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Richard Cobbett, in his RPG Scrollbars column on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, ponders whether it is fun to be evil in RPGs. His ultimate conclusion is that no, it isn't. Not when being evil is the only thing you can be. He lists Tyranny as a prime example of a game that loses a lot of its nuance if you just look at its 'What if Evil Won?' tagline.
Oh. Yes. Tyranny. If you thought that game kinda landed and faded quickly, you’re not alone. Despite being a very solid half of a game, even Obsidian/Paradox have admitted that when it came to it, “everyone was hoping that it would do better.” I think it deserved to. The thing is, I’m not sure this should have been a huge surprise.
There’s obviously market reasons that it might have underperformed, and political ones that I’m not going into here. Players were a touch cool on it at release and have only got frostier since. Not least after realising just how long a decade is in Infinity Engine years. However, I don’t think most of that really explains it. Certainly, in terms of feel, Pillars was by far the clunkiest of the revival projects, and folks were still warm enough on that to almost immediately fund Pillars of Eternity 2: This Time With Pirates.
What separates Tyranny from the crowd – indeed, what was intended to separate Tyranny from the crowd – was its premise of being the bad guy. It doesn’t really matter that in practice it was more open than that. That was its hook and its central draw in all the marketing; marketing which went out of its way to promise a cruel, bleak land in which heroism is dead and the only music left in the worlds are everyone’s favourite lamentations from Now That’s What I Call The Crunch Of Jackboots Stamping On A Human Face Forever Vol 2 – the one with Gilbert Gottfried’s ‘Trapped In The Closet’.
And the problem is… being the bad guy just isn’t that much fun.
In practice, there’s a reason that most games that focus on being evil pretty quickly shift focus to be Evil vs. Evil. Dungeon Keeper was mostly spent fighting other Dungeon Keepers, just as Overlord was about fighting corrupted heroes with the help of wacky comedy sidekicks. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines might seem an example of relishing the power of the night, but in practice, you’re surrounded by dicks and again, most of the ‘bad’ stuff is designed to make you feel shitty.
The whole ghoul sequence with Heather Poe, for instance, plays out as an abusive Joker/Harley Quinn style relationship where you’re the Joker, is designed to make you start by smirking at the situation but quickly realise the horrible thing you’ve done in saving her life. Or a side-quest involving destroying a would-be scriptwriter’s vampire movie screenplay, which is necessary to maintain the Masquerade, but deemed bad enough that even the vampire requesting your services feels sorry for him. Throughout most of the game you’re instead encouraged to play nicely, to not kill, to not make a fuss. True, the official reason is that nobody wants tomorrow’s headline to be “SANTA MONICA RAMPAGE, P.S. HOLY SHIT VAMPIRES EXIST AND ARE REAL”, but potato, po-tahto. You also spend the game firmly on the side of more or less ‘good’ vampires (and before anyone says it, I don’t mean ‘the Camarilla’) going up against or reluctantly following orders from the darker ones and the douchebags respectively.
Evil vs. Evil works because regardless of what the Rolling Stones told us, there’s rarely much sympathy for the devil. We can relish in the same acts and the same satisfaction of crushing, humiliating and dominating an enemy, without that pesky moral aftertaste. The catch is that for it to be more than just swatting flies, a la Carmageddon peds or random civilians in Syndicate, those characters need to be built up to some degree, and the more that happens, the greater the odds of developing a degree of sympathy.
Even then, it’s not enough just to offer the option to do something bad. Fallout 3’s opening choice of whether to destroy the city of Megaton or not is seemingly a good one, but in practice it’s so ridiculously Saturday morning cartoon level evil that the only reason to do it are to see what happens and then reload a savegame where you didn’t. This too is one of the big problems that evil faces in games – that without purpose, it’s just pulling the wings off flies and making enemies. Even Quest For Infamy, a game designed to be Quest For Glory’s dark mirror, has a main character smart enough to know that you get more results with honey than vinegar, to the point of being a polite, mostly respectful guy with a slightly filthy internal narration and occasional tendency to be a little snarky to people without actually offending them. The actual villains, almost inevitably, turn out to be local authority figures, and our Infamy-loving main character finishes his quest being declared a proper hero after all. To nobody’s surprise.
The sad thing about Tyranny is that it actually did a good job of making evil into something more than that – to allow for the options, yes, but also to push towards your own goals and conquest plans or treat the evil rule of law as at least a stabilising force in an uncertain world. Ordinarily, making evil decisions actually work out is the province of grand strategy titles, like rampant heir murder sprees with a potentially even holy purpose in something like Crusader Kings, where the effects spread far enough for there to be more than just minute by minute decisions and where your motivations for evil acts are your own. In most games that simply offer branching narrative though, you’re usually just sabotaging yourself by making unnecessary enemies, being a little bit rude to people, or being finger-wagged for demanding payment for deeds. At best, it’s cosplaying as a villain without actually doing anything. At worst, it’s the puppy-kicking option. Stupid. Self-destructive. What players often refer to as ‘Chaotic Stupid’ – being a complete dick for the sheer hell of it, and revelling in Being A Baddie.
Tyranny is better than that. There’s always that bigger picture in mind. There’s always a plan and purpose beyond minute by minute decisions. There’s always a justification for things and an argument against, even if it does end up railroading you into the ending that it wants for the second half of the game. Sorry, I mean of course, ‘the sequel’. I’m not going to say it’s one of my favourite RPGs or anything because honestly, it left me quite cold in many ways, but I’m glad I got to both play it, and play around a bit inside it.
Could it have landed better? Perhaps. Another time. Another revival. Different screenshots and colours that don’t immediately scream ‘All hope is gone!’ when it actually isn’t. There’s so much still do be done with most RPGs, and evil is no exception. When it’s the primary draw though, beyond naughtiness and fun crime to a level where it might mean anything, I like to think that we’re mostly a little bit reticent to jump in, simply because most of us know that doing bad just doesn’t feel good.