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The RPG Scrollbars: The Fall Of Tyranny

Sympathy for the damned

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Kickstarter’s been pretty good for RPGs. We may not have seen the next big leap yet – Divinity: Original Sin 2 is looking pretty damn special, mind – but it’s certainly breathed new life into the classics. Wasteland and Pillars of Eternity are both returning. Numenera went down well, despite a little over-promising. Divinity was superb.

Have I left anyone out? (Oh yeah, don’t forget Taz.)

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.

I know that sounds weird when you look at the success of Grand Theft Auto and the like, and I suspect all of us have done some spectacularly fun, individual evil acts in games to either see what happens or just for the fun of it. Nevertheless, in most cases, there’s a bit more to the story than that. Not for nothing do we have the phrase ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’, just as the kind of card-carrying villain that punts puppies into the sun tends to be the player who gets the most glares in a group.

The basic mistake people make is that when we talk about ‘evil’, what we’re generally talking about is, well, ‘naughtiness’. The fun of transgressing a bit. The power of being outside the rules. That most often shows itself in two ways – in playing around with a game once the artifice of reality has worn off and even the best-realised character is just a glorified Barbie doll to stick in the microwave, or the allure of what I call ‘fun crime’. This is mostly evident in something like GTA – whether it’s something orderly like a bank heist, or just sowing chaos for funsies, versus crimes like torture, scamming pensioners out of their life savings, or recommissioning 2 Broke Girls.

The catch is that the further you get from this detachment, the less fun it becomes to most people. Destroying a city? Cool. Kicking over a child’s sandcastle to make them cry? Unpleasant, because while that act might seem completely trivial in comparison, most of us are wired to feel extra shitty about that kind of thing. Even when it’s an accident. Destroying Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line is just more property damage, but destroying the city’s water and condemning everyone to slow death-by-thirst is something both more evocative and harder to cheer at.

An example I like to bring up here is the City of Villains (RIP) arc about a guy called Weston Phipps, a fairly regular guy compared to all the costumed freaks and literal demons splashing around in the Rogue Isles – yet one of the most despised characters even next to the self-proclaimed supervillains, because his story arc was about crushing the hopes of a nearby teacher, seducing the poor and sick into his lair, and generally crushing the hopes of the Isle’s most downtrodden. He was specifically written to counter players’ complaints that they were only ever really fighting other villains, and quickly became an object lesson in ‘be careful what you wish for’.

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.

As soon as that line is crossed, the maniacal fun usually draws to a halt. Likewise, if the player character does anything to lose the psychopathic link, it’s effectively game over. I can think of plenty of cases where this has happened for me, including GTA: San Andreas, Saints Row 2, and the entirety of Watch_Dogs, which never seems to realise that its vigilante main character is worse than any of the villains. It shouldn’t logically make any difference that brutally torturing one set of pixels has more of an emotive punch than running over other pixels… but it does, and doing it to groups of pixels that your brain has spent the last few hours learning to recognise as a friend can be a sickening experience. Putting Morte into the Pillar of Skulls in Planescape Torment, for instance. Dealing with Harold in Fallout 3. Or The Iron Bull in some situations during the Dragon Age: Trespasser DLC. And these are cases where you’re doing it for good reason, not that you’ve actively decided to spread a little misery.

Away from games, it’s also worth noting the general agreement that media with villain protagonists really requires some degree of punishment. Walter White. Scarface. Tony Soprano. Frank Underwood. Even when we love seeing them get away with things, there’s always that deep-down level that the show or book or whatever else won’t be complete until it all comes crashing down. Until the taxes arrive on those wages of sin. Until all those trampled in their wake get a degree of justice, in at least some form. Villainy and tragedy are intrinsically interlinked in every form of media, with those that escape almost always having done at least something redemptive to earn their second chance, or paid some price greater than failure or incarceration. There’s exceptions to the rule, sure, but not that many, and fewer still great ones.

None of this means there’s no scope for evil in games. Far from it. For starters, just having the option is a power trip, whether you actually use it or not, and done right those options can be very satisfying. The Sith Academy in KOTOR. The Dark Brotherhood of Skyrim. The many awful things you can do in Planescape Torment, and the aforementioned Bloodlines. What all these and the other games that stand out as making wicknedness work have in common though is that they understand that evil is a spice with many uses. KOTOR, for instance, lures you to the Dark Side with ‘fun crime’ options, like hurling force lightning and making would-be Sith Apprentices shit themselves, only to have team moral compass Mission finally protest and be given no option but to either kill her or make her best friend do it. A more active choice would be Undertale, where a ‘Genocide’ run involves killing everyone in the game. Players who don’t balk at offing lovable best-friend Papyrus typically do when the adorable, naive Monster Kid shows up on cue. Though in practice, the game immediately backs down, with local heroine Undyne taking the hit in its place, and the Kid escaping unscathed.

(Undertale also of course does something interesting with its central stats of EXP and LOVE – treating them not just as a demonstration of power, but a basic willingness to hurt begetting hurting being an easier and easier path towards sociopathic murder for the sake of convenience, and then doubling down on that by accepting that the most likely reason to be doing a genocide run is that you’re simply bored, and using that as a glimpse into the game’s official villain and their completely broken psyche.)

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.

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Richard Cobbett

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