Obsidian Entertainment's recently released RPG Tyranny began life seven years ago as a pitch for a game that would be rooted in three questions: What would happen if you took a world like Middle-earth and let evil win? What would the world look like? What sort of stories could be told?
The Irvine, California studio, which made a name for itself producing sequels to established RPGs (Fallout, KOTOR , Neverwinter Nights), was not in a financial position to pursue the concept at the time. But Pillars of Eternity changed that. This classically-styled RPG saved Obsidian from bankruptcy when it was successfully Kickstarted back in 2012. Pillars' further success when released in 2014 allowed Obsidian to pursue game ideas that had been rejected or cancelled in years prior.
Tyranny strayed from the three questions of the original concept. “The initial pitch had different answers to those questions – its world would have looked much different from what we’ve created,” says Brian Heins, director of Tyranny. “But the central idea – a world where evil won – is the heart of both game ideas.”
Tyranny was a potential risk for Obsidian due to its unconventional premise and the non-traditional designs it demanded. It’s an RPG that lets players embrace being evil and even encourages it, putting it in direct opposition to the path of the hero that most other games follow. The big challenge for Obsidian was making the experience of being the bad guy satisfying.
Key to this was making the player feel powerful as “evil is linked to ruthlessness, power, and pragmatism,” says Heins. The player is a Fatebinder, a high ranking official in the army of Overlord Kyros. He has the power to overrule decisions made by other officers.
"You may sell the player with a ‘you get to be an evil bully’ promise, but for there to be a source of conflict, there needs to be a mountain of bigger bullies to climb and strive against."
Making the game work meant striking the perfect balance between being too weak and too powerful. Heins reasons that the player isn’t given the ultimate power as the Overlord straightaway due to Tyranny being an RPG, which means there needs to be room for the player to grow. “We can’t start the player at the bottom rung of Evil, Inc. We also run out of story to tell if you are equal (or superior) to everyone right from the beginning,” he says.
“This is actually pretty tricky," he adds, "As you may sell the player with the ‘you get to be an evil bully’ promise, but for there to be a game and a source of conflict, there needs to be a mountain of bigger bullies for the player to climb and strive against.”
In their role as Fatebinder, the player is able to act as judge, jury, and executioner from the start. It’s a role that demands respect and fear. The first task the Fatebinder is given by Kyros is ending a rebellion by a separatist squad. To do this, they need to stop the squabbling between the two forces that Kyros previously sent to do the job - they clashed due to their radically different cultures. If the Fatebinder fails then Kyros will kill them, the two armies, and the rebels.
This is notably different to the first quests usually offered to players in traditional fantasy RPGs. They typically involve killing rats in a basement or helping out a villager who has lost a possession. Obsidian made sure to avoid lightweight drama such as this altogether for Tyranny. “Instead, you’re deciding how armies work together – whose plan gets to move forward, which soldiers will bear the brunt of the attack,” Heins says.
Informing these decisions the player makes are the Edicts that Kyros issues. Edicts are laws that can dramatically alter regions of the world and the people living there. One generates massive storms, another slowly petrifies the living, a third brings permanent darkness.
“Understanding Kyros’ laws will allow players to make judgments that fall within the legal framework – or break them entirely if that is their wish,” says Matt MacLean, Tyranny’s lead narrative designer. “At various points in the game you’ll be called on to account for your choices, so knowing the laws helps you justify your decisions to your superior.”
Helping players to absorb all this information is the feature Obsidian came up with called “lore links.” These are sections of text that display tooltips when the cursor is hovered over them. Some provide direct links to the in-game Encyclopaedia, while others provide brief background information. There are also some lore links that only appear according to decisions the player makes throughout the game. They might explain why the player is being referred to be a certain title or why one character is angry with them. These also help reinforce the notion that each decision has consequences.
"We didn’t want to create a Sauron-style evil, with the goal of wiping out all life. Kyros wants an empire to rule, not a wasteland."
“Basically, these links give you more information that your character in the world would know, but you the player either don’t, or might not remember,” MacLean says. “It’s a way for us to convey information without having dialogue options like ‘So what is this Constitution thing again?’ or ‘Tell me more about electricity.’” Being able to provide the player with more information means characters, factions, and decisions can all be more nuanced.
Making sure the player knows what the Edicts are also helps to shape the kind of evil that Kyros represents, and what it is the player is serving with their decisions. “We didn’t want to create a Sauron-style evil, with the goal of wiping out all life 'because evil,'” says MacLean. “Thinking of Kyros in classic DnD alignment terms, the Overlord is ‘lawful evil.' Kyros wants an empire to rule, not a wasteland.”
It was so important to Obsidian that players understood the kind of evil that Tyranny depicted that the studio released information on the Edicts before the game was out. The point was to get across that the game didn’t treat evil in a cartoonish way.
“We wanted to make Kyros relatable. Someone who, if you just looked at the surface of things, seemed like they had a good idea.” Heins says. “Instead, seeing the chaos and constant war as nations and cities fought over resources, the Overlord decided that a lot of pain and death could be avoided if everyone worked together for the common good.”
Telling this part of the Overlord’s story is the game’s Conquest mode. It comes immediately after the player has created their character but before the main timeline of the game begins. It takes place on a map that depicts the events of Kyros’s rise to power over a period of three years.
“Our Conquest mode allows you to play through those years, and decide what your character was doing during the Conquest, and resolve problems encountered by the armies,” says Heins. “The decisions you make at this point will affect many parts of the game – from how NPCs react to you (loving or hating you), to having different characters spawned in some areas, and even changing some areas of the game entirely.”
"If you just looked at the ideals, and not the methods, it sounds like a plan that a noble or good character could come up with. Each individual decision, each atrocity, can be justified as being for the ‘greater good’ of the society the Overlord is trying to build."
The idea is to align the player with Kyros and also to help them understand the motives behind his atrocious acts. “If you just looked at the ideals, and not the methods, it sounds like a plan a noble or good character could come up with,” Heins says. “Once you start looking at the methods, however, you realize that Kyros will go to any lengths to create this ideal. Each individual decision, each atrocity, can be justified as being for the ‘greater good’ of the society the Overlord is trying to build.”
It is then up to the player to consider whether they can justify the Overlord’s actions, as well as their own, as part of this grand vision. Do they want to do serve the “greater good” and commit terrible acts? Do they care about pleasing the characters around them or their master?
These questions are only a couple of the factors that inform each decision the player makes.There are others to consider, many of them tied to consequences that go against the convention of rewarding “good” behavior and punishing “evil” behavior. This helps to muddy the simplistic binary approach to good and evil that Obsidian wanted to avoid.
“In most RPGs, leaving a person alive usually means rewards later on, as you keep quest givers, merchants, etc. alive to supply you things you want,” says Heins. “A few RPGs will make some balance about evil giving you rewards up front while good gives you rewards later on – there’s usually a slightly better payoff for being good.”
"People have a hard time going against the prevailing attitude. Making the ‘right’ choice is a lot harder when those around you are telling you that you’re wrong, rather than cheering you on and telling you how wonderful you are."
“Undoing this bias is essential – evil should be all things pragmatic, efficient, and self-advancing in both the long-term and the short-term,” Heins continued. “If you make evil all about the immediate gains and good all about the long-term gains, your evil will start feeling like short-sighted acts of abuse when most players would probably prefer moments of calculated malice.”
This thinking is what makes the decision making in Tyranny different from other RPGs. Making what could be an “evil” choice doesn’t mean that everybody hates you or attacks you immediately. “In Tyranny, making the evil choice, among the many available, can place you in a much better position moving forward,” Heins says.
At the same token, making what is a traditionally “good” choice in Tyranny is made a lot harder than it is in other RPGs. This is due to the fact that you’re surrounded by characters who are motivated by their own self-interests. Any choice you make will conflict with the interests of other characters and make them angry. In Tyranny’s world of evil, the “good” choice will probably upset the most number of people.
“With our reputation system, you’re not punished for making those choices – you will get different rewards than if you make people like you – but it’s an interesting psychological effect that people have a hard time going against the prevailing attitude,” says MacLean. “Standing with your morals and making the ‘right’ choice is a lot harder when those around you are telling you that you’re wrong, rather than when they’re cheering you on and telling you how wonderful you are for doing it.”
Tyranny’s reputation system is a replacement for the morality meters of other games - which typically divide actions into good and evil. Each faction in Tyranny views the Fatebinder according to the scales of Favor and Wrath. Whether the player aids and agrees with a faction causes their reputation with them to swing more towards one or the other. Either way, gaining reputation unlocks different quests, conversations, and even abilities and rewards.
MacLean explained that Obsidian decided to not have a morality meter as they tend to lead to “regressive gameplay – taking whatever option gives you more of the points you want to collect, removing the joy of selecting options for other reasons.” The hope behind the reputation system is that it encourages players to make decisions based on the moment rather than working towards a final moral outcome.
This is also the reason that Tyranny’s tagging system is turned off by default. The tagging system is taken directly out of Pillars of Eternity. In Tyranny it shows players how a dialogue option during a conversation will affect their reputation among peers. “The option exists for players who need or want to know this before they make their choice,” MacLean says.
“I’ve watched a lot of people play – both within the Obsidian offices and over Twitch streams," he adds. "There’s a marked difference in watching players who have the reputation option enabled versus those who don’t."
“Those who play without the option spend more time thinking about which [decision] their character would choose. Those who play with the option turned on talk a lot more about ‘Normally I’d pick X, but Y will give me this reputation.’ It’s interesting to listen to them decide which way to choose, whether they play true to their character, or pick for the mechanical reward.”
The total of these design decisions is an RPG that challenges notions of good and evil. Players get to feel the crooked power of being a villain but constantly bump against their own moral atlas. And when it’s all over, the important choices and reactivity of the game’s world means there are plenty of other paths for players to explore if they replay the game. Tyranny is a game that is capable of making you seriously consider smothering a baby.
Be sure to check out Gamasutra's Twitch interview with Heins for more insights into the development of Tyranny.