The 1920s in the US was a time of scarcity for some, impossible wealth and glory for others. The country’s nationwide alcohol ban gave rise to an explosion in organised crime, much of it concentrated in Chicago, where underground speakeasies flowed with hooch smuggled over the Canadian border. This was the heyday of Dean O’Banion, who ran a vast bootlegging business out of a simple flower shop, and Stephanie St Clair, self-appointed queen of Manhattan’s illegal lottery scene.
This is also the sleaze-filled setting for forthcoming strategy game Empire of Sin, the latest project from veteran designer Brenda Romero. Here, you’re cast as one of the competing crimelords tasked with taking over Chicago, street by street and racket by racket. You’re free to use any combination of foul means to come out on top – gunning down the other side’s lieutenants in chesslike combat, betraying allies to the police, selling poisoned alcohol to competitors. Beware, though – every trick in your arsenal can be used against you, and Empire of Sin is a game with a long memory. Every major character, from your big-name rivals to your own underlings, is a distinct, evolving personality with an opinion of the player. Spread enough bad blood around the city, and you may end up digging bullets out of your back at the height of your power.
Empire of Sin is a passion project for Romero, Bafta-winning designer of the acclaimed Wizardry series. Its roots go back to her childhood in Ogdensburg, New York, a town just across the river from Canada. Ogdensburg is home to a bar, The Place, that is said to be the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in the US, even staying open during the Prohibition era. How on earth did they get away with this, the young Brenda wondered? Not wanting to sour her daughter’s view of the police, her mother kept stumm – and unwittingly sparked a lifelong obsession. Romero’s husband and co-developer John (otherwise known as the co-creator of Doom) has a more direct family connection to the premise of Empire of Sin: Elvira Duarte, one of the game’s bosses, is his great-grandmother.
Empire of Sin is a rich and surprising simulation, split between a white-boxed city management perspective in which time passes continuously, and the grimy or glitzy distilleries, casinos and brothels where battles are waged. Everything hinges, however, on the production and sale of alcohol, your chief source of income. To safeguard your breweries while expanding your dominion, you’ll need to recruit gangsters from a pool of 60 characters that is shared between player and AI-controlled gangs.
The sharing of that recruitment pool is vital: it means that each character in the game can build up a history with different factions, siding with one boss after the other. Each gangster has a backstory and a set of personal objectives, such as murdering a nemesis; many of them are also friends, lovers or blood relations. Those dynamics shift over the course of the game, depending on how you treat characters.
It’s a truly tortuous network of attachments and grudges that should, by the finale of each game, throw up plenty of nasty surprises. If one of your lieutenants screws up a job, her companions may lose respect for her and refuse to work with her. If somebody’s beau is slain while defending a racket, that character may run rampage – killing somebody you’d rather leave upright, and so giving their own sweetheart reason to hate you. As overlord, you can rule your gang with either velvet glove or iron fist. Opt to messily execute a downed foe, and your capos will come to fear you, while potentially developing sadistic tendencies themselves.
One of Empire of Sin’s more intriguing aspects is the line it walks with regard to period prejudices. There’s plenty of discrimination at play in the game’s metropolis, though it isn’t foregrounded. One boss, Frank Regan, is an out-and-out racist – good luck getting him to buddy up with an African American kingpin such as Daniel McKee Jackson. But Brenda Romero is keen that as far as is possible, every player should feel represented by its cast. “The ultimate thing is I want you to be able to see yourself. That was in there from the beginning. I might have a unique perspective, because I got into the industry in 1981, but I couldn’t play a female character until 1987.” This has involved a bit of creative licence – inventing characters such as the conniving socialite Goldie Garneau, and porting over gangsters such as Stephanie St Clair who wielded power in other cities.
Romero has already made her name as a designer, but as the game she’s always wanted to make, she feels that Empire of Sin is her greatest test. “I feel like I spent a lot of time circling around the idea – an inordinate amount of time,” she says. “Because nothing really fit.” She notes that Empire of Sin has plenty of precedents in other games, citing the conspiracy-ridden medieval dynasty sim Crusader Kings as a spiritual cousin. “But there isn’t a reference for how all of this stuff comes together. So on the one hand, it’s incredibly exciting to see it all come together for the first time. But it’s also scary, because what if it doesn’t?”
• Empire of Sin is released on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in spring 2020.