Tyranny Lead Narrative Designer Matt MacLean Discusses Building The Game’s Expansive Lore
Whether you’re into the geo-political sci-fi of Deus Ex, Portal’s cake-based comedy, or the enigmatic high fantasy of Dark Souls, video game plots – and the lore behind them – have grown as diverse and varied as the people who love them. And with each passing year our appetite to unearth, digest and discuss every nugget of backstory only becomes more and more insatiable. It says a lot that one of the biggest (and best) releases of the year, Overwatch, an online-only FPS no less, has more animated shorts than core game modes, and that to understand even a lick of Final Fantasy XV’s story, you need to watch not just a feature-length movie, but a series of anime as well.
Exaggeration aside, this multimedia diversification wouldn’t exist without the demand from gamers, and is a logical extension of our desire to be immersed in our favorite game-worlds. Nothing quite scratches that itch like deep-diving into an expanded universe – whether that’s through an in-game codex or fan-made wiki – and those are exactly the kind of worlds Matt MacLean, lead narrative designer on Obsidian Entertainment’s Tyranny, makes.
Since joining Obsidian more than a decade ago, MacLean has worked on many of their highest profile releases, such as fan-favorite RPGs Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, as well as Alpha Protocol and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
Obsidian’s latest asks, “What happens when the bad guys win?”
“[Tyranny is] a fantasy CRPG about how the last corner of the world gets conquered,” says MacLean. “The whole ‘sometimes, evil wins’ tagline is catchier, but evil is a really broad offering.
“Since we don’t include embezzlement, there’s barely a shred of false witness, and you can’t force someone to bury their friends alive… evil is certainly part of our game, but we don’t have quite enough wanton insanity to satisfy folks expecting a detailed murder simulator. We’ve aimed to make Tyranny set in a world where evil is ascendant, and tried to create situations that show both overt and subtle moments of the horrible, but the game has never been a celebration of human depravity. Hopefully nobody walked away from the game thinking the Voices of Nerat was a positive role model for decent human behavior.”
That core idea, along with a few key design decisions, built a base for the rest of Tyranny’s story and lore, allowing the team to first work out a loose timeline of events, before fleshing out the game’s world. While from a gameplay perspective, Tyranny borrowed heavily from its predecessor, 2015’s Pillars of Eternity, using Obsidian’s bespoke modification of the Unity engine to achieve the same isometric perspective. Players take the role of a Fatebinder, an agent of the Archon of Justice tasked with upholding the laws of evil Overlord Kyros.
“Chris Avellone and Brian Heins did the very broad outlines of the game, focusing on choice and reactivity, and using the ‘what if evil won’ mantra as the back-of-the-mind thought in all things,” MacLean explains.
“We knew from the start the project would be building on Pillars of Eternity tech, so wheel reinvention was out of the question – so it’d be a fantasy, and it’d have the same core gameplay tools as Pillars of Eternity. The earliest story docs weren’t massively far off from what you’ve played. There was an Overlord that ruled all of the world with world-busting Edicts that did what was promised in the casting until something happened (or maybe forever, depending on the purpose). The Overlord had conquered pretty much everything in the world, save for this mountainous peninsula that was last on the invasion schedule. You’d be one of the people conquering this last corner of the world (with your war story being told in a map-based prologue) and you’d be thrust into a civil war between the Overlord’s most powerful minions.
“The Edicts gave us the hooks for our initial scenarios (the earliest concept art pieces are of the Stone Sea, Burning Library, and Blade Grave areas) and that was all figured out pretty early on and the game built up around that.”
IT’S GOOD TO BE BAD
With that ground-work in place, the Tyranny team then turned their attention to establishing motivation for the story.
“We focused on the Edicts as the driving elements for the quests in the areas of our game,” says MacLean, “and put a great deal of thought into the factions of the game, how they’d factor into the different solutions, and how we could create a matrix of different interactions (such as this faction would want an Edict broken, another would want it kept in place, another may not care but wants some other thing accomplished).
“We aimed to tell a story that had enough conflict to keep you going forward, enough choice in how it plays out, and enough so that you could see a different experience if you played it from the other side.”
Throughout this process, MacLean constantly drew on his previous experiences with Obsidian, as well as inspirations from real-life and a variety of fantasy genres.
“At the risk of being overly self-referential,” he explains, “I think Fallout: New Vegas was our single biggest inspiration. We knew we wanted that sort of mixed reputation system, a world more or less already ravaged by human brutality, and quests that feature you making bad situations maybe better, or maybe much worse. The game is real time with pause, not a first person shooter, and it’s fantasy, not sci-fi, but at its core, despite these technical differences, the soul of Tyranny draws heavily from our work on New Vegas.
“Most of my inspiration comes primarily from real life – I could mine human history for evil ideas literally forever – more acts of evil and deceit are created in one day than we can put in a game that takes years to make. Games are probably the second most influential source for me. I’m not much of a reader and can usually only tolerate fantasy literature if it’s interactive. I have a big place in my heart for the non-digital games in my life and draw a lot of inspiration from them: Warhammer (both the RPG and the game with man-Barbies), Ars Magica (and its successor Mage: The Ascension), Earthdawn, GURPS, and Paranoia all feel forever loaded into my brain’s RAM.
“I’m certainly inspired by other video games too; I just often find myself playing games as a mental checklist for what’s already been done. Side note: I thought about quitting my job after playing the Witcher 3’s magic fetus quest – what’s the point in trying after that? But Papers Please, the Far Cry series of games, and most notably Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter were certainly big inspirations for me.”
As well as this, MacLean drew on a few unlikely sources, ranging from Coen Brothers neo-noir to classic ’70s sci-fi.
“I had a pair of movies in mind during some of the development – Miller’s Crossing and Soylent Green,” says MacLean. “The former being a great case study in why it might be good to let players switch their mind at odd times, the latter being a movie that does a wonderful job of showing you a wretched, crumbling world while staying surprisingly sober (minus the famous over-the-topness at the end). When discussing the ‘voice’ of the Fatebinder’s player responses with the other writers, the scene with Thorn investigating someone’s house (while casually robbing them, since who are they going to call for help?), was pretty much the perfect example of what it must be like to deal with a Fatebinder (or really any number of RPG heroes that enters homes, chats people up, and takes their stuff).”
While all of these influences play a part in making Tyranny what it is, a great deal of original thought went into every aspect of its creation. A lot of fiction – unless it’s deliberately absurd – is built on the suspension of disbelief, where even the most fantastical worlds are governed by rules which keep them consistent and relatable. The control of magic plays a central part in Tyranny’s gameplay and storyline, and while its true source is left ambiguous, the Obsidian team made sure to ground it firmly within Tyranny’s lore.
“In most games, I’d argue it’s good to have a deep explanation for how magic works should your players want to know and if it’ll add to the game,” says MacLean. “If Phantom Menace has taught me anything, it’s that not every magical gimmick should be explained down to the microscopic details. If we had a tutorial window that popped up telling you ‘oh by the way, you have magic germs in your blood’ you’d be right to be furious.
“In the case of Tyranny, this is a rather tricky subject. Kyros has a monopoly on the total understanding of magic. The Archons have magic, mages can imitate it, but only Kyros has a true understanding of how it all works, and how it can best be used.
“The magic system was the source of a lot of discussions with Brian Heins, he being responsible for making the magic work in combat, and me being responsible for making the words people say about it not sound like cringe-inducing malarkey. We always knew the top of the food chain – the Overlord and Edicts – from day one, and we knew from the start there would be a cast of a half dozen villainous generals/agents/judges, and the cast of Archons you see in the game were from very early on in the design process – down to the names – and each of them had their powers/functions in broad strokes.
“And we knew we’d want something resembling fantasy-setting magic since not having it would be outrageous for fans of such a genre, but we had this rather off-the-rails scaling of power going on here, with Edict at the top, eccentric magic misfits in the middle, and some sort of magic lower class that can serve as part of combatants of our world.”
He continues: “We also knew our game wouldn’t have religion in the traditional sense – Pillars has the stories of gods covered. In Tyranny, magic IS the supernatural phenomenon the average person needs to explain the unexplainable in life. In real life, you can offend a religion’s worshiper and get your head cut off, but you can insult any god in any closed room and if nobody hears you – I assure you there’s no vengeance coming. It’s different in Tyranny, but it’s also worth noting that the cultures of Tyranny weren’t exactly religious yesterday and then became religious today – so nobody sits around and says ‘gee, funny how we gave up gods now that we have an Overlord to smite us.’
“The point of this digression is to say that while the game isn’t about gods, the people of Terratus do have other elements you might associate with religion – tradition, ritual, knowing there is something more powerful than you – a world with magical Archons with crazy, distinct powers would seem to logically have lots of people flocking to those Archons to study and emulate these unusual standouts. So, it seemed sensible to make magic a thing of secretive, personality-driven power – Archons have magical powers to do crazy things, whereas the magic of ‘mere mages’ (or rather the cleverest and most privileged of the regular folk) is performed through intense study of a particular person’s power until they can imitate that power, even if they don’t really understand what they’re doing with it at the core of it; they just know enough to cause trouble. I suppose part of the inspiration came from ruminations about how we stand on centuries of progress and none of us can build the stuff all around us. If we had to actually have specific knowledge of those who created the keyboard, and if we have to be actively grateful for their creation of the keyboard each time we wanted to type an angry rant on a forum, I think we’d have a radically different take on material objects.
“Since I didn’t want to ever write the words, ‘Hey, how’s that level three fireball been working out for you?’ or ‘Can someone cure my medium wounds, please?’ and yet wanted to have people in the game discuss magic like a real thing, it was important to me that people didn’t treat healing the sick with all the ease and whateverness of popping some painkillers. Magic had to be the life’s work of people who used it, and it needed to be a sufficiently obfuscated set of studies to explain why magic exists – why and how it is that people other than Kyros have magic, yet none have broken the Overlord’s cornering the market, so to speak, in the use and understanding of supernatural power.”
Player choice is a cornerstone of Tyranny, and was from the very beginning of development. Where in most games character-creation has players choosing the color of their knee-pads, Tyranny empowers them to make world-shaping decisions about how Kyros’ conquered Terratus, affecting not only the Fatebinder’s backstory, but how NPCs interact with them as well. Multiple quest endings and expansive dialogue trees feature in many Obsidian games, and each bring their own difficulties – not least how to balance letting the player feel like they’re influencing the narrative, while still telling the same compelling story.
“It’s one of the central challenges of making a choice-driven RPG,” explains MacLean. “Tyranny shipped with about a million words in it (I think slightly less), but based on one journey through the game, you’d have no way of knowing. That massive word count goes largely into sating the angry gods of branching narrative. You see one section of the game written one way in particular, but we had to write other ways the conversation could have gone, or other folks who might be having conversations with you instead – the complexity and cost gets staggering surprisingly quick.
“After seeing how successful the non-branching, quite linear South Park: Stick of Truth was, there’s a part of me that wants to say there’s little reward in offering choice. Some of your players won’t get that things are reacting to a prior choice and will assume how it’s presented is how it is (or more often, as comments on the internet fora might suggest, something does happen to them and they mistakenly assume it HAD to happen), and some players will rather enjoy the freedom. It’ll stoke their imagination, and their heightened arousal for choice will make the moment the game doesn’t offer enough choice sting quite dearly.
“Grumbling aside, I think the trick to finding the balance between real choice and agency with telling a story we want to tell is to not get too hung up on telling any ONE story. And it helps to just spend more time worrying about ‘what would someone want to do here’ and worry a lot less about whatever great magnum opus you have in mind. You still have to tell a cool story, but most players care more about what they did within your story and less about whatever moving and thought-provoking nuance you thought they’d absorb from your gripping yarn. I guess I say that as someone who has spent a lot of time rolling dice and talking (how an observer once described my friends and I getting our GURPS on), I take great joy and insight from storytelling that isn’t entirely up to the author.”
“Of course, the game can’t just be player choices,” he adds, “If each point in the game did offer 20 dialogue choices at every single junction, it would take decades to create, and we simply can’t adjust for every whim that every player might have – the game can’t become about you saying screw it to the war and becoming a goat herder in the Vendrien Well mountains, nor can it support you deciding to ask Tunon to be demoted to the dude who writes out all the court transcripts. So the balance of choice and story is trying to create a story that supports as many noticeable ripples as possible while reusing as many assets as possible (so that your game ships on time) and find as many ways as possible to make choices that you can’t immediately use to change the immediate gameflow as seeds for later callbacks and karmic margin calls.”
This meant that the Obsidian team had to make top-level decisions about what the player could and couldn’t influence. Players have control over their version of the Fatebinder – determining their personality through dialogue and choice of skill-set – and can steer the narrative towards its conclusion differently based on the paths they’re given, but the overarching scenario is always the same.
“The challenge with this game was more a question of what [The Fatebinder’s] role and social status ought to be,” says MacLean. “We always knew taking sides with the Disfavored or Scarlet Chorus [factions in Tyranny] would be central to the game, but if you played as a Disfavored or Scarlet Chorus warrior, the player made that choice too early – yet we needed to let you be someone that could stroll about both armies and get to know them, do some quests, maybe meet a few folks, and THEN make an alliance, ideally with all of this happening in such a way that only the most genre weary players are noticing this is your speed dating with evil Act 1.
“We also had this problem that the world was allegedly ruled by evil and should be full of arbitrary punishments, yet we didn’t really want to make a game that involves dying over and over again. We needed to give the player the ability to have at least some tenuous excuse for acting above the law and killing people over perceived acts of disrespect – so law enforcement seemed the obvious answer, but it took us awhile to get there.”
In any creative work, things change as ideas evolve over time, and not always for the reasons you’d expect. Adjustments as seemingly innocuous as wording a game’s title can have far-reaching effects, leading the Tyranny team to tweak and revise fundamental details in the story throughout development – even reworking the player-character’s role in the game-world in response to publisher feedback.
“So fun fact: the player character was a Herald of Tunon for a large chunk of development, not a Fatebinder,” MacLean says. “Thus, Enkumar became a go-to name when jumping into the game to playtest something. At some point, we got the name of the game from the publisher and it was in the form of title, colon, subtitle. We went back and forth on the title part but the suggestion was Working Title: Fatebringer and they wanted the player to be the Fatebringer. Since you… bring a lot of fate? At the time, the School of Ink and Quill was originally called the Binders Guild, being that they were book binders, so Lantry was a Binder, not a Sage.
“Anyway, in our back and forths we eventually settled on Tyranny (no subtitle) and Fatebinder as the player’s title – putting us on a renaming spree. This caused some very amusing bugs, like one of the very first examinable objects you see in the very first scene of the game saying “…this standard is the only Fatebinderry the Disfavored ever need.” If you notice some of the characters have a hard time mentally parsing your title, that’s a bit too much of my rage seeping through – sorry.”