The Kickstarter campaign for Kingdom Come: Deliverance bragged that it would provide gamers with “realistic single-player RPG set in the medieval Europe. Open-world sandbox with period accurate melee combat. Dungeons & no Dragons.”
We want to make the experience as authentic as possible – real-world locations, real castles that don’t look like something from Disneyland, period-accurate armors and costumes, combat and fencing systems designed in collaboration with the most knowledgeable, skillful swordsmen around, and a story based on actual, historic events.
Developers painstakingly replicated actual buildings and developed an extensive codex on every aspect of medieval life from animal husbandry to church liturgy to waste removal to serve as the backdrop for their tale.
And, according to the devs, this commitment to realism extended to the demographics of their game world which, in the name of “historical realism,” would not be featuring people of color.
Blogger Medieval POC was soon asked about the accuracy of the claim that there were no black people in 15th Century Bohemia, where the game is set. She responded,
It’s interesting how the game creators are actually pushing the whole “as historically accurate as possible” line of reasoning…. But apparently, women and people of color just aren’t realistic enough I suppose.
She went on to provide several examples of 15th Century Bohemian art depicting people of color and a bibliography for those who want to learn more about the ethnic makeup of the region.
Of course, Kingdome Come developer and #Gamergate enthusiast Daniel Vávra reacted to this criticism in a mature and thoughtful way.
Just kidding. He decided to mock all of the “SJWs” who dared to question him.
This, in turn, brought the rest of the #GamerGate doofuses out of the woodwork to complain that feminists and anti-racists were censoring game producers and generally ruining gaming forever.
All in all, just a another typical day in video game culture, right?
But rather than simply dismissing this incident as yet another example of a subset of racist, sexist gamers making the rest of us look bad, I thought it might be interesting to think through the merits of the claim. Is realism a valid goal for game developers to have in mind when crafting a game? And how does one define “realism” in games in the first place?
First, we need to establish that all games claiming to represent reality in one way or another are adaptations translated into a digital medium. Therefore, they will all have to make some concessions to reality for the sake of translation, both for technical reasons (for example, translating the experience of physical combat into a series of numbers that dictate the probability of the success or failure of a particular move) and/or to make the game more fun. So, seeking “realism” in a game is a matter of designers making choices about which concessions they want to make and how they want to implement them.
Kingdome Come, like all games, is littered with such concessions including magical potions, references to modern popular culture, and other anachronistic design choices included to make the game more accessible to (and enjoyable for) its audience. For example, Robert W. Guthrie took issue with the inaccuracies in the game’s Kickstarter description.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance: You will wander the world, fighting as a knight…
Right off the bat, this strikes me as problematic. In the Holy Roman Empire — as everywhere in Europe — the conditions for becoming a knight were fairly rigid. Specifically, you had to be a noble (or in rare occasions, just very rich). In Bohemia and the HRE, the only people eligible to be Imperial Knights were the older free nobility (edelfrei or hochfrei) or wealthy members of the unfree ministerialis. That’s not to say that common folk never rose from obscurity to become knights, but such occurrences were vanishingly small by the 15th century, and fall firmly in the realm of historical fiction.
If we’re being charitable, ‘knight’ here could just refer to a style of heavily-armored mounted warfare, but that’s just as improbable. Short of looting a fallen noble’s corpse or stumbling upon a hidden treasure trove, a blacksmith’s son could never hope to afford a full suit of armor, much less a horse. Even a quality sword might be difficult to come by. Now, the website makes mention of the Hussite Wars, which were fought largely by the peasantry, but they were armed largely with improvised farming implements and tools — flails, spears, and simple polearms.
…lurking in the shadows as a rogue…
I don’t really have a problem with this, aside from using a word that wouldn’t be invented for over a century and a half.
…or using the bard’s charm to persuade people to your cause.
This, on the other hand, I do have to protest. If Vavra’s argument against Moors being in Bohemia is based on the distances involved, what is a bard — a poet performing in the British and Gaelic tradition — doing in Bohemia? No doubt Vavra means something closer to ‘minstrel’, but if we’re being sticklers for historical accuracy, we should be consistent.
For that matter, the fact that the characters in the game speak English at all could itself be considered a historical slip up.
And then, of course, there are the oddities that arise out of attempting to match up the game’s systems for player interaction into the stories that the developers want to tell.
In other words, as Reid McCarter put it for Unwinnable Magazine, historical realism is
a process of selection – of sorting out what’s important to Deliverance’s designers and what isn’t. It reflects, in its own small way, their priorities.
This means that the real question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t “is it realistic to have people of color in Kingdom Come?” but rather “why are the developers so intent on refusing to make this particular concession with regards to realism in particular?”
What are the developers’ true priorities here?
I argue that this whole controversy isn’t really motivated by a desire for realism at all. It is rather about crafting a fantasy – a fantasy of an (imagined) past where racial tension didn’t exist because people didn’t yet know that people of other races existed.
The game is also, paradoxically, invested in creating a fantasy version of the future, one in which privileged consumers of virtual reality entertainment can choose all-white digital realms in which to pass their time. Note that, as Tanner Higgin pointed out in Games and Culture, this is already happening in many mainstream games in which whiteness is presented as “the default selection” and non-European characters are “exotic stylistic deviations.”
In other words, the historical claim being made by Vávra about the absence of black people in the specific tiny village being depicted in his game during this specific time period may or may not be factually accurate. It is, in fact, really difficult to definitively find out the answer to these kinds of questions short of building a time machine and heading there to see for ourselves. But if “accuracy” isn’t really the motivation guiding these design choices in the first place (as evidenced by the decided lack of attention that is being paid to accuracy in these other areas of world building), then we are forced to conclude that the real motivation behind this decision is white wish-fulfillment of an unsavory bent. “Realism” just sounds like a better cover story to justify this kind of wish.