was the beastwoman character (Kills-In-Shadow), who for me fit some of those criteria you described. Her culture was compelling, being sort of half-tribal and half-animalistic. She was disturbing, but also occasionally the mismatch of her attitudes with the other characters could be humorous, even if ultimately she was a pretty dark and disturbing companion.
But generally, I agree with you; I think I would have been much more enmeshed in Tyranny as a whole if I was more intrigued by the individual companions.
Another feature that we haven’t had a chance to talk about is the setting, which was actually one of the things I really liked in the game. In particular, I think the individual areas you visit, which are often wracked by these horrible magical edicts, really sell the idea of a world beaten into ruin. But I’ve talked to one of our other editors who played, and they didn’t love the setting as much. Where did you come down on that topic?
Javy: I was a big fan of it, actually. Maybe not the world itself in terms of the dark fantasy elements (they all felt pretty generic), but I think the amount of control you have over that world in the introductory sequence helps make it feel like it’s your own more than something like Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity even if its grandeur doesn’t match a setting like Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura.
But that doesn’t matter because we have such a strong role in helping shape the world. It’s truly a situation of interactivity making the stale and familiar fresh again, to the point that I’m looking forward to doing another full playthrough to see just how much everything changes.
So I guess since we’re talking about being EVIL, how do you think Tyranny stacks up against other games, like Dungeon Keeper, that also lets you be the bad guy/gal? Does its somber tone sets it apart, even if it doesn’t necessarily make it better? Do you think that Tyranny is worth playing through even if it might make the player uncomfortable, just for the novelty of the experience?
Miller: I think Tyranny is a really surprising game. Games like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord have a sort of mustache-twirling villainy to them that is amusing – kind of the same idea as that animated movie, Despicable Me. A sort of delighting in the bad guy, but in an amusing way.
Tyranny doesn’t really have that quality. It’s a deep and rewarding story, but it’s not tongue-in-cheek or humorous. It’s a pretty straight-faced attempt at confronting the nature of unchecked power, and a group of characters who have no choice but to act in evil ways to survive and thrive in that world.
Javy: Yeah, I’m still not entirely sure how to process Tyranny as an experience. It’s arrived at a curious moment in our history and perhaps, more than we’re willing to admit, serves as a clearer mirror to who we are than the vast majority of games. On one hand, I’m super thankful it exists because it’s the only game I’ve played in the last two months that has served as something other than pure escapism, existing as an artifact that reflects the time and forcing me to confront some of the realities the world we live in right now.
However, at the same time, Tyranny’s commitment to brutal nihilism feels short-sighted. To not allow the player to at least pursue hope is a limitation that borders on crippling.
I’m curious to see how the game’s reputation takes shape in the years to come. It’s a game that makes a classic, explicit, and sometimes compelling argument that the vast majority of people, particularly those with any smidge of power, are monsters. I hope that the future proves Tyranny’s underlying philosophy wrong but I’d be lying if I said that my optimism wasn’t in short, ever-diminishing supply as we find ourselves barreling toward uncertain times.
Did you play Tyranny? Let us know your thoughts about it in the comments below.
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