Many expected Obsidian Entertainment to follow its hit role-playing game Pillars of Eternity with a sequel. Instead, after some well-received downloadable content, the studio is on to an entirely new setting. Its next game, called Tyranny, is a departure in more ways than one. Yes, it’s still an isometric role-playing game of a classic style, but it takes place in a different time period on a different world, and it tells its stories from an utterly foreign perspective.
That’s because in Tyranny, players are agents of evil.
Instead of fighting against the darkness threatening to overtake the land, they pull that darkness behind them like a cloak. The goal of the game, says director Brian Heins, is not to create situations where players must choose between saving the puppy and sacrificing the puppy. Instead, players will explore the many ways in which that sacrifice can take place.
"When we’re designing our quests and dialogues," Heins says, "we have five evil options and then maybe a good option for players who want to take a slightly better path. You can bribe and extort and harass people, or threaten them with the death of their loved ones, if they don’t do what you tell them."
But Tyranny isn’t a cartoon, and you won’t be playing a mustache-twirling ne’er do well. Characters and their factions have goals and motivations of their own, and that is where Tyranny hopes to make its darkness shine.
The best place to begin understanding the world of Tyranny is with a discussion of its technology. While Pillars of Eternity was a fantasy world, it took place in a pseudo-historical period following the invention of gunpowder. Tyranny, in contrast, rolls the clock back to the bronze age.
For hundreds of years, a shadowy figure known as Kyros the Overlord has been sweeping across the known world from the east, bringing Tyranny’s large, single continent under his control. The secret of his vast war machine, Heins says, is a new and fearsome technology — iron.
Historically speaking, it’s not that iron was any better than bronze, though. It was just way cheaper.
"A lot of times to make bronze you had to trade," Heins says, sounding more like a college professor than a game developer. "You didn’t always have the minerals necessary to forge bronze weapons in your own territory. Then you had very skilled smiths who knew the proper ratios to actually create the alloy that was durable enough to make weapons and armor. There’s a lot of expense that came with that, so most places could only outfit either partially in bronze or a small number in bronze.
"For Tyranny, the majority of nations in this world prior to Kyros’ conquest ... had armies that were numbered in the dozens of people, possibly over 100 for wealthy nations because outfitting warriors with bronze armor was very expensive. It took a lot of money to make ‘weapons-grade bronze’ as I like to say. It was a skill and a high art."
Kyros the Overlord's secret weapon is a new and fearsome technology — iron.
In so many role-playing games the materials that the weapons of war are made from are simply a pastiche. Imagine World of Warcraft or the Elder Scrolls games and how they treat the difference between stone and metal and glass as simply a set of stat buffs. But in Tyranny, Heins and his team went a step further to explore how new materials would have changed the face of warfare in an ancient land.
"One of the things I love about this period in history is that a lot of people have this idea that iron weapons are inherently better than bronze. That’s because they’re thinking of steel."
While steel is thin and light, iron is dark, heavy, black as night and crudely wrought. Imagine swinging around a cast iron pan on the battlefield. Now imagine wearing a half dozen pans woven into a jacket.
"The first iron weapons were crude, heavy, brittle and prone to shattering," Heins says. But the proliferation was a game changer.
"With iron you only need a single source of iron in order to make weapons and armor. It was much easier for people to outfit larger armies."
And it’s with those bigger armies, some 10 times larger than those that stood against them, that Tyranny’s villain Kyros has conquered the land.
In Tyranny players will take on the role of a fatebinder, a kind of justice of the peace on the edge of Kyros’ advance.
"Your role in Kyros’ empire is, whenever there are different armies and mage guilds in the same area they’re going to have conflicts with each other, either from their own personal politics or driven by the Archons that control them," Heins says. "When those arise, it’s your job as a fatebinder to settle disputes that decide who gets to win. Who gets to proceed forward with their plans and who has to admit failure to their leader.
"We think of you as the Judge Dredd character, judge jury and executioner of everyone you meet because your word effectively is law."
The leaders who sit below Kyros are called archons, and at least one of them is a traitor to his people. While Kyros brings the sword, he also brings an open hand. Rather than conquer his enemies and destroy them utterly, he — like the historical Achaemenid Persian empire — is willing to bring them under his flag if they’re willing to fight at his side.
One of those great archons is named Graven Ashe. He is the leader of faction known as the Disfavored. And, in keeping with the bronze-age theme, they fight like ancient Greeks.
"Stoneshields they fight with spear and shield — large tower shields. They create the phalanx that everyone else revolves around. The shields they carry are massive iron tower shields that are very heavy to carry around. When the shields join together in the phalanx, they got their names from the idea that the enemies break against the shield wall like waves on a stone. That’s the core of the Disfavored army."
"Supporting them is a group called Crescent Runners. They’re the greek hoplites. Much more like skirmishers, they’ll run ahead of the army and harass the enemy with javelins and other thrown attacks trying to provoke the enemy into the charge, at which point the crescent runners run back behind the phalanx and allow the enemies to break themselves against the spears and shield wall itself. Then they’ll harass with more javelin attacks while they’re fighting."
"These are the guys who stand in the center of the phalanx waiting for either people to break through the phalanx and reach the interior, or to wait for a high value enemy target. At that point the phalanx will part and the iron walkers come charging out and will take out the enemy commander or mage or whoever it is that needs to be defeated before retreating back inside the phalanx.
"I called them the Iron Walkers because the idea is that, just being able to be encased in a suit of iron armor and move is incredibly impressive at this point. Iron is crude and thick and heavy so it’s not like steel where it can be fairly light and still protective. It’s a lot of weight to carry on the battlefield. These are men and women at peak physical condition, they need a lot of strength just to carry around the armor they’ve got."
"The Oath Bound are the elite among an already elite group. Each squad – or Fist – of Oath Bound is magically linked to the rest. When one dies, their strength is shared with the survivors. In addition, each living Oath Bound knows where and how their Oathmate died, and can seek out their killer for vengeance. The Oath Bound are the Disfavored legion’s scouts and assassins, sent ahead of the army to clear any obstacles."
"Earthshakers get their power from the Archon of Stone. They’ve been studying him and his powers and developed a new school of magic based around creating tremors in the earth and ripping boulders out of the ground and throwing them at the enemy. They’re the ones who if the phalanx is approaching will send out tremors to knock them to the ground so they are weakened and can’t stand against the Disfavored units. They’re a small group of mages but when they’re coordinated with the Disfavored they’re highly effective."
While players won’t encounter a solid phalanx of Stonshields in battle, they will meet small groups of warriors before and after larger battles. Understanding how they fight in rank-and-file units, Heins says, will help contextualize their abilities in a CRPG setting.
"We tried to design the AI so the Stoneshields will hunker down and try to attack you with spears or swords if you get close enough," Heins says. "The Earthshakers and the Oath Bound will attack from a distance while the Iron Walkers take you out from close up. Depending on the encounter and which enemies are spawned, you’ll get different tactics from the units and have to adjust your strategy accordingly."
But in order to survive the harsh world of Tyranny, in order to bring judgement to a frontier at war, players will have to deal with the leader of the Disfavored — Graven Ashe himself.
The warrior, already several hundred years old, has been in the vanguard of Kyros’ armies for generations. And, just as some Greek city states who first fought against and later allied with Persia in antiquity, Graven Ashe is a freedom fighter who was forced to kneel long ago.
"Somehow through that interaction Kyros won Graven Ashe’s loyalty," Heins says. "He’s one of the overlord’s most loyal generals leading the Disfavored, trying to fulfill Kyros’ dream of conquering the entire world under the peace of his law. He’s one of my favorite characters we’ve created so far in the game.
"Graven Ashe is a couple hundred years old. No one knows why but becoming an Archon extends peoples’ life. Mages can live maybe 150 years just by the fact of using magic. Archons seem to live until they’re killed. No one’s seen them die of natural causes. They only die when challenged by another Archon or someone of equal power."
Even more so than Pillars of Eternity, Heins says that the team plans to explore mature themes in Tyranny. Pressed on what exactly that means, he isn’t willing to give up many details. What he says is that Obsidian’s next game will take great care to explore the nuance of what it means to be, and to be seen as, evil in the face of the game’s non-player characters.
"What makes you ‘evil’ is that the choices you’ll make in Tyranny are a lot darker than the ones you’ll make in other RPGs," Heins says. "Each person in Tyranny, from their own perspective, has something that they want to do. No one wakes up and says ‘I’m gonna be evil today.’ As we’re trying to tell the various stories in Tyranny, we’re not trying to say ‘you can be a cartoonish villain.’ We want you to be a character that has rational reasons for doing what you’re doing in the world and things that make sense."
Obsidian, which is publishing the game through Paradox Interactive, also wants Tyranny to be a shorter experience. Where Pillars of Eternity had a main story that extended from 60 to 80 hours of playtime, Heins says that Tyranny will be a focused 25-hour experience.
The goal will be to create a game that players are curious about replaying, and to create decisions and forking paths that will reward returning to that material again and again.
"We wanted there to be a lot of possible different stories you could play through in the game," Heins says. "Right now there are four major paths in the game, and in that there’s a lot of variations based on what quests you choose, which regions you visit, that can create more variety."
While there’s no release date yet, Tyranny is scheduled for a 2016 release.