History as inspiration: Tyranny

Yesterday, we had a look at how the ancient world – most notably Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – influenced Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Today, we’ll switch mediums, as I want to briefly write about the game Tyranny, released last year by Paradox and developed by Obsidian Entertainment.

A role-playing game

Tyranny is a role-playing game played from an isometric, top-down perspective. You’ll create a character and are able to recruit companions with which to travel the world en solve various quests. Like most games developed by Obsidian, the emphasis is very much on choices and consequences. At the very start of the game, you can go through a set-up phase in which you make a few choices to determine both the state of the world at the beginning of the game proper, as well as the personal history of the player character. This means that you could play a radically different game on your second play-through just by making different choices during this set-up phase.

But choices are also important throughout the rest of this extremely interesting and well-written game. You can allow other characters to join you and become a companion, or you can tell them to shove off. You can chose to let some enemy characters escape, help or befriend them, or kill them when they are at your mercy. Your choices will build your reputation with all major characters and factions. You can get a positive reputation (‘favour’ in the case of factions; ‘loyalty’ for characters) or a negative one (‘wrath’ and ‘fear’, respectively), and each has its own positive or negative effects: there are no right or wrong decisions as such.

One brief example might clarify the latter. One of the companions you can have tag along is Barik, a soldier who somehow found himself encased in a metal prison of swords and other weapons after a sandstorm. Barik, like each character, has a particular mindset and likes and dislikes. Acting noble, in Barik’s eyes, will increase his loyalty towards you. Once you’ve reached level 3 loyalty, you unlock his ‘Iron storm’ ability (a kind of special attack). On the other hand, making decisions that Barik feels are ‘barbaric’ – such as killing an enemy who has surrendered – will increase his fear rating. If you reach level 3 in fear, you will unlock Barik’s ‘Blade’s grave grasp’ ability, which allows you to temporarily petrify (stun) enemies.

As you may have deduced, combat is a significant part of the game. Everything takes place in real-time, but all attacks and abilities are based on timers. These timers are shown above a character’s head, both friendly and hostile, and so you always know what a character’s done or is gearing up to do. You can program your companions’ AI to a small extent so that they can take care of themselves (at least, on lower difficulties). Furthermore, you can pause at any moment by tapping the space bar. While paused, you can issue orders and, when done, simply tap the space bar again to resolve the actions. It’s entertaining and fun, but at higher difficulties quite hard: you’ll really need to dig into character attributes, skills, and talents, and equip them with better gear, to not get slaughtered.

The world of Terratus

The game plays really well, looks great, and the writing is phenomenal, with interesting characters. But what sold me on Tyranny in particular – and is the reason for discussing it today – is the setting. Tyranny takes place on the world of Terratus. It’s similar to Earth in many ways, but clearly alien – it has two moons in orbit around it. The game is set in that world’s Bronze Age, which is on the cusp of making way to an Iron Age, with weapons of superior quality. As an archaeologist, I found this an interesting element to the game, and while the architecture and social organization of the people on Terratus is more sophisticated than was the case on Earth, the developers do a good job of making it seem believable.

Most of Terratus is under the control of an overlord called ‘Kyros’. Kyros, of course, is the Greek for Cyrus, and there are some obvious parallels between Tyranny’s Kyros and the famous Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 BC). Kyros was able to conquer all of Terratus because his armies used iron armour and weapons, and were thus able to defeat their bronze-equipped enemies. Like the Persian Empire, Kyros’ realm consists of a large number of subject nations, chiefdoms, and other political entities. The game goes to great lengths to point this out, along with the different mindsets and cultures of these various peoples.

The player character is a Fatebinder in Kyros’ army, which one of the producers of the game referred to as someone ‘like Judge Dred, where you get to come in and bring your own brand of justice to the game.’ Within the game, you’ll never meet Kyros directly – instead, the Overlord is referred to by other characters, and it’s hard to even determine whether Kyros is male (as one would assume) or female (as some characters refer to Kyros as ‘she’). Instead, you’ll frequently interact with Kyros’ most powerful lieutenants, who are referred to as ‘Archons’.

Archon is derived from ancient Greek and means ‘leader’. In many cities, such as Athens, there were magistrates who were called archons (archontes), and it’s obvious that the developers borrowed the word and concepts from ancient Greece. The main Archons in the game are Tunon the Adjudicator (Archon of Justice and creator of the Fatebinders), Graven Ashe (Archon and leader of the Disfavored Legion), the Voices of Nerat (Archon of Secrets), and Bleden Mark (an Archon who serves as Kyros’ executioner). It’s perhaps worth pointing out that in the world of Tyranny, surnames are placed first (as, for example, contemporary Chinese names).

Closing remarks

The world of Tyranny offers a fascinating place to explore and I found it easy to lose myself in it. Visually, the games looks fantastic. The developers have said that they were inspired by both stained glass windows as well as ancient Greek and Roman art, especially vase-paintings. This is obvious from looking at screen shots of the game, most notably the beautifully illustrated cut scenes.

If you have any interest in role-playing games, especially a game like this with a highly original setting, then you should check out Tyranny. If difficult combat is not to your liking, you can play the game comfortably on the lowest setting and just enjoy the story. Tyranny is available as a digital download on Steam, GOG.com, and other outlets.

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