I fell in love with Pillars of Eternity last year despite having no nostalgia for Baldur’s Gate or its Infinity Engine successors. The excellent RPG took the depth and complexity of those old RPGs, sanded off the rough edges, and built a brand new world with compelling history, excellent quests, and exquisite combat.
So when it was announced that Obsidian was working on a new title built on the same ideas, I was more than a little excited. Titled Tyranny, the new game dispenses with the epic quest to stop an evil overlord from enslaving humanity. The bad guy has already won, the emperor is already ruling, and you play as one of his most important lieutenants. I got the chance to sit down with the game’s director, Brian Heins, and ask about the upcoming adventure.
GameWatcher: The basic pitch is that this is a world in which the bad guys have already won. How does the player factor into that?
Brian Heins: Your role is what we call a Fatebinder. It’s a role that exists in Kyros’ empire to help resolve the disputes that can arise from the various factions that make up the groups within the empire. So Kyros, the overlord, has several lieutenants that are called Archons, and each of those is in charge of different aspects of the empire. Some are governors of districts, others are generals of armies, and some are in charge of magical guilds or elements of the bureaucracy that keep the wheels of empire turning. Each of these different Archons have different agendas and personal goals they want to try and fulfill and often those come into conflict.
One of the Archons, the oldest and what some believe is the most powerful of the Archons, is your boss, Tunon, who is responsible for judging all of the other disputes between the Archons. Tunon created the Fatebinders to basically resolve the disputes that arise between the different armies and magic guilds and things that are all controlled by Kyros. So your job is basically to handle these disputes and make sure that they don’t become larger problems, and to enforce Kyros’ law in the world.
GameWatcher: How does the main character’s role in this ostensibly evil faction affect the player’s options for behaving in the way they want?
Brian Heins: So basically, within the rules of Kyros’ law, each of the Archons and then the player themselves have a great deal of autonomy. As long as you are upholding Kyros’ will, you have a lot of leeway in what choices you make. So just because you’re serving in an evil empire doesn’t mean you necessarily have to make evil choices. They’re definitely available and they can be a lot of fun to make, but players who want to try to have more of a moral stance can take it. It’s not always going to be the easiest path to take because you’re surrounded by awful people who want awful things, so they’re definitely going to try and lead you astray and make things easier for you to take the difficult path.
GameWatcher: And those choices play into the faction system as well, right?
Brian Heins: Definitely. People who are familiar with Obsidian games are going to recognize the faction systems we’ve developed. So as you work with various NPCs and factions throughout the game you build reputation with them. You can make them love you or hate you or various shades in between, and as you do they’re going to react differently to you. We also wanted to build on that, so in our game as you build those relationships with different factions, you actually unlock different abilities for your character. So making a faction hate you will give you one reward and making them love you will get a very different reward as far as what abilities your character gains and how those develop over time.
GameWatcher: I understand that character builds are classless. How exactly does that work?
Brian Heins: Yeah, we’re a classless RPG system, so we use skills that define the different player characters, both the player and companions. So if you’re using a sword and shield you’ll have a one-handed skill that determines how effective you are with using that weapon, and as you perform attacks with that weapon you gain experience in that skill. And as the skill levels up, your character will level up, and as you level up you’ll gain new attribute points that you can spend, and new talents that you can use to customize your character and what their abilities are. So basically as you play through the game doing the actions you really like and really enjoy, your character gets better at those things.
One of the reasons why we made this change (because Eternity was very much a class-based system), I personally love skill-based systems. I love the freedom and flexibility it gives to really make those hybrid characters. So if you want, you can create a fighter who’s focused very much on melee attacks and holding the line against enemies, or if you want you can actually add magic to that character as well, and have your fighter who can also throw fireballs at the enemy. Give those nice hybrid character classes, like a battlemage or a stealthy, rogue-type character who can also debuff or heal allies. That way you get a lot of variety in your character classes, and your character experience. For me I always like coming back to these types of games and trying different builds and seeing how the different skills mix and complement each other.
GameWatcher: What sort of options will you have at character creation?
Brian Heins: So from the very beginning, we give people the ability to customize and create the character and how they want to play the concept. You can very early on choose to focus on, again, being a pure mage or a pure fighter, or trying to combine those different elements. You can be somebody who’s both good at ranged attacks with a bow or throwing a javelin, and then can also switch to a melee warhammer if you want in order to take on enemies when they get close. That flexibility is available from the very beginning, as you’re creating your character.
GameWatcher: Will companions level up in the same way as the player character?
Brian Heins: Yeah. As your companions fight in combat, they will gain experience and skills the same way the player character does. Now, for each of the companions, we’ve designed them with a certain role in mind, that way their abilities are tailored towards a certain experience. There’s a lot of flexibility within that experience, so you can play them in different ways and make different decisions as they’re leveling up that will give them a different style that suits you and your character more. And if you decide, even though we’ve designed a character as a melee tank, if you really want somebody who’s standing in the back line throwing weapons at the enemy, you can absolutely put that weapon in his hand and he’ll grow more experienced with it over time and become more and more effective with it. It may not be the easiest path, but it certainly is a possibility.
GameWatcher: Can you give any specific examples of character abilities?
Brian Heins: We’re not going too much into the abilities at this point. One thing we did talk about during our demo at GDC, is that our combat is the same “real-time with pause” tactical combat that Eternity has. On top of that, we wanted to bring the companions into combat as well, so we added abilities you can use between your player character and your companions that we call companion combos.
One that we demonstrated at GDC was called “death from above.” These are very flashy, over the top, powerful abilities that show how powerful your characters and party members become as they level up through the game. So with this ability your player channels energy into their fist and slams it down into the ground, which launches your companion into the air and they fire arrows down on the target from above. You can do a ton of damage and it’s a great combat opener or a way to take out a very powerful enemy in the middle of combat. We wanted all these combo moves to really be key moments for the player, things that are memorable and that they’ll want to find ways to use multiple times.
GameWatcher: Pillars did a tremendous job of keeping the spirit of games like Baldur’s Gate alive while sort of filing away their rough edges. When you come into a game like Tyranny, which isn’t a sequel but still follows in similar footprints, how do you strike the balance between maintaining the sorts of things that made those old games great without just rehashing that previous work?
Brian Heins: Yeah, I think definitely when we first started working on this game, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just making a Pillars sequel. We wanted this to be its own thing that stood on its own as its own game experience. So we looked at a lot of the core things we could take from Pillars, because we wanted to build on the same foundation that they had created. We didn’t want to throw everything out and start from scratch, because there are a lot of great things there as a foundation to build on. So for us, it was about looking at the different game systems and seeing how they functioned, how we could adjust them to give them a unique flair for our game.
As an example, going from a class-based system to one that’s skill-based is one that changes the overall nature of how you play the game and the experiences you can have in it without fundamentally changing the core things that people love about this type of game. We’re still a role-playing game, so it’s all about choice and reactivity and the consequences of the choices that you make. It’s about adventuring through a new environment, new world, new IP, and I think that’s what people really love about role-playing games. It’s not just a linear experience, it’s getting a chance to explore a new world.
GameWatcher: And you’re aiming for a shorter, but more replayable experience than Pillars, correct?
Brian Heins: Yeah, right now we’ve focused a lot on reactivity to player decisions. Each of our areas has lot of different ways that the player can play through it and reactivity to the choices that they’ve made. Pillars was a much longer, epic adventure experience. We’re going for a shorter 20-25 hours of gameplay for a single playthrough of Tyranny, and we’re much more focused on reacting to the player’s choices so that as you come back and make different choices on a different playthrough, you’ll see different quests, different events that take place in the areas, and really see how the world changes based on your decisions.
GameWatcher: Are there any specific plans for mod support?
Brian Heins: No, no mod support plans at the moment. The biggest barrier to that, really, is the rendering pipeline for our areas makes it hard to be able to provide support for modders to be able to make areas without having fully Maya licenses and access to fairly beefy computers to be able to render out the scene. That is really the big limiting factor in our pipeline. It’s very time-consuming to generate area art and levels for the game.
GameWatcher: It’s obviously early to expect any specifics on this, but is there any thought toward potential expansion and DLC content?
Brian Heins: We’re talking to Paradox about what that might entail, but there’s nothing concrete at this point that we could talk about. Certainly it would be our hope to continue being able to develop Tyranny in the future.
GameWatcher: And you’re expecting to release this year, correct?
Brian Heins: Yeah, 2016 is our release date. As we get closer, that date will firm up.
The more details we find, the more enticing Tyranny sounds. I, for one, welcome the rule of Kyros, and I can’t wait to see how Obsidian’s latest shapes up in the coming months. If it’s like Pillars, we have another modern classic on our hands.