Tyranny Interview With Obsidian’s Brian Heins: Making Hard Choices

Obsidian Entertainment’s newest game is Tyranny. It’s an isometric role-playing game in the vein of Pillars of Eternity that looks to expand the horizons of the genre with intriguing new concepts and a strong focus on choices and consequences. Paradox Interactive will be publishing the game later this year.

Tyranny is set in a world where evil has already won. Instead of playing the hero or some peasant farmer resisting the big bad guy, you’re one of the Overlord Kyros’s Fatebinders—a bit like Judge Dredd.

I got in touch with Obsidian Entertainment’s Brian Heins, the Game Director of Tyranny to talk about, well, Tyranny.

Thank you for allowing us to interview you for your upcoming game: Tyranny! Please tell our fine readers a bit about yourself a thing or two about your work at Obsidian.

My name is Brian Heins, and I am the Game Director of Tyranny.

Prior to Tyranny, I worked on South Park: The Stick of Truth. For that game, I was one of the team members who worked on everything that was censored in Europe and Australia! Basically, I’ve seen things that cannot be unseen.

This is actually my second time working at Obsidian. I was here briefly in 2006 and helped out on Neverwinter Nights 2 and was part of the early preproduction team on Alpha Protocol.

Now that I’m back at Obsidian, I’m really excited to create such a unique game. Thank you for the opportunity to tell your readers more about it!

According to your trailers released for the game, the main antagonist will be the overlord Kyros. What relationship will we see between the protagonist, Kyros, and other factions under him?

We didn’t want to create a cartoon villain with Kyros, out to destroy the world because they’re evil. Kyros’ evil is focused on bringing absolute order and control to the world, because everyone’s life will be better if they do as they’re told.

Your character is a Fatebinder in an empire that spans the known world. Kyros generally doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day minutia of governance. That’s what the Archons are for.

Archons are women and men of immense power who are bound to serve the Overlord’s will. Each Archon has a place in Kyros’ order – governing the districts and the Overlord’s armies. As long as the Archons produce results, they can govern their district or army as they see fit. Sometimes this creates friction between Archons.

When disputes between Archons arise they are settled by Tunon, Archon of Justice. You directly serve Tunon, who created the Fatebinders to resolve disputes that arise between the armies, mages, and bureaucrats who serve the Archons.

Sometimes you’re even called on to resolve disputes between the Archons themselves. That’s always a dangerous proposition as an angry Archon can often kill someone with a thought. So Fatebinders have incredible power and authority in Kyros’ Empire – but short lifespans.

As a Fatebinder, you might be called on to resolve a dispute between leaders of two armies that have conquered an area. Who gets to enslave the populace? Who gets to confiscate the crops and feed their troops? Or, you might be called on to examine scrolls of knowledge to determine if they contain any forbidden lore (and what happens to you once you’ve learned that forbidden knowledge, anyway?).

I guess the short answer to your question is that the relationship between all of these groups is a complicated one.

Kyros or Kairos, in ancient Greek, means “The Supreme Moment”. Other publications haven’t seemed to make this connection, so far. To what extent is this reference relative to Tyranny’s main plot?

We actually derived Kyros from kyrios (“lord” or “master”) rather than kairos.

Originally we had a different, temporary, name for Kyros that we couldn’t use. We’d lived with it for a while and when the time came to come up with another name, it took a long time to find something that people liked. I actually first started thinking of kyrios on a weekend when I had random music playing in the background. The 80’s song Kyrie started playing and I remembered the meaning of kyrios. It may seem odd that the inspiration for an evil overlord’s name came from an 80’s song about a religious prayer asking for mercy – but I’ll take inspiration wherever I can get it.

Kyrios was one of several possible name ideas I took into a brainstorming meeting, and we left the meeting with Kyros. We changed it because the name felt stronger with only two syllables, and we pronounce it KIE(rhymes with LIE)-ros rather than KEE-ros. It felt like something soldiers would chant on a battlefield.

After that meeting, I did some more research on Kyros and possible meanings. I came across a site talking about the different forms of ‘power’ in ancient Greece – comparing despos (the power practiced towards slaves) versus kyros (the power a father practiced towards their wife and children, with the connotation of family as a man’s property). The idea being that kyros was a gentler form of power than despos, as the power was practiced from love. That sounded like exactly the type of lie that an evil despot would tell themselves to justify their actions.

I also found that Kyros as a name is thought to be a derivation of Cyrus, meaning ‘far sighted’, which felt like a good attribute for someone who conquers an entire world. And then I found kairos, which felt appropriate for reasons I won’t go into just now – I don’t want to spoil anything about Tyranny’s story.

“Player Choice” seems to be a driving factor in the backstory and main storyline. Experience can be gained equally through battle or dialogue for conflict resolution. To what extent can player go through the campaign without combat? Is there a possibility of a “Pacifist Run”?

You’re absolutely right that choice and reactivity are the driving factors of Tyranny. We want each of the player’s choices to matter and shape either their character, the world around them, or both!

Players can use their skills in combat to intimidate, trick, or bluff enemies they face. Sometimes this results in a single enemy running away from an encounter, sometimes it results in the entire group laying down their arms. That said, there are some fights you won’t be able to avoid – depending on previous choices you’ve made.

It’s not possible to complete the entire game as a pacifist, but I think players will really enjoy seeing the changes that come from the choices they make.

One aspect of combat is team relationships or party dynamics. Members of your party can either love or hate you, and the differences can affect combat abilities. Would you mind going into greater detail on how this mechanic works?

We’ll be talking about this in more detail in future updates. For now I’ll say that Tyranny uses a robust faction system that allows you to develop reputations with major groups in the game, your companions, and the Archons of Kyros’ Empire. As you build favor or wrath with these factions, you unlock abilities that shape your player character.

With your Companions, you’ll unlock additional Companion Combo abilities. These are abilities that allow your character and a Companion to work together to deal devastating damage or change the tide of a combat. We’ll go into more specifics about these abilities as we reveal more information about the specific Companions.

is set to offer a classless leveling system. How does this contrast to Fallout’s or Elder Scrolls’ systems? What safeguards are you implementing (if any) to prevent players from accidentally “gimping” themselves?

In Tyranny, your character is defined by a set of skills. As you use those skills – either throwing a javelin in combat or bluffing a hostile enemy commander in a conversation – those skills gain experience. As your skills improve, your character gains levels. As your character levels up, they can increase their Attributes and acquire new Talents.

I love this type of RPG system as it allows me to make the character I want to play. If you want to be a fighter who tosses fireballs in your enemy’s face, those are separate skills you develop in concert to make a battle mage. If you want to be an archer who snipes from the shadows, you can develop your bow and stealth skills.

During character creation we give the player the flexibility to make these types of hybrid characters, or focus on a specific set of skills to make a classic fighter if that’s what they want to be.

Players who decide to change their skill focus late in the game will have a harder time than those who remain dedicated to their initial character concept, but they’ll still have fun finishing the game.

Are there any other improvements to the combat system over Pillars of Eternity?

Our combat is built on the foundation that the Pillars team created, so it has the same party-based tactical combat people love from the old Infinity Engine games.

We wanted combat in Tyranny to be a bit faster-paced than in Pillars, and that led to a few changes. We have a max of four characters in the party – your character plus three Companions. You can adventure with less if you want, but the game is balanced around a full party. With fewer active party members, it’s easier for the player to keep track of what each party member is doing, how close they are to dying or being wounded, whether they’re facing an enemy who’s about to stun them, etc.

I talked a bit already about the Companion Combo abilities that we’ve added. We demonstrated one of these combo abilities at GDC, called Death From Above. It was a late-game ability where the player channeled energy and punched it down into the ground. This launched their companion into the air, where they fired arrows down at their target, bypassing any defenses from a shield. It’s a cool over-the-top ability that shows how powerful you and your party members can become as you level up.

There are more details about changes to combat that we’ll discuss in future updates.

With the relationship mechanic taking center stage in combat, does the relationship of your members change the choices available in the story? Can a party member hate you so much that they betray you later on?

Early in the game players will be able to ally with one of the major factions in Kyros’ Empire, or choose to go it alone. This choice will change the quests you see, what happens in areas you travel to, and whether entire factions are your friend or your enemy.

Many of your Companions begin the game as allies of various factions. How you deal with those factions will affect your Companions and they’ll interject their opinions into conversations. Whether you choose to agree with those opinions will further shape how they feel about you.

And yes, if you make certain choices, your Companions can abandon you. It depends on the Companion and whether you’ve built up enough reputation with them. I can’t go into any more specifics without giving away details of the story.

One of the main draws of Tyranny for fans of the genre will be a well-written story. How do players who wish to play as any character archetype other than “neutral or evil” reconcile, in game, the juxtaposition of the protagonist’s backstory with future player choices? Are there situations in game that facilitate this change naturally?

You play a character who holds a position of authority in an evil empire. You start the game with blood on your hands, and people will judge you based on the decisions you’ve made. That said, you don’t have to be evil. You can try to be a force for good within this world. It might be the harder path, depending on your choices, but it’s certainly an option.

When designing the story and quests for Tyranny, we try to avoid binary choices between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Often the player is given multiple options, each with their own nuances for whether a choice is right or wrong. And your allies will absolutely tell you why supporting them is the moral choice. If you play the game a second time and ally with a different faction, you might find out why that moral choice was actually one of absolute evil.

I’ve read that Tyranny will offer up to 20 hours of content, going against traditionally long story-driven RPGs. What incentives will the game provide to increase replayability for players?

Tyranny is heavily focused on choice and reactivity. That meant that each of our areas needs to serve multiple purposes depending on the choices that players make. So for players, making different choices on quests and in conversations will net very different experiences as they play the game. We wanted to make a game that people could finish in a reasonable time, so they could come back and try some of the other paths, or character builds, or Companions than they focused on the first time.

“Kairos”. This word keeps coming back to me as see the possible player choices in game. I can’t shake the feeling that the allusion isn’t just a hint to the plot later in the campaign. Is it possible that “The Supreme Moment” is not just referring to the inevitable conflict at the end, but to the very moment the player takes control of the protagonist?

That’s an interesting thought. You’ll have to let me know if it’s true after you’ve had a chance to play the game.

When is the earliest players can get their hands on Tyranny and explore their more “Evil Conqueror” side?

We will be releasing the game in 2016. That date will get more specific as we get closer to release.

Are there any words of encouragement you might have for people who want to develop games like Tyranny?

There are two main pieces of advice I’d give.

The first is to just start making games. There are so many free or low-cost toolsets available for people to experiment with. The best way to get a job in a game company is to have games – or mods – you’ve made that people can play. It shows that you’re passionate about gaming and that you can learn on your own. Most importantly, it shows that you can finish something. Too many people start a game and then abandon it when it becomes work. They like the idea of making games more than the work required to finish them. If you can, find a small group of people with skills you don’t possess and make a game with them. Learn as much as you can from them – even if you can’t do their job it will help you communicate with others who have similar skills. Plus, you’ll have to collaborate on the design of the game and learn to accept other people’s input. Those are valuable skills you’ll need to work as a professional game developer.

The other piece of advice I’d give is to develop your skills and interests outside of gaming. Whether that’s reading World War 2 history, rock climbing, or painting miniatures – invest time in those hobbies. You never know where inspiration for a game will come from, and the broader your experience the greater your chances are of contributing something new to the game you’re working on. As an example of this, several employees at Obsidian play musical instruments. Several of them recorded music for the Pillars of Eternity score. Their outside skills gave them a new way to contribute to an awesome game.

Are there any closing thoughts you would like to leave our readers with before we conclude this interview?

I just want to thank everyone for their interest in Tyranny, and we’ll be revealing a lot more information about the game in the coming months.