Empire of Sin preview/interview

Empire of Sin, developed by Romero Games and published by Paradox, might not be coming out until we’re well into 2020, but we recently had the opportunity for a lengthy hands on session with the game as well as the chance to interview Brenda Romero about the game and our impressions.

In Empire of Sin, you assume control of one of several mob bosses in Chicago during the prohibition era. Recruiting members, powerplays against other bosses and battles for territory are all part of the game, which plays out as a blend of an empire builder and tactical role-playing game – with combat missions that play out a bit like the XCOM games do.

While at Gamescom, we played extensively with an early build of the game and experimented with a variety of missions and character interactions. Rather than share our views with you directly, we went over them with Brenda Romero (lead designer for the game) to get a little more insight into what to expect.

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In the demo, we played in a hub-like area rather than a full map of Chicago. How will this translate to the game?

The game map is divided up into neighborhoods, or wards as they’d call them in Chicago. Individual wards have their own character and name, so one of them would be Little Italy, for instance.

The recently released trailer features a lot of voice work, but the demo is relatively silent. Is more voiceover work coming?

There is! Because the game is between alpha and beta right now, you will notice there are some characters that actually do have voiceovers on them, and the reason for that is that we’re currently testing out the dialogue. When we go and record more of the voices later on, it will mainly be for the RPCs (recruitable player characters) – there are 60 voices for them, and then 14 for the boss characters.

We’re testing out to see if our current approach sounds right, if we’re maybe missing this line here or there, etcetera. This is because having to go back into the studio to re-record 60 voices is a lot of work. So because of where we are in development, there are characters that are fully voiced, so some aren’t.

The sitdowns you have with other bosses will not be voiced though, because they’re dynamic and not fully scripted. We want the ability to expand that as far as possible and not be constrained by what we’ve recorded.

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How are the sitdowns dynamic? I noticed that when I rejected an offer, they came back later with a higher offer.

That’s an example, but it can also be that someone happens to shoot an ally’s character (on accident) and that ally gets super pissed off at me so he demands retribution. You can’t fully script that, and we want that flexibility in the sitdowns by not having everything fully voiced – this includes the player character, who’s a boss as well.

Speaking of these sitdowns – the ones in the demo had fairly static animations – like the act of pulling a gun on someone isn’t visualized. Will this change?

What you’re seeing in the demo is still pretty early, a lot of content is getting slammed into the game now that we’re between alpha and beta, and part of that is animations. What you’re looking at in the demo isn’t final art and if you’re pulling a gun then you’ll usually transition from that sitdown into a combat scenario as well.

The events in the demo feel very loosely connected right now – how you are dealing with narrative tone and direction?

It shouldn’t be a tricky question, but it is. There are two different parts of it and one is your own narrative, so what you’re doing and the things that result in the dynamic gameplay. So we’ll say that’s the player-directed story, and then there’s the individual stories of the bosses. Take Elvira Duarte for example – before the game even happens, she had some stuff go down in Mexico, and it’s part of the reason why she’s in Chicago now.

So there’s a possibility during the game that her son might come for her, and all the bosses have something like that going on, or some story that they have. The RPCs, likewise, have their own things that are going on, so it’s possible that somebody had a felony warrant that they neglected to mention that could come back to bite you in certain ways.

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Then there are the evolving stories between the different bosses. Because the game is dynamic and not linear at all, those events can be smaller isolated incidents that can play out in half an hour or ten minutes. They can also be longer, evolved ones – for instance, there is a whole thing that starts pretty early in the game about the Canadian Maple Association. You can probably guess that they’re not just looking to move maple syrup, so that story can end in a whole variety of ways and that’s a really long mission.

Except for the player narrative, there is no central narrative with a set endgame. Your goal is to become king or queen of Chicago and you have 13 years to do it, because then prohibition’s over.

Combat situations remind me a lot of XCOM – is that one of the inspirations?

Absolutely. So many other ones too, over the years, and Empire of Sin is many things put into a blender. The Civilization series, for instance – I’m a huge fan of Civ, have played it since the very first one and far more than anybody ever needed to. I’ve met Sid Meier many times now, but still go “Wow, there he is”, and Civilization’s influence can be seen in how the different civilizations translate to different factions.

Other influences are games that have recruitable player characters in them, because I love that you can bring people you meet out in the world into your party. We’ve added the element of making those characters dynamic, so they evolve over time. In other words, you wouldn’t have the same story about Maria Rodriguez that I’ll have.

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Any sources of inspiration outside of videogames?

Obviously Goodfellas is a huge inspiration, as well as Peaky Blinders and Sopranos – just the interactions between the characters and the things that might happen in that world. Then Untouchables, as well as the book by Eliot Ness of the same name and then just lots and lots of research.

I’ve been fascinated with this time period and most of the game is historically based. John (Romero)’s great-grandmother is a boss in the game, and she ran brothels in Mexico, so she really was a boss. My great-grandfather is in the game as Frankie Donovan, who came from Ireland. His real name was Paddy Donovan, but we felt like people might think we’d been making things up, with a name like that. So we decided to go with Frankie, which is my dad’s middle name.

Obviously the genre is filled stereotypes – how does that translate to the game?

I’ve actually worked a little to break some of the stereotypes. We did an exhaustive amount of research to find people that we thought players would like to play as that weren’t just “the greatest hits”. We didn’t want just the Al Capone thing, even though obviously we want him because he’s cool and he is who people think of when they’re in that period. I also love the idea of including someone like Elvira though, who doesn’t like to say her age but is probably in her sixties or seventies. I love the idea of somebody like that who is just incredibly smart, knows what they want and knows how to get people to do that.

So we’ve worked to provide a wider cast of characters that are, for the most part, authentic characters that existed during that time. And then we have a few fictional characters who are amalgamations of people who also existed at that time. Goldie for example is French Canadian, and Canadians were running all kinds of alcohol at that time, so she’s using that to her advantage. Frankie, even though he’s my great-grandfather, may have walked other things across the river in northern New York when it froze over, other than just himself to go to work. Also, in our city of Chicago, in addition to all the individual bosses, there are these multi-boss rivalries – like the Italians and the Irish and the north side and the south side. Some of the fictional characters we have in the game are an amalgamation of those influences.

Our thanks to Brenda Romero and Romero Games for an early look at Empire of Sin

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