Genies and Tyrants

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Busy weekend so far! Friday night my wife had gotten me an early birthday present of second-row tickets for Disney’s Aladdin out at the Capitol Theatre. The full Broadway cast and everything. Absolutely stunning work on every level. They did the entire entrance area up as the sultan’s palace with glowing purple and blue light leaking out from between the pillars and cracks in the mosaics, and it all meshed in very well with the baroque architecture of the theatre itself and the starry sky ceiling. I promised I’d only get souvenirs that I could actually use so I walked out with a very nice coffee mug done up in the Arabian style with little golden lamps woven into the larger pattern.

The set design was really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’m a huge theatre geek. There was one bit where they transitioned from the streets of Agrabah, to the dune sea, to the Cave of Wonders, and then back to the palace interior with maybe twenty or thirty seconds between. They had ten second costume changes, street dancing that dissolved into swordfighting and more. It’s the kind of show where even if you’re not into musicals, if you have the opportunity to go see it you really should just for the sheer spectacle of the piece. Hell, Genie’s magic tricks alone were worth the price of admission and seeing a Genie not portrayed by Robin Williams was the one thing I walked into the show kind of leery about. They didn’t even bother trying to ape Williams’s style and went with a fabulous combination of Cee Lo Green and Cab Calloway.

Just top notch all around and seeing the glitzy, romanticized live action take on Agrabah really sparked my imagination on some details I want to work into this fantasy version of Arabia for the novel.

The other big thing I did was making the mistake to buy a new RPG when I still have several books to read (I’m about halfway through IT and have about half a dozen backed up after that), so I’ve been spending a lot of my free time playing through Obsidian Entertainment’s TYRANNY.

Tyranny is… well, amazing. I don’t think I can sing the game’s praises high enough. I have loved every game Obsidian has ever worked on and I think this might be the absolute best, even better than Pillars of Eternity and Fallout: New Vegas.

It sells itself as a world where good and evil already had their big war, and evil won, and there’s really nothing you can do about that. You roam the lands as a Fatebinder, basically a fantasy version of Judge Dredd who carries edicts and orders directly from the halls of the Overlord to his Archons in the field. Your freedom of choice in the game comes from how you choose to interpret the Overlord’s commands; you can be merciless but not needlessly cruel, you can be jovial but grind the unseen masses under heel, and every single thing you do has rippling consequences you may or may not encounter later. It does what dozens of games have been trying to do for years and years in creating a truly engrossing and greyscale morality system.

For example, and not to get into spoilery content here (I won’t talk about specific events in the game, just the general tone of the first chapter), your only tools available to carry out orders are a pair of armies in constant competition for your (and the Overlord’s) favor, the Chorus and the Disfavored. The former are a bit like the wastelands barbarians of Mad Max, they’re ruled by a cabal of mages who take hundreds of slaves to use as cannon fodder in their campaigns, they pride themselves on being disorganized and adaptable, and they run the gamut from well-meaning soldiers to deranged slavers. Slaves in the Chorus can assassinate their masters and take the empty place left behind, and so it is actually the faction with the most capacity for social growth.

The Disfavored are rather straightforward fascists or authoritarians in an extreme. They believe in giving one chance to surrender, and if you’re dumb enough not to take it they will not only kill you but everyone around you, flatten your village, salt the earth and move on. They’re the elite, they don’t believe in slavery, they think that most magic is ripe for abuse, and they want an orderly empire where everyone knows their place and stays in it because that’s better for everybody.

I came into the game thinking I’d play a pragmatic ex-soldier who hates wasting resources, be they human beings or equipment. There’s no slaughtering underlings for failing him, and he wants to diversify the empire to make it stronger so he doesn’t believe in exterminating those in conquered lands. He’s a bit like the ancient Persians in the sense that so long as you pay fealty and tithes to the Overlord, you can pretty much keep your system of government and social norms. I looked at the army choices and figured I’d throw in with the Disfavored early to try and mold them into a nice, safe, reliable tool to do my bidding.

Turns out that they take orders literally, they don’t believe in taking prisoners, and when I send them out to conquer a rebelling town there’s a significant chance I’m going to ride in days later to find the place a smoldering ruin filled with mangled bodies, because that’s just how they operate and I don’t have the authority to change them beyond giving them increasingly explicit orders. I find myself growing more sympathetic to the Chorus, because they at least offer the survivors of war a place and a chance to regain some power, albeit at the end of a dagger. They also believe in collecting as much information and art as possible from enemy nations, to better understand and integrate with them. There were times I started to regret writing them off as slavers because I could send a few of them in to mingle with the enemy and end up with tons of voluntary new recruits, avoiding greater bloodshed in the end.

In general, the game is about the slow downhill slide and the justifications we make to ourselves for doing bad things. To progress in the story, there are times where I have to look at the amount of goodwill and clout I’ve built up with the various Archons to try and decide where I should apply weight to do the most good. I might be able to save those fleeing, unarmed survivors over there but if I order my men to stand down and they grow angry and insubordinate, I could be dooming hundreds or thousands more during a larger conflict down the line. You will absolutely find yourself killing a few innocents with the justification that it’s for the greater good, and your friends in the game will agree with and encourage you, and when you log out of the game you end up feeling gross and dirty.

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It makes me feel uncomfortable in ways a game hasn’t in a long time. Planescape: Torment is probably the last one I played that had me make decisions this dark. I’m choosing to play it fairly straight but there are options to go straight up supervillain if you want, mowing down refugees and then turning to stab your allies in the back without missing a beat, building a throne out of corpses. The game will not actively punish you for this. It punishes you for trying to play a contemporary good person in a game where that morality is alien to the denizens, and where you will stick out to be hammered down if you attempt it too often.

The magic system is also brilliant. I won’t get into too much depth here but it’s all about the interpretation of natural law and basically making arguments against reality to warp the landscape with judgement edicts, combining runes with different forms, meanings and flourishes to build new spells, so on and so forth. Your wizards end up feeling more like a mix between high-powered lawyer and CIA spook. There’s an entire wizard guild called the Ink and Quill who draw their power from recording history, and you end up with evil sage-bards who fall in with the Overlord because they see him as a greater unifying force of good who prevents the infighting that had historically plagued the landscape, arguing that it’s better to have one murderous dictator making the rules than hundreds of murderous warlords throwing men at each other on a weekly basis.

It’s not a feel-good game but it’s one of the best written ones I’ve ever played, and that counts for at lot. I’ve ended up toggling the combat down to simple mode a few times just to plow through it faster and get back to the dialog trees; they’re just that meaty and fun. Trying to negotiate a ceasefire with a pissed off lava sage, an invulnerable mountain man carrying an enchanted hammer, and a multi-faced soul eating smoke monster is way tenser than just beating them all in a long boss fight.

kyros2.jpgOh, and the setting. It’s taking the Mad Max: Fury Road route of dropping you in and letting you piece everything together yourself at a perfect pace, and everywhere I go I find something cool and neat and unlike anything I’ve encountered in a game so far. They could have gone for something like the old AD&D Dark Suns world where everything is a blasted wasteland, but they don’t – one of the overarching themes is that the Overlord actually doesn’t want to rule over a hellscape, he wants to rule over a world where things can continue to grow, just with him in charge. They didn’t take the easy way out and I really appreciate that, because I see all the ways they could have and it would not have been nearly as engrossing to me.

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