Popular culture is witnessing a return of high fantasy. Game of Thrones is one of the most successful television programs in history. Lord of the Rings is heading for Amazon Prime. The Witcher, based on Polish folklore and one of the best reviewed video games in history, will become a series on Netflix (and the main character is already on a Polish postage stamp). Amidst the alienation that characterizes life in a multicultural society, people of all political leanings are retreating to tales of magic and nobility, honor and adventure.
All these stories are based in European history or mythology. A Song of Ice and Fire — George R.R. Martin’s series of books that inspired A Game of Thrones — is set during the War of the Roses, the civil war for the English crown. Unfortunately, probably far more Englishmen can provide detailed descriptions of the Houses of Lannister and Targaryen than of Lancaster and York.
Video games are no exception. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was a masterpiece that drew heavily on Nordic mythology. Of course, the average gamer steeped in the lore of the fictional land of Tamriel has never heard of the adventures of Ingólfur Arnarson or Harald Fairhair, or the legendary dynasty of the Ynglings.
Worldwide, people of European ancestry see their history, traditions, and culture quietly discredited, even as those who create films, television, and video games draw on those same sources. As creations such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth are turned into corporate franchises, they are also cheapened and universalized, transformed from Western myth into a chance to hawk Chinese-made plastic figurines.
When the entertainment industry draws on real-life history, political correctness often forces artificial insertions of racial diversity, as in casting black actresses as Joan of Arc in a Broadway production. It would be hard to imagine “colorblind casting” of black historical figures such as Shaka Zulu or Emperor Halie Selassie. It’s not surprising many people of European descent retreat to fantasy, even grossly commercialized fantasy. A distorted vision of our own history is better than nothing at all.
Finally released after years in development, the new video game Kingdom Come: Deliverance from Warhorse Studios in the Czech Republic is a refreshing exception to cultural poison. An open-world RPG in the vein of Skyrim, Kingdom Come puts you in the position of Henry, the son of a Bohemian blacksmith in 1403. Henry’s family is murdered and his village of Skalitz burned to the ground as he is caught in a civil war for the throne of Bohemia, part of today’s Czech Republic. The political maneuvering of lords and nobles and Henry’s personal quest for revenge intersect as the player traverses Central Bohemia, meeting characters from Czech history and exploring towns and buildings based on ones in the real world.
Realism is the game’s major selling point. Henry is not a legendary warrior. Henry, or, rather, the player, is a bumbling novice who has no idea how to wield a sword, shoot an arrow, or charm polite society. In other games of this type, the player faces down dragons, giants and gods. In the beginning stages of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (KCD), a random bandit in the forest armed with a club is practically a death sentence. The combat mechanics are based on the re-emerging field of Historical European Martial Arts, and the player, not simply his avatar, must learn how to use his weapons properly, not just rack up points through experience.
Henry must also take care of his health. If you carry around a piece of fruit for a week and then eat it, you’ll poison yourself. If you are wounded, you’ll bleed to death without a bandage. Try to speak to a lord covered in blood and grime and you’ll be contemptuously dismissed. Open a book and the letters appear as gibberish, since no blacksmith’s son could read in 1403 Bohemia. Getting quality weapons and armor and keeping them in good repair is a serious consideration, not the afterthought it is in most games. Your character (or, rather, you) may resort to burglary or grave robbing because you need the money to stay alive.
The result is a far more immersive experience than almost any other game of this type. With so much to learn, explore, and experience, and with a level of difficulty that keeps the player from taking anything for granted, KCD is more compelling and exciting than anything you can find on television or in the theater.
The game has a number of serious technical problems. Non-Player Characters are constantly blocking doors or giving nonsense answers. Quests may be sabotaged by glitches. As of this writing, KCD has gone through no fewer than four massive downloadable patches, but more will be needed. There are distracting sights, such as a man approaching from a distance almost naked, with layers of clothes somehow appearing on his frame as he comes closer. Ordinary people greet you with “Jesus Christ be praised,” as one would expect in a Christian society, but unleash furious oaths if you so much as touch them as you stroll past. Even priests swear.
Henry’s attitude towards women is questionable. At the washhouse, you can not only have your clothes laundered and wounds tended, but you can be “entertained” by a wench (giving you the “alpha male” buff for your character). You can seduce a miller’s daughter. You can have a degenerate night with a woman after getting drunk with a priest. You can, in a highly unlikely scenario, romance a noblewoman. You can even have an orgy with a group of witches.
Predictably, some critics, such as Manu Delgado at Vida Extra, have denounced the game’s “insolent machismo,” but even confirmed chauvinists may find Henry’s behavior questionable. At the beginning of the game, he has a girlfriend whose corpse you will most likely discover after the attack on Skalitz. Aside from a muttered comment about revenge, the slaughter of a first love has almost no effect on him. Nor do any of Henry’s romances lead to long-term consequences; he dumps women once he has finished with them, which is unrealistic in a medieval society with no birth control.
But for those who are not gamers, the real importance of KCD is its cultural impact. The shadow of “GamerGate” — the 2014 battle between video game journalists and the gaming public — looms over Kingdom Come. “GamerGate” was, depending on how one viewed it, either an attempt to fight back against corrupt journalists who gave positive reviews to products for political and personal reasons, or a hate movement to drive women and non-whites out of video games. While the controversy seems obscure, its impact on culture and politics was massive. As reported in the book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency, Steve Bannon himself identified angry gamers as a key political force. Leftist journalists such as Ian Sherr and Erin Carson even credit GamerGate with creating an online culture that propelled Mr. Trump to the White House. The troll armies of the online Right reportedly came out of GamerGate.
Daniel Vávra, co-founder of Warhorse Studios, has been identified as a supporter of GamerGate, and for this reason, some reviewers oppose his game on political grounds. Vice’s gaming site Waypoint recorded an hour-long podcast complaining about various things Mr. Vávra has said over the years and explaining why it was not covering the game. Charlie Hall at Polygon gave the game a not entirely negative review, but simplistically defined GamerGate as a “loosely knit hate group that has devoted time to harassing women, people of color and journalists.” ResertERA , a popular forum for video games, has bluntly declared that Mr. Vávra’s views are “offensive and racist” and any defense of them “will be moderated like any other defense of racism.”
Alayna Cole at PCPowerPlay interprets every sale of Kingdom Come as a political defeat because of its creator’s politics: “Some people buying this game are unaware of the affiliations of its creative director, supporting it with their money and words; meanwhile, I know there are proponents of diversity who will suffer from this increased following.” Needless to say, it is precisely this insistence on defining entertainment as good or bad purely because of politics that drove many people to support GamerGate.
For his part, Daniel Vávra has explicitly compared political correctness to his experience of growing up behind the Iron Curtain in “a totalitarian communist regime.” He once declared in an interview, “I really don’t think political correctness, which is just a fancy name for censorship, can solve anything.” Mr. Vávra has also dismissed claims KCD is insufficiently diverse. There are no black characters in the game, as there were most likely no black people in medieval Bohemia. Still, as far back as 2014, Luke Plunkett at Kotaku, while admitting that the “odds are good everyone would have been white,” denounced those who laughed at calls for token black characters as “idiots.” One wonders what the correct term is for those who insist on inserting imaginary blacks into a game about medieval Bohemia.
In response to such criticism, Mr. Vávra tweeted out an image from the Martin Lawrence farce Black Knight in 2015.
Thanks to popular demand by history revisionists & for the sake of accuracy let me introduce you to our protagonist! pic.twitter.com/OKteKrDj5f
— Daniel Vávra ⚔ (@DanielVavra) February 24, 2015
In one exchange between Mr. Vávra and an American journalist, he chided the American for supposedly lecturing him on the history of his own country. “Oh please Mr. American teach me about our history!” he wrote. “I was only born on the borders of Bohemia, Germany and Poland so I don’t know [expletive].”
Yet charges of racism continue. Matt Becker at AppTrigger draws attention to the “questionable views” of Mr. Vávra regarding the supposed lack of black people in medieval Bohemia. Robert Purchase at EuroGamer complains it is a “big problem” there are “no people of colour in the game” and cites vague claims of blacks and Moors being in Europe during in the Middle Ages. Mr. Purchase also cites Mr. Vávra’s support of GamerGate and his once having worn a Burzum T-shirt as something relevant to whether the game is fun or not.
The only non-whites in the game are the Cumans, a Turkish horse people used as mercenaries. They are habitually denounced as barbarians and savages. Indeed, if you kill one, you can take his ear as a trophy to a particular lord who will give you a handsome bounty. Needless to say, some journalists are not happy about this, with Reid McCarter arguing the game portrays an exclusionary view of Czech history “especially unsettling” given “the country’s reluctance to accept Muslim refugees and the rise of populist nationalism.”
The game does wink at modern themes, though not in the simplistic way Mr. McCarter suggests. The fate of refugees is important in the story. For example, when you find yourself in the city of Rattay, many of the former residents of your own village of Skalitz are in the streets, hands outstretched, begging for money. You sympathize with your fellow villagers, even as the natives of Rattay complain about the crime, squalor, and begging of these unwanted guests. In a clever way of putting the player in a native’s position, one of your first jobs is to join Rattay’s security force. Suddenly, you begin to understand the natives, as you encounter beggars who squat outside businesses and won’t leave, lie about whether they have been given help, and try to recruit you to commit crimes.
There is a distinctly Czech viewpoint in the game. In one quest, Henry gives a speech denouncing the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, anticipating the later Bohemian Reformation and the Hussite Wars that presaged the Protestant Reformation. The Hussite Wars and the establishment of a national church were important factors in Czech nationalism.
Just as the refugee crisis is probably in the minds of the game’s Czech developers, so is the historic Czech struggle to break free from the Roman Catholic Church, Hungary, and Germany. For Americans, whose knowledge of European history is sketchy, the game is genuinely educational and may well inspire you to learn more. It’s also an example of true cultural diversity, instead of another tired example of American culture being translated into another language. Czechs themselves seem to approve; while some American journalists want to quibble with the game’s historical accuracy, Masaryk University — the second largest in the Czech Republic — believes the game is realistic enough to be used in a history class.
Video games are as valid an art form — and as politically powerful — as films. Even the marketing of recent games seems to reflect a political agenda. For example, the latest version of Wolfenstein was sold as a fantasy about murdering contemporary “Nazis,” and attacked President Trump’s comment that some “fine people” were at the Unite the Right protest.
In contrast, despite far more hostile media reception and fewer advertisements — and being released months later — it appears that KCD may have already outsold Wolfenstein. Across all platforms, Warhorse claims it has sold over a million copies, making the game an unquestionable hit. The game will almost certainly be profitable, especially since sales remain strong even well after release. A recent Czech edition of Forbes hailed Mr. Vávra as “King.”
Game developer @DanielVavra getting the praise he deserves for Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game that takes players back to 15th Century Bohemia (medieval Europe).
With over a million copies sold it’s no surprise Daniel’s face is on the cover of the March issue of Czech Forbes. pic.twitter.com/nHvHC5GxYc
— Nick Monroe (@nickmon1112) March 1, 2018
Warhorse Studios raised a lot of capital for the game via Kickstarter in 2014, when there was more free speech on the internet. It’s questionable whether such a campaign would even be possible today without a kind of affirmative-action policy that promised to insert black characters into medieval Bohemia.
Instead, KCD is a tale from real European history, with complicated men and women doing their best to survive in a violent and troubled world where peasants suffer the consequences of their betters’ lust for power. It’s a reminder that for all the talk of “white privilege,” Europeans have known tyranny, war, oppression, and foreign occupation just like everyone else — something Eastern Europeans know particularly well. The Bohemia of Kingdom Come is a place of startling beauty, but it’s also a place of burned villages and mutilated corpses, with cruelty and murder perpetuated by those who claim to be anointed by or speak in the name of God. Yet there is also heroism and nobility.
The game is a gift not just because it is an entertaining, but because it’s an invitation to explore our own history, including parts of which we may be ignorant. Unfortunately, it’s also a game that could not be made in America or Western Europe. We owe Warhorse Studios a debt of gratitude for sharing with the world this part of our European story, in all its glory and sadness. Perhaps this is why so many journalists cum commissars wanted it to fail. Its success shows it is the critics who failed; many buyers seem deliberately to be defying the would-be censors.
If whites are free to choose, they take their own side, and will look for entertainment that speaks to their identity. Whites don’t need Wakanda; we had real legends. May we prove worthy of having our own stories remembered in the future.