Giving life to 15th-century Bohemia in Kingdom Come: Deliverance

How Kingdom Come: Deliverance is making a bold attempt to bring the medieval world back to life …

Daniel watched from a vantage point that might afford him both the pleasure of detail and a grand perspective on the unfolding brutality.

It didn't matter to him who won the battle, who fell and who survived. He just wanted to see the minutiae of combat.

Lines of warriors stretched across the rolling, summer meadow. Dressed in sun-glinted armor, men prepared their pikes, swords, shields and firearms for the fight to come.

Then the roar, the charge, the clatter, the sharp cries of pain.

Daniel smelled campfires and saw a child clap her hands. He fiddled with the zoom on his camera and caught some shots of men falling underfoot. Ambulance staff looked on nervously.

The fight was just a re-enactment, but it was a bloody good re-enactment. He was learning a lot about medieval weapons, clothes, tactics and hierarchies. The development team wanted pictures, so he took lots of them.

It was clear that the battle had been meticulously choreographed, that the weapons were blunted and the firearms faked. But still, even pretend battles have their victims. Things go awry. Armor-clad accountants, computer engineers and data analysts limped from the field in search of 21st-century medical care.

Daniel Vávra, co-founder of Warhorse Studios, was glad to just be a spectator. But watching the fight, he understood that if he wanted to really understand this period, if he wanted to make a game that truly embraced medieval life, he would one day have to join a battle himself. He would have to don armor and wield flail and place himself among the ranks of warriors.

Fighting men pressed against each other, swords and shields clashed. The ambulance people got to work.

There Be No Dragons

There are no dragons in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, no magicians or elves.

It's a game that seeks historical accuracy, while cleaving to familiar role-playing devices such as leveling up, inventories, dialog trees, fetch quests and combat.

Set in the early part of the 15th century in Bohemia (roughly, the Czech Republic), it tells the tale of a simple blacksmith caught up in one of European history's most intriguing, violent, controversial and inspiring periods: the Hussite Wars.

Beta builds released to Kickstarter backers show a world that is familiarly RPG video-gamey. The villages, dales, forests and farmsteads are not unlike Dragon Age or Skyrim. But those worlds are merely inspired by the rustic fantasy of the medieval age, while Kingdom Come is interested in its complexity, in its detail.

"I'm curious as to how people lived back then without modern medicine, technology and education."

"I like history," says Vávra. "I've liked the period since I was a kid. Kingdom Come is something I always wanted to make."

"I wanted to reconstruct it to see for myself how it might be to live back then. There were enough interesting things happening at the time that it gives us a lot of space for stories and quests."

Plenty of people share Vávra's curiosity about the past. The Kingdom Come Kickstarter, launched in January 2014, raised more than $1.6 million from 35,000 backers, and continues to attract funding from fans.

If it hadn't been for crowd-funding, the game probably would never have been made. Before setting up Warhorse Studios in Prague, Vávra had created the Mafia games for 2K. He pitched his medieval idea to his bosses. They demurred. He quit and pitched the game to other publishers. They also declined.

Despite presenting research suggesting a huge demand for first-person medieval realism, publishers did not want to commit. They were comfortable with the certainty of guns and the romance of fantasy. They did not want serfs and turnip soup.

"More than 80 percent of people we asked said that a game set in the medieval period is very intriguing and unique and original," says Vávra. "But the publishers were saying quite the opposite. They were saying that it’s too risky and too boring."

Kingdom Come's crowd-funding success suggests the publishers were wrong. One top-level Kickstarter backer, New Jersey-based Esther, tells Polygon why she wanted to see the game made.

"It always seems really interesting to me to be able to be totally immersed in the way Europe was hundreds of years ago," she says. "I'm curious as to how people lived back then without modern medicine, technology and education.

"Also, I feel like I've played RPGs for so many years that it would be nice to see a more realistic game where the player isn't 'the chosen one from prophecy' who has to defeat the eight magical dragons to save the kingdom from the evil wizard. I do enjoy RPGs with those elements, but just thought it would be great to really experience something different."

The Pursuit of Realism

In video game design, as in all forms of fiction, realism is a faulty ideal. A game that seeks absolute authenticity in every detail must come undone by both the creator's need to provide adventure, and the consumer's own prejudices and expectations.

Kingdom Come opens in a lane above a village. The meadows are filled with butterflies and flowers, the woods are thick with trees and bushes. Romantic music suggests a yearning for a simpler age.

Partly, this is our medieval idyll, a construct of the post-Industrial Age. It's not entirely wrong, but it's not wholly right, either. It seems unlikely that the verges of village environs, a prime location for the feeding of livestock, would have been lush with thick grass and flowers.

Also, as Vávra explains, the part of the world where this game takes place was famed for its silver mines, which demanded enormous volumes of wood. Such a landscape would have been stripped of forests, and those left behind would likely have been heavily grazed by livestock. But a world denuded of wood and vegetation doesn't sound like fun. The game presents a medieval world that accommodates the needs of video game design and the needs of players, who want to escape to beautiful worlds.

"I want to have dark woods. Everyone needs dark woods."

The game progresses through exploration and dialog trees. Our humble blacksmith interviews villagers to solve mysteries and so win rewards. The speech patterns are thoroughly modern.

None of this is "realistic," but it is close enough, a necessary compromise between entertainment conventions and historical accuracy.

Compromise is something that Vávra has learned to live with. His team includes artists, level designers and writers who have specific goals and ideas. So Vávra hired a historian, Joanna Nowak, who is tasked with pushing back, determinedly, at quasi-Hollywood interpretations.

"I'm responsible for the management of texts, literature and visual materials regarding medieval times," she explains. "I point out interesting facts or the latest discoveries. These should be used as an inspiration or support for the designers, scripters or artists at Warhorse. I consult with specialists to make the guys aware if something is OK or really historically impossible."

She attends meetings and looks at assets, offering suggestions and explaining historical realities. But there are compromises.

Two-story buildings in town streets were not as common at the time of this story, as the game suggests. But their addition is deemed necessary to make the towns look more distinct from the villages and more interesting to the player.

Other assets were completed before Nowak arrived at the company, and since creative resources are always carefully marshaled, she has learned to live with them.

"Benches in churches," she says. "According to my knowledge there should not be any at that time. But these elements and all the animations and quests had been prepared before I joined Warhorse, so… it has to stay this way."

Vávra sometimes has to argue with his friends in the historical re-enactment community, with whom he consults. They did not like the thick, dark forests which form part of the game's geography.

"Some of the guys were were protesting that it is too much. In reality the livestock was sent into woods and they ate everything below a few meters so it was just trees and open ground.

"I had to go against the historians because I want to have dark woods. Everyone needs dark woods [laughs]"

"They said, 'It’s not possible'. I said. "Were you there?" [laughs]. They said, no. They said there were parts of the country where there were fewer people living which would have had dark woods. There it is. Dark woods."

Swords at the Ready

Historical realism in a video games calls for an accurate portrayal of warfare. Thus, Vávra's interest in historical re-enactments and the latest in 15th-century research.

The Hussites were anti-establishment rebels, fighting against the central authority of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. In the way of revolutionaries, they innovated, they made the most of their assets.

Famously, they used wagons as tactical defense and offense devices, precursing tanks by five centuries. They used rudimentary guns on battlefields, where previously such weapons were only used for sieges. Recruiting large numbers of peasants against heavily aristocratic and knightly enemies, the bow was a useful element of combat.

But sword-fighting remained at the core of the combat ethos of the time.

This posed a problem for Warhorse, right from the beginning. Swordplay is very difficult to simulate. It wasn't just historical realism that the company had to worry about. It was physics.

Few games have successfully attempted realistic first-person sword-fighting, though Chivalry: Medieval Warfare does a good job. The Dark Souls games, to an extent, offer weapons-combat realism in behind-the-shoulder third-person as does medieval sim Mount & Blade. Series like Assassin's Creed rely on timing and superhuman agility as the chief combat mechanic.

Treyarch had a decent stab at sword-combat with Die By The Sword, back in 1998. Third-person attempts like from Bushido Blade to Nidhogg have garnered praise over the years.

Author Neil Stephenson sought to bring a first-person combat game called Clang, but cancelled the project, because the game failed to offer much in the way of fun. Pseudo-medieval combat generally incorporates lots of fantasy elements, such as Skyrim and The Witcher series.

"The combat system is one of the most important features," says Vávra. "If the combat element is boring or looks fake then the game will fail."

The physical simulation problems associated with a bullet or an arrow hitting a human being are fairly well resolved. They are reasonably simple interactions. But the interplay between two men swinging swords at one another, of the swords crashing against one another, slamming into shields, grazing armor, cutting into flesh. This is much more complex, especially when viewed in first-person.

Most physical combat games are highly stylized, with impact zones splattered in flashes or blood particles, covering up the point of contact. In a first-person game that aims for realism, this is not possible.

"The core problem is that it’s expensive and hard to develop," explains Vávra. "But it’s not impossible. We faced a lot of technical and motion capture issues. But we are doing it the right way and we are very close to where we want to be. It took us a lot of time and a lot of effort to get there."

Kingdom Come was recently delayed from a late 2015 release to 2016, though a new build will be released to backers before the end of the year.

"Sword-fighting is a martial art with its own specific moves and poses," adds Vávra. "When you mix that with physics it gets random and unpredictable. If the swords collide, if there is even a small inaccuracy and the swords do something weird, it’s very ugly and it seems broken."

Warhorse has merged mo-cap moves with physics in order to try and create something that works. "It’s really complicated," says Vávra. "Especially when fighters are standing at different ground levels."

Kingdom Come

Why is Medieval Fantasy so Dominant?

Games, movies and TV shows are full of worlds that take a medieval backdrop and overlay fantasy elements, like mystical creatures and magical powers. Vávra believes that realism also has its place.

"Advances in special effects mean that fantastical elements ans superheroes are popular, because they look so great. The same thing in video games, in terms of fantasy. Designers wanted to do dragons from the early days and so they did them. Everyone has gotten used to it and they don’t want to remove those parts."

He said that the game is packed full of quests. "I was a little bit afraid at first. I worried that we would not have enough ideas for side quests. Can we really do 50 quests based in medieval villages without monsters? It turns out, we can. We have more ideas for quests than we can use and I think they are interesting, more so than in other RPGs."

Language and Nationhood

The early part of the game features quests in which the player speaks with villagers, such as a farmer, a fisherman, a barkeep and a medicine woman.

Warhorse is a Czech company making a game about central European history. But its major markets will not be in central Europe. It will be in North America, Britain and other English-speaking countries, which have their own expectations of how "olde worlde" folks talked to one another.

"Language is a problem," says Vávra. "When I wrote it in Czech I tried to used archaic Czech language but definitely not as archaic as 15th-century Czech. Nobody would understand that any more than they would understand 15th-century English."

To add a realistic touch to translations, Vávra tried creating two English language modes: one for the common folk and one for the aristocracy. This notion would have been understood by the people of the time, in many parts of Europe, where classes were often divided by language norms. It was especially the case in England, where the descendants of French-speaking invaders still held almost all the power.

"We tried using Shakespearean English for common folk and more modern English for nobles because the nobility often spoke a different language than poor people," explains Vávra. "The poor people’s language would be something closer to old English. But the problem was that we had a problem understanding what we wrote."

For now, the game relies on "regular modern language," though even that is interpretive. The characters on Game of Thrones speak the same language as the characters on Mad Men, but their diction is wildly different. In both cases, the effect is audience conviction. This is something Warhorse must find.

Medieval hierarchies and politics must also play out among the game's audience and their modern concerns.

In medieval times, German immigrants to Bohemia tended to be at the higher end of the Czech social spectrum and were often invested in the status quo. This put them at odds with the Hussite rebels. Revolutions have ugly consequences. Germans were expelled from the country.

The Czech people and their German neighbors have a long and complex relationship that lasts to this day. It might be easy for a game that celebrates Hussite victories to paint the Germans, and other nationalities that fought against the Hussites, as bad guys.

Throw in the fact that the Czech people have suffered from long periods of cultural domination from oppressive regimes and you have the potential for controversy.

"The rebellion was partly religious and partly nationalistic," says Vávra. "The Czechs did not to like being commanded by people who spoke a different language. The uprising was partially about getting rid of the Germans and this is reflected in the game as well, with people arguing and hating each other. The conflict is there.

"There are a lot of similarities to today’s world. We also have problems with migrations, just like then. We want to reflect it somehow.

"There were problems and I want to explain them."

"I am half-German. I have German ancestors so it would be pointless for me to paint Germans in a bad light. One of our biggest target markets is Germany so I would be stupid to alienate them but this is how it happened and I want to paint it that way."

Fantasy games have a long history of talking about the real world, about racial problems and geopolitics and social change, but through the lens of fictional proxies. In Kingdom Come, nationalities that are active today, that have their own sensitivities and difficult subsequent histories, must be presented as is.

"There were problems and I want to explain them," says Vávra. "Not many games do that and I think it is a shame that so many games avoid politics. I think it makes sense to have it in our game."

Rediscovering the Past

The Papacy and its allies threw five major offensives against the proto-Protestant Hussites, and were beaten each time.

After about three decades of war and devastation, the Hussites won freedom from the domination of the Catholic Church, something the country retained for centuries.

Today, we might find the particulars of their concerns, such as the validity of one religious sacrament over another, to be obscure. But we can all get behind a people's rebellion that throws off the overbearing yoke of central authority.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance tells the story of a vital historical event that has been largely ignored outside its local environment. It features inspiring characters, big themes and grand ideals.

But it's also an opportunity to step into a strange, lost world, one that humans just like us actually lived, and really not that long ago.

Video games have the power to transport us to alien worlds and mystical kingdoms, but they also have the power to take us by the hand, and lead us through the lands of our ancestors.

When Daniel Vávra joins the medieval historical re-enactors this summer, he will take the weekend's activities seriously. He'll wear medieval fabrics and eat medieval food. None of the participants will be smoking or using cell phones.

The re-enactors aren't just play-acting; they are discovering history. "During their experiments they often find things described in books that are wrong and they come up with more likely ways to make things," says Vávra. He wants to include some of these lessons in the game, itself a vast re-enactment, itself an opportunity to learn something about our past.

But there's one thing he won't do.

"The battle is pretty rough and hardcore," he says. "It has some rules and scripts. Weapons are not sharp and there are some rules how you can be killed. But when you get in the middle of the fight, you can get seriously injured.

"This is done by real reenactors who have years of training behind them, so I will be in the rear, where it is not so dangerous."

The quest for historical realism has its limits.Babykayak