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John Romero’s great-grandmother was a 1920s crime boss, now she’s in a video game

Empire of Sin’s Elvira Duarte is based on the legendary game designer’s ancestor

Empire of Sin is an upcoming turn-based strategy game from the legendary game designer Brenda Romero. Set in the 1920s, the XCOM-style game brings together a diverse cast of real-world and fictional crime bosses to fight over Prohibition-era Chicago. Perhaps the most unique character in the game is a 70-year-old crime boss named Elvira Duarte. The kicker is that she’s based on a real Mexican crime boss who just happens to be the great-grandmother of Brenda Romero’s husband.

You can see more details — including historical photos and documentation — in a new video embedded above and released Sunday on YouTube.

Brenda Romero’s husband is, of course, John Romero. A legendary designer in his own right, he’s best known as the co-creator of Doom. But he would not be where he is today without the hard work and perseverance of his family’s matriarchs. One of them was his great grandmother Elvira, who John Romero says pulled herself up out of a life of poverty by running three successful brothels in Nogales, Mexico, for decades.

Born in the late 1800s, Elvira was not herself a sex worker, according to John Romero. But she did manage to set herself up as a madam, eventually running legitimate businesses that were fronts for prostitution. He says that all of them — including Club Waikiki and B-21 — were active during the 1920s, making her a contemporary of the other historical figures in the video game. Aluminum scrip used to pay for services there still exists, and is actively traded by collectors.

Concept art for Elvira Duarte shows her in profile, as though she were sitting for a mugshot. Image: Romero Games/Paradox Interactive

“We did some digging,” Brenda Romero told Polygon during a telephone interview, “and the more I found out about Elvira, the more I was like, ‘Jesus, she’s a badass. She’s got to be in this game.’ [...] She was far more interesting than I think even John and I were aware of.”

As the family story goes, Elvira got out of the prostitution racket by winning the Mexican lottery in the 1950s. That windfall, as well as the profits from selling her three brothels as legitimate nightclubs and resorts, was able to help secure some financial prosperity for her descendants. John Romero says she even paid for a community chapel back in Nogales on the street where she lived.

Elvira’s boss power in the game, called Devil’s Breath, is based on a more modern drug called scopolamine. The Romeros say their research indicates that scopolamine has been used — anecdotally, at least — by Colombian prostitutes to rob their customers.

“What it did was it made the victims open to suggestion and just mentally pliable,” John Romero said during our Zoom call. “You just ask them to hand over their money and their valuables, and they will happily do it, because they’re under the effect of this Devil’s Breath drug. So we thought that would be a cool way to start this idea, just because it’s this drug that is also associated with prostitutes.”

Empire of Sin was recently delayed into the fall of 2020. The game will be released on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.

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