‘Tyranny’ Is an RPG Where the Moral Choices Are All Different Shades of Evil
The bad guys have already won in this startling new game
by MATTHEW GAULT
Fantasy role-playing games tend to come with a standard plot. A young hero learns they’ve got a destiny, masters their skills and fights an evil empire. Along the way, the hero meets interesting characters, learns lessons, and makes choices that impact the story. Often those choices are binary — one is blatantly evil the other blatantly good.
Tyranny is different. In Tyranny the good guys lost, the evil empire won and all that’s left to do is decide how to rule the world it conquered. That’s where the player comes in — they get to decide how awful the world will be after the big bad has crushed the opposition.
Tyranny is an isometric P.C. RPG in the style of classics such as Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment. Players take control of a Fatebinder, a roaming one-person judge, jury and executioner for the evil overlord Kyros. You’re basically playing Judge Dredd in a high fantasy setting.
The game is full of moral choices, which is what makes it interesting. But Tyranny’s moral choices are more interesting and more complicated than in other games. Many video games present the player with moral choices that effectively don’t mean much. In Bioshock, for example, players can either murder little girls for an immediate stat boost or let them go for a stat boost that comes later. It’s a black and white choice with no nuance and no real consequences either way for the player.
The world of Tyranny is more complicated. As a Fatebinder, the player’s job constantly forces them to make decisions that affect the lives of millions and drastically change the course of the game. The choices are interesting because they’re not about good and evil, but about moral gray areas and cold pragmatism.
Early on, Kyros tasks the Fatebinder with destroying an ancient library full of arcane knowledge the evil overlord is afraid someone might use against him. Kryos gives the Fatebinder a powerful spell that will level the library in seconds. The library will burn, the only question is when.
Kyro’s army sent spies into the library to pave the way for an assault, but he’s an impatient evil emperor and no single life is important to him, not even those of his own troops. The player can level the library without warning or issue a warning, giving its people — and Kyros’ spies — enough time to clear out before it’s destroyed.
In my playthrough, I warned the library and gave everyone time to get out before I reduced it to a smoking crater. This made Kryos’ spymaster happy but made the rest of his military think I was weak. The spymaster himself thanked me personally but normal soldiers now constantly tell me I’m soft.
In another scene familiar to fantasy RPG players, I met a group of Kyros soldier harassing a merchant on the road. In normal games, the player would step in and save the merchant. In Tyranny, I stepped in and passed judgement.
The merchant had goods he scavenged from the aftermath of a nearby battle. The soldiers wanted to kill him for stealing from Kyros and selling goods without a permit. Sensing an opportunity, I stepped in and saved his life.
But I stripped him of his freedom by pressing him into Kryos’ service. Logistical infrastructure is important to any military campaign and Kyros needed more people to salvage arms and armor after battles. It pissed the soldiers off, but not too much and the merchant was thankful for his life even if he lost his freedom. As an extra evil cherry on top, I forced the merchant into giving me first run of any interesting items he finds. I’d saved his life, after all.
Another strange choice came a little later in the game when the Fatebinder visited Kyros’ military camped outside one of the last pockets of resistance to his rule. In Kyro’s army, trial by combat determines rank and anyone can challenge their commander for leadership.
As I approached the camp, I spotted two packs of soldiers squabbling over something just outside the camp’s border. It was an argument over command. A soldier thought her commander weak and had challenged him to fight. The commander thought this was crazy, the military was about to assault a castle and needed all the troops it could muster. A brawl here would promote a leader but weaken the military overall.
As the Fatebinder, I had a lot of options for what seemed liked a straightforward situation. I could do nothing and let the fight play out, attempt to talk both sides down and explain the pragmatism of keeping everyone alive or I could pick a side and either tamp down a minor rebellion or help cull a weak leader.
Far be it from me to get in the way of military tradition. I stood aside and let the fight play out. The older leader fell in seconds and a new, stronger one, took his place. Was it right? It doesn’t matter. Tyranny isn’t about what’s right, it’s about what works. Kryos’ army will take the castle. His victory is inevitable. But now I know it’ll do so with the best possible leadership leading the charge.
That’s what’s so great about Tyranny — its choices aren’t about surface level moral decisions. This isn’t Mass Effect where players decided if they wanna be a rebel bad ass or an empathetic commander. That the world is awful is a foregone conclusion and it’s up to the players to navigate the subtleties of an evil empire. There is more depth and more nuance in that system than first meets the eye. That sets Tyranny apart.
Originally published at motherboard.vice.com.