Maybe humanity’s darkness simmers much closer to the surface than we would like to believe
One day, while browsing my RPG collection looking for my next game, I got to thinking about my first playthrough of Tyranny by Obsidian Entertainment, in late 2017. When I first heard of the game on GOG.com, it immediately piqued my interest. The first thing that stood out was, of course, the visuals. The game uses the same engine as Obsidian’s previous 2015 RPG, Pillars of Eternity, bringing with it striking hand-drawn backdrops and distinctive fantasy style. Secondly, this was an RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. As far as experience in crafting rich, intricate RPGs goes, there are few developers with more distinguished pedigree. However, one thing in particular helped this game stand out from the crowd — the premise.
By about 2015, the classic RPG revival was in full swing. Gamers were treated to exceptional releases like Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2. Meanwhile, Beamdog (under the guidance of Neverwinter Nights director Trent Oster) was remastering the classics that had inspired this CRPG renaissance, with “Enhanced Editions” of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II and Icewind Dale. All in all, RPG genre enthusiasts have been spoilt for choice over the past decade. However, with RPGs frequently requiring upwards of 60 or 70 hours for a single playthrough, gamers sometimes need to be selective with their time as well as their wallet. Tyranny is a criminally underrated title that deserves the sacrifice of both.
Tyranny was released in November 2016, deep into the CRPG renaissance. At the time, I had a lot of games on my radar that I was planning to purchase or play, but Tyranny stood out due to its unique premise. When presented with a Fantasy RPG, many gamers will expect similar things — a Tolkien-esque world, probably full of fantastic creatures like dragons, elves and dwarves, magic, and so on. The plot will probably entail some sort of dark, evil power that seeks to usurp a throne, destroy existence, undermine an empire, or some other ambitious, nefarious scheme. I’m doing the genre a great injustice by generalising decades of brilliant games into such simplistic terms — RPGs have always had and continue to have some of the greatest writing to be found in gaming — but when it comes down to pure fundamentals, many Fantasy CRPGs tend to follow a similar formula. There are a number of noted exceptions, and Tyranny is one of them.
Obsidian flipped the formula on its head. What if that evil power had won? That is the central premise of Tyranny. The forces of evil under Kyros the Overlord have conquered all of Terratus apart from one last peninsula of resistance — The Tiers. You play the role of a Fatebinder of Tunon — essentially a fantasy Judge Dredd (in fact, I named my character Dredd). Your boss is Tunon, the Archon of Justice. The archons are like demigods who serve Kyros, and each of them hold various positions of authority in Kyros’ empire. Tunon is responsible for interpreting the oppressive laws of Kyros, and as a Fatebinder, you are responsible for enforcing them. The game begins with you setting out to crush the last of the “good guys”, finally achieving the elusive world domination that all bad dudes crave.
Shortly after creating your character, you are treated to an enjoyable Choose-Your-Own-Adventure segment that simulates what happened during Kyros’ conquest of the Tiers. The conquest is led by two of Kyros’ archons — The Voices of Nerat, Archon of Secrets, and Graven Ashe, Archon of War. As a Fatebinder of Tunon, you accompany the archons’ forces as they loot and pillage their way across the Tiers, ensuring that all looting and pillaging is done in accordance with the laws of Kyros. This first segment of the game contains a number of key decisions, which influence how the rest of the game plays out, to a degree.
The first thing that struck me about Tyranny was the depiction of good and evil — there are none of the moustache-twirling, cackling Dr Evil types in sight, nor are there any morally-immaculate knights-in-shining-armour. The closest that Tyranny comes to the archetypal "mad villain" is the Voices of Nerat, but the maniacal Archon of Secrets subverts this trope in several surprising ways, especially in the closing acts of the game.
We are relentlessly bombarded with simplistic depictions of good and evil in entertainment media — the endless cavalcade of DC and Marvel superhero movies, all cobbled together from the same shallow bucket of narrative tropes is a perfect example. Tyranny, much like CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series, provides a refreshingly realistic depiction of humanity's moral spectrum.
I’ve rarely been satisfied with how "evil" is discussed in such reductive terms, both in maintstream entertainment media and public discourse. So-called “evil” characters are often portrayed in the context of binary morality. You are either a good guy or a bad guy. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Batman and the Joker. [HOLLYWOOD ACTION HERO] and [HOLLYWOOD EVIL VILLAIN].
Similarly, in public discourse, we seem far too ready to embrace the idea of the "evil other". It is easier to perceive a violent criminal as inherently immoral and evil, rather than view them as a person, defined by their environment, whom society failed to provide with the education, protection and treatment that all humans deserve.
We even project this perspective on to history — in World War II, the Allies were the "good guys" while the Axis were the "bad guys". While there is clearly an element of truth to this (the atrocities perpetrated by the Axis are horrendous), this simplified approach to defining morality undermines an understanding of the circumstances that lead to terrible deeds. Could you really tell the parent of a fallen soldier, regardless of what side of the battlefield they fought on, that their child was simply "evil"?
In Tyranny, you will meet soldiers in Kryos’ armies who, for all intents and purposes, seem to be well adjusted, reasonable characters. They treat people around them with respect and even mercy, despite the fact that they are the instrument of a horrific genocidal campaign. These are people that, in a subconscious effort to justify their actions, are normalising said actions as a mere “reality of war”, that would be occurring with or without them. They turn a blind eye to injustice because they think it is inevitable, or they fear the terrifying repercussions of resistance. They are scared and desperate, complying with the regime of Kyros out of fear and the will to survive.
Likewise, you will encounter rebels who, like a cornered rat, have become more ruthless than even their most genocidal opponents. Yet as Tyranny shows, these are victims of a heartless campaign that has seen their friends, their relatives, their children — imprisoned, tortured and executed. Their fear is palpable, their despair is overwhelming. Their anger is real - and understandable. Holding to some ephemeral notion of "noble virtue" in the face of inhumane and overwhelming oppression and horror is a quality we all hope that we would display; yet in Tyranny, as in life, such virtuous individuals are extremely rare. Those rare few who display the courage and integrity to hold to virtue more often become martyrs than living heroes.
Many videogames attempt to show the incredible heroics that can arise in war, but one of Tyranny’s important messages is that, more often than not, war creates more villains than heroes, and even our so-called heroes may be some of the worst monsters of all. Mao Zedong is frequently hailed as a hero in his homeland, yet the victims of his “Great Leap Forward” number somewhere in the vicinity of 45 million (the true casualties of this horrific era are difficult to nail down). History is, after all, written by the victor. In Tyranny's world of Terratus, one has to wonder — how will history remember Kyros, or my character Fatebinder Dredd, once the Tiers have been conquered?
1963, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram released a paper detailing the now-famous Milgram Experiment. Milgram sought to study the conflict between obedience to authority and personal values. The study was inspired by the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, and commenced shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust. The study found that, when directed by an authority figure, people are likely to suppress personal values and follow direction, even to the point of harming another innocent human being. Though Milgram's experiments have more recently been challenged for their questionable ethical basis and lack of impartiality, the foundational concepts explored in his research seem to hold a notable seed of truth, and institutional violence remains a sad reality of our world.
The Milgram Experiment was constantly on my mind as I played through Tyranny. There are countless examples of it, and as a frontline character in Kyros’ campaign, you are constantly confronted by the consequences of this reign of terror. Piles of bodies in unmarked graves, looting and violence. These are the horrendous outcomes of an organisational structure that prioritises achieving its ends by any means possible.
At one point in the game, the Fatebinder is confronted with a harrowing choice — whether or not to end one of Kyros’ magical storms (known as an Edict) that has been ravaging the realm of Stalwart and has led to the death of thousands. But in order to end this storm, the Fatebinder is ordered to smother a baby, whose bloodline is keeping the storm alive.
Let me reiterate that for you — Tyranny asks your character to murder a baby to complete a quest. You are not forced to do it, and you can progress (with consequences) either way. But the game gives the illusion that the player is unable to successfully proceed without carrying out their orders, and by refusing authority you may make a powerful enemy. For RPG gamers, who can pretty much define success in a game as the process of completing quests, it may seem difficult to walk away and leave the quest unresolved.
From a role-playing point of view, I had no trouble making the decision. My character, Fatebinder Dredd, was a ruthless elitist, seeking power and glory as a sort of divine right, and was prepared to do whatever it took to enforce order and crush his inferior enemies. I, the player, was a different story. I found myself considering this decision at length, and what it would take for someone to justify killing a defenceless child. The idea of it is abhorrent, yet tragically, not uncommon in the real world.
Long after completing the quest, I discovered that it is possible to end the storm and save the baby as well. This made my earlier decision even more poignant — at the time, Fatebinder Dredd had told himself that there was no other way forward, this was how it had to be. My character had justified this horrific action because he had considered the alternatives and could see no other way. But had he (and I) really considered the alternatives? Or was I simply another confirmation of Stanley Milgram’s research, justifying my actions by deflecting responsibility onto the authority figure who had ordered them? As the Milgram Experiment, and countless real-world genocides have shown us, maybe humanity’s darkness simmers much closer to the surface than we would like to believe.
Tyranny is a vitally important game to play today. The conflict and consequences presented not only reflect our past, but increasingly our present. The rise of populist, adversarial politics, fanaticism and extremism, and unceasing global conflict with no sign of resolution can all be seen in their most extreme form in Tyranny, and the game forces to player to reflect on whether our lives are beginning to imitate art a little too closely, or whether it is the art that is the most honest mirror of all.
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