"I actually tried to fight in armour myself," the game developer Daniel Vávra said. We were in the middle of a demonstration of his game in progress, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which is nothing less than an attempt to make a no-magic, realistic answer to the epic role-playing game Skyrim — set in a historically accurate recreation of 15th century Bohemia. Swords slide off armour or smash it, rather than effortlessly slicing through it. Stamina fades fast.
He was telling me what it's like in real life. "If you are hit in the head, it is like a grenade exploded next to you," Vávra said. "You hear this whistling noise. Most importantly, it's about exhaustion. So after a few minutes you are totally exhausted. And you are lucky if you can walk. It's very hard to breathe."
This was the fruit of his field research: Endless combat depletes the combatant. Sometimes you're better off lifting the front of your helmet, so you can breathe freely. In the game he wants to make, there will be more interesting options than fighting all the time.
Combat is exhausting in the game Vávra is making with more than 70 developers at Warhorse, the studio he helped found in the Czech Republic. Maybe in real life, too, where he and I might be seen in different sides of a battle, him a game developer who proudly and loudly supports the GamerGate movement, me the editor of a site that has both covered and been at odds with that movement for months.
I was meeting with Vávra at E3 out of curiosity about his game — one of our writers has been reallyinto it. A PR firm had invited us to see the game, and I was sure it'd make for an interesting meeting.
I was also curious about what makes Vávra tick. I'd only seen him from afar, in figurative armour. I'd spotted him as a pugnacious user of Twitter who would mix Tweets about game design with angry complaints about so-called social justice warriors and charges that, as he put it last October, "the future of our biz is at stake and 'progressive' media are destroying it with their hateful narrative." He was one of those people I didn't think I had much in common with, angry last fall when he felt gamers were being attacked by the gaming press and participating in a cycle of outrage that I'd come to see exemplify GamerGate and its opponents, moving from controversy to controversy about discussions of race and gender in games.
Our styles are different, to say the least, as I saw then and even in the weeks since. My outlet would write, say, negatively about the ham-handed decision by Apple to wipe all games with Confederate flags in them out of the iTunes App store, whether they were based on history or not. We identified a pattern by Apple of not treating games like a respectable art form. Vávra went way further, taking to Twitter to liken Apple CEO's vow to remove, as Tim Cook put it, the symbols that feed racism, to ISIS' attempts to destroy monuments and eradicate history.
Maybe I didn't agree with every single thing feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian said about how women are depicted in video games — plenty of it seemed reasonable and obvious — but I'd never been troubled by what I saw simply as critique that would compete in a marketplace of ideas. Vávra, however, would liken her to book-burning Nazis. "This is the ultimate goal of social justice warriors," he would write. "Destroy all that which is offensive."
He came off as playing to Twitter fans, as someone who vilified people he disliked. But there had been an interesting twist on the eve of our meeting at E3 last month. He had written a bunch of Tweets about violence in video games and how the gaming press and gaming public lapped it up. He suddenly found himself in sync with his intellectual enemy.
"Ehm... It's strange, but I have to agree with Anita that it's pathetic to hear ecstatic screams from journalists seeing cheesy violence," he Tweeted, reacting to a demonstration by Skyrim's development studio of their next massive game, Fallout 4. "The last thing that interests me in Fallout is slow motion gore and tower defence killing spree. But it seems that I am the only one. Seriously, I would love to see a day when people will be more interested in actual story, characters & gameplay rather than prolapsed guts. Not even the most brutal action movies ... concentrate on the actual execution and display of violence as games do...I am speaking about general trend in games we see for years."
Daniel Vávra and Anita Sarkeesian on the same page. Unexpected.
Vávra and I met on the final day of E3. We'd wind up meeting a couple of times that day, first in a meeting room in the Los Angeles Convention Center for his company, Warhorse, and then later at an Irish pub where there was a party for their game. I found him to be an interesting thinker about video game design, but I found us expectedly far apart on the cultural drama in gaming that dominated last fall.
If you were sitting in on the game demo at Warhorse's room at E3, you wouldn't have known that Vávra supports GamerGate. In my mind, when it comes to the game, it doesn't matter much, but he's also not shied away from letting fans of his game know he's into the movement. Last year, he appeared in a video updating fans about Kingdom Come wearing a shirt that read: "#BASED: White privileged able bodied cisgender basement dwelling manbaby virgin scum phallocratic MRA neckbeard shitlord." That's basically a roll call of the kind of terms GamerGate supporters say they have been called by anti-gaming people. At E3, Vávra was more toned down. He wore a shirt that had a lizard on it. He was friendly.
Vávra's game demo lasted about 20 minutes. He spoke while another member of the Warhorse team played a build of the game. Another journalist and I sat on a couch, watched and listened. Because I can't help myself, eventually I started asking questions.
Vávra classifies Kingdom Come as a first-person open-world, realistic role-playing game, one that emphasises player freedom. "We put a lot of emphasis on interesting, not-black-and-white characters and also most of the quests are playable by non-violent ways," he said during the demo as his colleague walked a character through grassy fields. "The combat is important but it can be avoided most of the time." The emphasis on historical accuracy means there are no dragons and no spells. No tomatoes or corn either, because he said those were brought into the region from America in the 18th century.
Kingdom Come is no small-scale indie. It has been in development for about three years, but it's still about a year out from completion, when it's set to come out on PC and console. Warhorse has raised more than $US2 million from gamers interested in backing the game and has delivered a small playable stripped-down section as an alpha build. At E3 they were showing a more expanded alpha, featuring three square virtual kilometers of a final game that they expect to be a few times larger. This newer build, they hoped, would be available for backers to play this week.
The game's plot involves real war in the early 1400s and a struggle between the sons of the emperor Charles IV. There was "an ugly civil war in which you lost your family," Vávra explained, "Your hometown was burned down so now you are in the service of a noble who is trying to help the king from captivity." At every turn of the demo, Vávra was speaking of some ambitious feature — of orchestral music that would change moods while you were playing without you initially noticing, of a crime and justice system that would spread an awareness of your actions to every one of the game's characters and that would punish imprisoned players in some "next level way compared to what is usual for RPGs." It'd be better than Skyrim's approach, he vowed.
Vávra apologised for the new alpha build's jumpy framerate, saying it was due to a newly-implemented but not-yet-optimised artificial intelligence system that would give some level of virtual brains to "several hundred living entities in the world...even the chickens." He spoke of a computer-controlled blacksmith who might wake up, go to work, go to the pub and then go home to bed but who would also be motivated by a set of preferences, so that if the pub was full he might alter his routine. "Even if you mess with the world or if something goes wrong, the [non-playable characters] are able to adjust to the changes," he said. "If the player messes with the world, it should be interesting."
He showed some combat, first with a sword and then with a bow, promising more realistic physics-based battling. In his team's game, swords slide over armour rather than penetrate it. Players strike in eight directions and — forgetting about the realism thing for a moment — activate a slow-mo feature if they land enough combos.
The combat stuff got me thinking about his violence comments. I'd heard him say combat would mostly be optional but I sensed it'd be used plenty by the game's players. Video games are about interaction, after all, and combat is a popular way to interact. Still, I wanted to ask him about what he'd said about agreeing with Sarkeesian about gamings' emphasis on violence. "I see your Tweets once in a while," I said. He laughed.
I noted that he'd been Tweeting about violence but I suggested that combat is often a means to fun and that fun is often what game developers are going for. I asked if fun was even the right word to be using about his game.
"Well," he said. Then he paused, thinking. "Have you played the Witcher, the Red Baron quest?" I took it that he meant the Bloody Baron quest, which I hadn't played but that another one of our writers had chronicled and praised. It involves a fractured family, abuse, deceit and difficult justice. "The Red Baron quest has a lot of moral choices," he said. "It's quite controversial." Then he caught himself. "Actually, I don't think it's controversial. It's quite human."
He continued. "I think people are interested in stories about other people...I would say that the combat in games is over-used so far, because the games didn't have other means of expression. Conflict was the easiest mechanism to have, because you can't show emotions and a lot of other things in simple games or shooters. But today when we can have quite sophisticated [artificial intelligence] and a lot of events and choices, it can be interesting even without combat. But at the same time we are not limiting anyone, so if somebody wants to play it violently, he can and that's his problem or his choice. We are definitely letting him do it."
This is exactly the kind of talk that many a game creator and critic across the political spectrum has given when discussing ways that video games can advance as an artform. These are the kinds of talks about game design I've enjoyed having with the scene's creators for a decade.
A new set of reporters was arriving to see the game. I was gathering my things and trying to talk to Vávra about fears he says his colleagues had last fall that their game wouldn't get covered because he'd sided with GamerGate. (Kotaku, for what it's worth, would never deny coverage to any video game because of its creators' political views.)
"The thing is, that didn't happen and that's great," he said. "It's better than I expected, I would say. But the difference between us apparently is I think I maybe even call myself 'progressive' because we are trying to achieve a lot of the stuff that you are writing about. But I am trying to achieve it by different means."
What a cliffhanger. We were badly out of time and his PR guy was cutting in. No time left to explain. Maybe we could meet up again later.
(Above: Daniel Vávra (left) with fellow Warhorse developer Tobias Stolz-Zwilling, who demoed the game with him at E3)
We would indeed get to talk later, some of it over beers and some of it over email. I asked him why he got into GamerGate and what he felt it was all about.
"Its all about political correctness," he wrote to me. "The corruption and ethics are just the result of it. I believe in freedom of speech, even when I hear things I despise. The only way to deal with a bad idea is to provide a better idea and convince people about it with arguments. Nothing good ever came out of censorship. What we saw over the last couple of years is lot of articles in gaming media that were exaggerating some problems to absurd proportions and creating [an] atmosphere of hostility against people who disagree with them. We heard only one side of the story all the time for some reason."
He said he wanted more discussion. I thought there'd been more than he'd acknowledged. Not everyone freaked out about, say, women in Assassin's Creed (I didn't) or refrained from talking about journalism ethics issues (I talked about them a lot). But also, I just didn't find it so bad if people were debating how much it mattered to play a game as a female character. I didn't expect that there was a right answer.
He wanted people to hash out their disagreements with each other partially through our emails. "I think that it would be great if we had some discussion even if it could be quite [a] loud one and I hope this could be the start. Hopefully I am not too naive."
His experience with GamerGate is dramatically different than those of the people with whom the movement dislikes. It can be maddening to see Vávra talk about GamerGate members always being nice to him, to see him celebrate what he says are new voices speaking up, to hear him tell me that the only unkind things ever done in GamerGate's name were by trolls and teenagers and are therefore not to be taken seriously — all the while being aware that no matter how positive GamerGate meet-ups are, no matter how much community GamerGate members have built, the abrasive rhetoric from the movement and the roving social media pile-ons so many of them favour have chilled the voices of critics and creators with whom they disagree.
Vávra's views on a lot of this were partially shaped by criticisms of Kingdom Come for its lack of black characters. The messy backstory is that a blogger who writes about people of colour in medieval Europe had been asked if it was realistic for a game like Kingdom Come to not have people of colour. The blogger said it'd be inaccurate and scoffed at the lack of inclusion of a playable woman in the game to boot. They got hate mail for their efforts. Vávra felt he was being called a racist and that, based on his research of his country's history, he was in the right.
"Our game isn't even out yet, but these people already know that it's gonna be racist, because we said we will not have people of colour in 15th century Bohemia," he told me. "It doesn't matter that we are writing [a] story dealing with very touchy and controversial topics as hatred between Czechs and Germans, about anti-semitism or religious fanaticism. It doesn't matter, that we are the first game about Czech culture and history. That's not enough! We need to cover all the problems of all the people in the world in that one game, otherwise we are very bad people. And that is A — impossible, B — Insane, C — bullshit. It took me years of stress, hard work and risks to be able to finally create a game I always wanted to make and I will do it the way I want. If you want something, do it yourself. But it's not as easy as barking at someone."
For Vávra — and we definitely disagree on this — the footfalls of censorship are always close behind. Unlike him, he suggests, the "social justice warriors" who critique the depiction of women or black characters in games, ultimately want to erase that with which they disagree. "I don't demand people to be fired like some of them tried to get me fired. I just say 'Hey buddy, I think that what you did there is kinda shit and I think you can do better.' If it changes something, good. If it doesn't, I can live with that, in the end, people have different tastes. I am also willing to take the blame and stand behind my opinion in discussion."
I get him, though there's that whole book-burning thing, and I also feel like he's sparring with strawmen. It's easy to think that the people you disagree with are histrionic and immune to reason, especially on Twitter, a platform that strips the nuance out of most arguments thanks to character limits and a culture dominated by a quest for validation through retweets.
Our vantage points differ. I'm not very worried about critiques about video games, no matter how harsh they are. Why? One of my formative experiences when I think about the risks of censorship and games is sitting in the U.S. Supreme Court and listening to lawyers for the video game industry successfully defend gaming's protections under the First Amendment. For Vávra, one of his is growing up in a former Communist country.
"I had the 'privilege' of growing up in a totalitarian communist regime," he told me in an email, "so I have first hand experience with censorship and other 'advantages' of true socialism like going to prison for your opinion or shitty propaganda on TV, in literature and even music. Thanks to socialist central planning, we didn't have anything that could be called computer industry. Genius compadres from central planning office kinda didnt saw this technology coming as well as other details like the need for production of enough toilet paper, so we had to use newspaper from time to time. They were shitty propaganda anyway. So I really don't think that political correctness, which is just a fancy word for censorship, can solve anything. It never did. it only makes things worse."
When we spoke over beers, I noticed a pattern. Anita Sarkeesian's name came up, and he dismissed her as a "totalitarian," said her research was poor and that she was making demands. When the game developer Zoe Quinn's name came up — recall she's the developer whose ex-boyfriend wrote a post shredding her reputation that somehow kicked a lot of this GamerGate stuff off, and, yes, Quinn briefly dated one of our reporters — he snarked about how her game Depression Quest was just a web page and got attention because it was about depression. I sort of get his issues with Sarkeesian, though I feel her influence is exaggerated. Quinn seemed like a weird fixation, a vestige of Twitter fuming that seemed less relevant when said out loud. The pattern, though, was that people might be paying attention to them and their ideas.
Time and again, I sensed, he was annoyed about who was listening to whom, about who got attention, about whose voices were heard, about who was making an impact on games and games culture. That was the pattern.
Then, in its own weird way, the pattern walked up to us. Two guys in the bar approached where we were sitting. I assumed they were there for the game, that they'd recognised Vávra and wanted to say hi, maybe talk to him about his game. That wasn't the case. They were Kotaku readers. They'd only recognised me. This kind of thing had happened when I'd been talking to game developers before, and it's always awkward. I'm just a reporter and a critic, I always tell them. This person is the one who makes the cool stuff you like playing. This is the person you should be more excited to see. I explained to them that Vávra was a game developer, that he was making an ambitious game. I pointed to the back room where he was about to give a demo. You should see the game, I told them. I think you'll like it. You should hear what he has to say about it.
I can sympathize with Vávra and others like him when they say they just want to be heard. Who doesn't? But it remains hard to sympathize with so much of GamerGate that still traffics in ugly, angry debate, that swarms those with whom they disagree. Some figures in that scene, such as the developer Adrian Chmielarz, have indeed tried to flesh arguments out and make things more civil. More of that and fewer reasons for people to self-censor for fear of GamerGate's wrath would be a godsend.
After those guys approached us, Vávra and I were pretty much done. He did have to show the game. We shook hands. We'd talked, maybe to each other a bit, probably past each other a lot. He headed off to do the demo. One of his colleagues approached me as I was leaving. "He's a bit of a badboy," they told me. Yeah, I said. I got that.