RPGs are synonymous with the hero’s journey. Whether tasked with saving the kingdom or galaxy, or simply defeating a great evil, gamers come into these titles with a certain expectation to do good deeds and hold back the tides of darkness. However, some of the better RPGs, especially in recent years, do not portray morality in such a stark, black-and-white fashion. Instead, such titles allow many of the decisions players make to exist in a grey area. Few ever put the player in direct control of a villain, at least from the onset. In Tyranny, Obsidian subverts this tradition, casting players as a bad guy in the form of a Fatebinder of the Overlord Kyros. Tasked with overseeing the final conquest of the Tiers, the last country holding out from Kyros’s rule, players are the villain, the conqueror coming to crush the last holdouts under the Overlord’s heel. Yet players are not blindly the black on this moral scale, as two main factions exist within this evil, the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, which offer vastly different versions of that morality, and therein allow players to explore evil from the perspective of the bad guys.
Before the game proper begins, players must undertake a mini-game of sorts as they dictate what happened in the years leading up to Tyranny’s opening level. This prologue is the first glimpse at the differing modi operandi of the two armies. The Disfavored are a law-and-order force focusing on diplomacy and rigid structure to enforce Kyros’s will—Lawful Evil, for those familiar with the Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart. The Scarlet Chorus, on the other hand, are Chaotic Evil, pillaging and causing bloodshed to achieve their ends. At first glance these two paths will appeal to different players for different reasons, and despite the actions chosen, the game always begins in the same place. The consequences of the choices are made apparent as the player begins to explore the Tiers, through the ways in which each army and the NPCs comprising them react to the main character based on how the conquest played out.
Thus, players are primed to pick a side from the beginning, and the game makes much of the two forces in the first act, taking pains to illustrate how, though both armies serve Kyros, each do so in different ways. Obsidian could have taken an easier route and had only one army, one view of evil, and let players digest that. Wisely, however, Obsidian goes the route of the two armies, and allows players to favor either side, or neither, depending on how they wish to engage with the world. A third, Neutral Evil, path also exists, where players serve their own interests, and a twist on that where they work with the rebels they are attempting to conquer, totaling four main paths for the Fatebinder to tread. Players are so used to being on the side of the conquered that seeing the other side is refreshing. Yet this perspective also shows questions of morality plaguing the bad guys. As players engage with these various paths, they begin to see nuances and subtleties that go beyond the first impression and shape a more organic view of the world: not every Disfavored soldier is a stalwart knight, and not every Scarlet Chorus fighter is a bloodthirsty savage.
Bringing these ideas together is the Favor/Wrath system by which the player’s actions are judged. There are no good or bad morality points. Instead, the reactions of companions and the armies are the closest way to gauge how the game world views the Fatebinder. But the game never dictates right or wrong. Whether the Fatebinder embraces the evil of Kyros’s regime, or tries to make peace with their enemies and speak cordially with friend and foe alike, many moral choices exist that force the player to face this question of the nature of evil head on.
Many of the choices come down to killing or sparing certain characters, as is befitting a game about conquest and war. Yet, where one may expect the forces of evil to cut down all in their way without remorse or regret, making each of these individual choices forces the player to examine their own conscience, rather than that of the Overlord. The cordiality of some responses feels almost out of place coming from someone who is working towards the titular tyranny, but this approach allows the player to forge their own morality within the confines of Kyros’s rule. The Fatebinder can stay true to the authoritarian evil of their Overlord, indulge in the chaos of the Scarlet Chorus, or decide what each life is worth as the choices are presented. While much can be said of the rich lore and beautiful landscapes across which the player travels, the true heart of the game is the player’s role as Fatebinder, a voice whose word carries weight and whose decisions reverberate throughout the land. Giving players power, albeit granted by the side of the conqueror, as well as the ability to choose their dialogue and make decisions allows unique insight into what it means to be on the side of the devils.
Enter one of the most well-known lines from Niccolò Machiavelli’s political treatise, The Prince: “And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both” (Machiavelli par. 5). This line is central to the thesis Obsidian is arguing in Tyranny. Much is made of how fear of Kyros, not love for him, has allowed the Overlord to conquer most of the world, yet players can either continue to instill fear, or gain the love of the Tiers through their choices. Read as a whole, Machiavelli’s statement is saying to be both feared and loved would be the ideal state, not just the former or latter, and the player can try to achieve such a state. Fear is useful in keeping enemies in line, but love will keep those loyal to the Fatebinder stalwart in their devotion. In this way, players can gain favor with their traveling companions, gaining their love in a way, while also putting down enemies and rewarding allies. There is much in The Prince, and to pretend that this line is the only source of insight into tyranny and its workings would be foolish.
Cary Nederman, in discussing Machiavelli, introduces the concept of virtù, linguistically similar to virtue, but far from holding the same connotations. Nederman explains that “Machiavelli expects princes of the highest virtù to be capable, as the situation requires, of behaving in a completely evil fashion. For the circumstances of political rule are such that moral viciousness can never be excluded from the realm of possible actions in which the prince may have to engage” (Nederman par. 11). While players are not in control of a prince, the power the Fatebinder gathers makes them comparably powerful, and this idea of virtù seems quite fitting. In order to achieve their ends, players may have to make heavy choices, the weight of which can be a tough cross to bear. Even if they are trying to be diplomatic, even if they side with the rebels, the Fatebinder will still face times when such choices are unavoidable, and a ‘flexible disposition’ as Machiavelli calls it, is required. In a game about conquest and power, Machiavelli’s theories and words have relevance in a way not applicable to most traditional RPGs. The assumption that moral goodness equals good ruling is valid for a reason, but Obsidian plays with such notions through Tyranny’s complicated perspective.
Taking this talk of Machiavelli’s virtue to another thinker, Aristotle’s more traditional virtue ethics are also relevant in this discussion. Aristotle’s philosophy is far-ranging, but the most relevant pieces to focus on are on his main points on justice and the good. The end goal of life, in his eyes, is eudaimonia: a state of complete happiness and flourishing (Kraut, par. 2). How then does this apply to Tyranny? Kyros does not seem interested in making his empire one of eudaimonia. All he cares about is having full control of his subjects. Players are not expected to follow the good, acting rightly in any given situation to achieve their goals. In examining Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Richard Kraut writes that “[Aristotle] assumes that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, he portrays them as deeply divided, because their pleonexia—their desire for more and more—leaves them dissatisfied and full of self-hatred” (Kraut, s. 4, par. 20). Players can fully live up to this idea if their primary concern is fulfilling their mission and letting the Overlord reign. But the latter part, this talk of pleonexia, is even more striking. Should players approach Tyranny in this way, blindly killing without regards to the wider world, the ending they achieve may be dissatisfying, and while they probably will not hate themselves, they may loathe the Fatebinder that brought them to the ending they received.
This idea shows how interesting morality becomes when putting players on the side of the devil, and what makes Aristotle’s words even more relevant. Kraut adds that “the evil person may wholeheartedly endorse some evil plan of action at a particular moment, but over the course of time, Aristotle supposes, he will regret his decision, because whatever he does will prove inadequate for the achievement of his goals” (Kraut par. 21). While it may be well and good to kill every prisoner and slaughter all who stand in the way for a while, the longer the game goes on, the more players can see they are missing out on nuances that allow this deconstruction of evil to become more apparent. Again, a player who seems to be following their role of Fatebinder to a tee may find themselves regretting that they did not explore other options, or try to get a more holistic view of morality, especially from the unique position of the bad guys.
It is here where the medium of games really shines, as players can explore ideas of good and evil as discussed by brilliant minds of old, and now allowed to be experimented and explored within the narrative Obsidian offers. The sheer richness and depth of the lore makes the world of Tyranny feel almost real, and that immersion allows the player to entertain the moral implications of their actions as they play. The harshness of Machiavelli’s view on politics and power coupled with Aristotle’s virtue ethics and how they reflect on evil allow for a unique, but nonetheless fitting, lens to explore the shades of evil on display in this title. While the gameplay itself is dense and tactical in its own right, the real shining spot of Tyranny is its story. The world reacts to choices in the way the best RPGs do, clearly showing consequences and making players think what would have happened should another path have been taken. In many ways, it is a game unlike any other, playing more like an interactive novel on the nature of evil than a combat-driven quest to conquer the world.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. “XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared”. Bartleby. www.bartleby.com/36/1/17.html. Web.
Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/aristotle-ethics/. Web.
Nederman, Cary. “Niccolò Machiavelli”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.) plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/machiavelli/. Web.