Eugenia Woo has a date with evil in a RPG that drops moral decisions on the player like a tonne of bricks.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. That’s Nietzsche. I remember someone trying to explain that to me ages ago using the tired example of an undercover agent deep in some sort of crime syndicate – when you’re trying to fight a monster, you should be careful that you don’t become one. I’m no Nietzsche expert, but like I said, that trope is overdone. The horse has been beaten to death. I’d sooner have someone put me out of my misery than have to open up another AAA game where I’m the sanctimonious good guy trying to make a difference by treading the fine line between self-righteousness and being more corrupt than an American politician. Thankfully, before I made any bad life choices that I couldn’t go back on, I got my hands on Tyranny, Obsidian Entertainment’s RPG that puts you firmly in the driver’s seat on a train (probably) speeding straight to Hell.
The name is self-explanatory, but for clarity, you play as a Judge Dredd type character living and working under the thumb of the Empire’s Top Tyrant: Kyros. You’re one of the few who have the authority (borne through years of extensive training and suffering aka law school) to interpret and action their rules, and I say ‘their’ because no one actually knows where Kyros falls on the gender binary that everyone else in the game uses or whether Kyros identifies at all with gender as a concept. You’re like a lawyer with a shotgun, or in this case, magic staves and two-handed axes. All of the above sounds fairly vanilla in terms of conceptual design, but after I was done with the game, I actually had to take a good, hard look at myself and go “What the fuck were you thinking, you asshole?”
To understand how Evil functions in Tyranny, one has to immerse themselves in being the player character. The game does a good job of getting you used to living under a tyrant by giving you the illusion of choice from the very beginning; all of the possible character creation backgrounds involve you being signed up to your current position through some form of coercion or outright violence. It’s very much a “Join Kyros’ enforcers or your family gets disemboweled” type of situation, which, I suppose, is the reality of everyone else in the game’s universe. Kyros’ empire was gained through blood and conquest, not diplomacy, and every backstory in some way involves you bearing the brunt of it before being elevated to the position of Well-Educated Lapdog for some inexplicable reason. This inexplicable reason gets talked about a lot because that’s just the formula that RPGs have for player characters, but generally, people don’t think you’re that cool. Once you pick your unfortunate beginning, you’re thrown into a situation where you get to oversee the conquest of one particular portion of the world, and that’s where I started to get sucked in.
Making choices to flesh out my backstory didn’t seem very impactful at first. On my first conquest, I decided to throw my lot in with Kyros’ famous regenerating army, the Disfavoured. I didn’t know that much about them or the other main faction, the Scarlet Chorus, but I was told that the latter were a bunch of bloodthirsty nutjobs so I thought I’d better throw my lot in with the murderers who were more level-headed. Somewhat unwillingly, I razed an entire city to the ground. I got rid of an Archon’s followers because she was getting a little too big for their boots and objectively, military strategy usually succeeds only when buffoons with huge egos aren’t stumbling around the battlefield messing up your well-laid plans. I doused the fires caused by in-fighting amongst Kyros’ elite by meting out punishments that made me popular with the Disfavoured and vastly unpopular with everyone else, but I felt like I was making the orderly choice. The right choice.
However, once the backstory chewed me up and spat me out, the main questline muddied the waters of right and wrong even further when I realised that my moral compass was totally useless. I couldn’t make decisions from behind a war table anymore in the comfort of a plush tent – I had to go out and face the people that I was screwing over and either tell them to take the shit Kyros was selling or die by my hand. At first, I didn’t really care. After a lifetime of MMORPGs and FPS games, I’m the last person to give a damn about leaving a trail of corpses in my wake en route to a quest objective. However, where Tyranny differs from games of other genres is that it lays the blame for bloodshed squarely on you. You, as the Fatebinder, are the only one able to make legally-binding and recognised decisions on the frontline. In a world of tricksters, serial killers, slaves, and survivors, your word is law.
Half of the game revolves around your interactions with others to shape the world, and most of that is spent resolving disputes between various factions or making morally repugnant choices. When you’re asked to judge two individuals bringing their cases before you, very rarely do you have the option of actually telling them to get over themselves and to work together. Most of the time, you’re asked to sentence someone to death for something that seems trivial – stealing someone’s treacherous underling right out from under them, letting a merchant sell goods that were bought from an ostracised town. The list goes on: inconsequential slights that the people of Terratus just can’t seem to let go. But can you really blame them? The people of Tyranny are borne of despair. They have suffered at the hands of the empire that you recognise, and they’re being forced to bend the knee to your whim and to be grateful for this perverse brand of justice. They see every grievance raised against them as yet another way for Kyros to strip away their dignity and autonomy and when you doom them to death, they go down cursing your name.
From a player’s perspective, there’s nothing you can do. There’s no option to outright defy the regime, at least for a good portion of the game. If you don’t want your ass to be on the line, then you have to play judge, jury and executioner. You’re just as much a prisoner as the people that you’re sent to conquer, although the stakes for you might be even higher. Even when I tried to cut corners and use subterfuge to get enemies to surrender without bloodshed, Kyros’ forces were displeased with my passive attitude and cut my lies to ribbons in front of my targets which lead to… you guessed it: even more of the violence and senseless murder I was trying to avoid. I watched villages burn to the ground, men and women turn on each other at my bidding to appease the will of Kyros, and as I was making these decisions in-game, I was dismayed. Around the halfway mark, jaded and wanting to get this over with, I threw my morals out of the window and condemned absolutely every dissident to an early grave. Surprisingly enough, some of Kyros’ minions frowned upon that sort of thing.
Yeah, that’s right. The colonising butchers had a moral code. At first it wasn’t apparent, but the more I immersed myself in the politics between Kyros’ various warring factions, the more I empathised with them. Like me, they were under the yoke of the empire. Sure, I disagreed with their methods. Sure, I couldn’t even begin to understand some of their motivations. But from spending time with my party members and unlocking various dialogues based on my friendship with them, I learned to see them as humans. Not everyone sides with Kyros because they want to slaughter their way into Valhalla. Some are forced at knifepoint, conscripted, and enslaved, and they rise through the ranks through sheer brutality because in this world, it’s kill or be killed. I could tell myself that I was better than the common sellsword, but we were all in this shithole together, doing everything we could to get by, even if that meant infanticide.
By the time I clocked the game, I was drained. The campaign wasn’t a long one – it took just under 35 hours to finish – but it was a real rollercoaster. I’d admit, in the heat of the moment, I wasn’t having any sweeping moral realisations that weighed on my conscience. However, once the credits rolled, reality sunk in. The game did its job terrifyingly well and I loved it; it normalised decisions that were objectively shocking and did so because of an extremely immersive world-building narrative tied into all those choices. However, ending the game was a bit like coming out of a fugue state. I realised that I didn’t know anything about good or evil, and that I was even less qualified to judge either than I could have possibly thought. It wasn’t about being evil or anything as two-dimensional as that – the game was built on uncomfortable truths, it forced me to consider the lengths that people go to survive, and it taught me about humanity. Sure, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but the next time I complain about not being able to be a big enough jerk in a RPG, I’ll remember the time I played Tyranny and maybe being a cookie cutter villain won’t seem so bad in comparison.
Being the bad guy all the time isn’t for everyone.
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