Kingdom Come: Deliverance has sold more than one million copies in less than a month. Its all-time concurrent player peak is higher than The Witcher 3's. So why is a janky role-playing game set in the Holy Roman Empire so popular? Because, on the surface, it rejects tired fantasy RPG tropes, but underneath it all, it's not so different from the power fantasies it tries to stand in contrast to.
When Kingdom Come appeared on Kickstarter back in 2014, developer Warhorse promised that the game would be different than other RPGs. "Dungeons and no dragons" was the tagline, taking a not-so-subtle swipe at the glut of heroic swords-n'-sorcery fantasy games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and The Witcher that characterised the genre at the time.
Warhorse wanted to offer a world nearly on par with those games in terms of scale, but with more realism, more immersion, and more attention to detail. That pitch resonated with would-be players to the tune of over $US1.5 ($2) million, nearly four times the initial goal.
A little over four years later, Kingdom Come is here, and it's a bit of a mess, riddled with glitches, AI problems, and over-designed systems that sometimes seem at war with each other. But it's a mess that tries hard to fulfil the vision that drew so much interest in the first place. That's a large part of why people dig it, in some cases to the point that they're willing to overlook flaws that otherwise trample any sense of realism or immersion.
Kingdom Come cannily pushes back against tropes that long-time capital-g Gamers are sick of, both in gameplay and narrative senses. You're not some pre-anointed hero, ready to tear off your shirt and bare your rippling abs at all the world's ills. Instead, you play as a corny dude who can barely handle a fight against more than one enemy at once and who, even if he wins, might just bleed to death afterwards.
Sword fights aren't glamorous. They're slow and ugly, sometimes even tedious. Characters don't give a shit about who you are. They will judge you based on how you're dressed, how recently you've bathed, and if your face looks like spoiled mincemeat because you just lost a fight and surrendered like a coward before your opponent could strike a killing blow.
On top of all that, the game's alcohol-based save system -- you have to consume a costly beverage called "Saviour Schnapps" in order to manually save your progress -- though irritating as hell, prevents you from save-scumming your way through, so your choices carry actual weight.
On the other hand, while Kingdom Come rejects some tropes, it relishes in others. The male characters are often stereotypically gruff and confident, or, failing that, at least given agency over their situations. The women are submissive and supportive. Henry starts out a slobbish oaf, but if he works hard enough and makes the right decisions, he can have pretty much anything he wants. Power, money, sex. Lots of sex.
So while Kingdom Come boasts of its more realistic elements, it's also more similar, in this way, to the Skyrims and Witchers of the world than Warhorse cares to admit. On its face, it uses historical accuracy as a reason to eschew many trappings of traditional video game power fantasies, but at the same time, it replicates the same systems and cultural ideas underlying those power fantasies, which results in a structurally similar experience.
It's different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you've been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam.
Goode Olde Games
A lot of Kingdom Come's finer details -- combat, the need to bathe, bleeding to death, etc -- might not sound that fun to you. Sometimes, they're really not! But PC gamers have been asking for a game like this for years. A game that's unapologetically ambitious and reactive to player choice. A PC game that makes no concessions in the name of casual and/or console convenience.
A game that's legitimately challenging. A game that carries on the legacy of the old Fallouts, Deus Exes, Baldur's Gates, and Elder Scrollses. A game that flies in the face of what games became after those games' glory days. A game for the PC-only diehards who've suffered the sheer indignity of warmed-over console ports for far too long. Kingdom Come, to some, is that game.
"This game is closer to a classic RPG than anything else," reads a Steam review with over a thousand upvotes. "Its mechanics are complex, its gameplay is realistic, and the world has a high level of reactivity that you only find in the likes of Baldur's Gate and the early Fallout games."
To others, it's the latest incarnation of the ephemeral, nearly Platonic ideal of The Ultimate Video Game, the game that contains all games and achieves Maximum Immersion by doing everything. Think what people wanted No Man's Sky to be, or what deep-in-the-hole backers really, really hope Star Citizen turns out to be.
Multiple genres. Colossal, open worlds. Systems and systems and more systems. Open-ended Steam survival games like Ark: Survival Evolved take a scrappier, smaller-scale approach to the idea, offering survival mechanics stacked atop base-building mechanics stacked atop exploration mechanics and so on. Are all of these things enjoyable or necessary? No. What matters is that they're there. New games in the genre stand out by adding even more.
Kingdom Come, building on both classic PC games and modern survival games, has survival elements like eating and sleeping, as well as combat, conversation, stealth, exploration, romance, NPC schedules, alchemy, horse emotions and countless other, under-explained systems besides. Players enjoy the unexpected moments some of these systems produce.
One of the game's most notorious Steam reviews, in fact, is a story of fighting, improvised thievery, public drunkenness (to improve charisma, you see), surprise jail time, and eventual death. "This was the tutorial," the story concludes.
You don't have to interact with the majority of these system, and many players probably won't. Immersion, as gamers define it, is often more about choice or the illusion of choice than it is everything working correctly and never falling on its face. Kingdom Come's systems -- especially ones that involve AI -- frequently trip over themselves, clumsily yanking back the curtain during moments that should be immersive or authentic.
But many players consider that excusable, because having options at their fingertips is more than enough to make up for it.
"There's so much to this game I can't go into it all," reads a Steam review that's been upvoted by nearly 4000 people. "Honestly this game is so awesome in every respect, I completely overlook all the faults."
The other side of Kingdom Come's appeal is thornier. The game is historically based, set in Bohemia (now the western Czech Republic) during the time of the Holy Roman Empire and the game's developers say they have even replicated topography and individual buildings from the region.
However, since long before the game came out, there's been debate about exactly which elements of history the game's developers prioritised. Much of that debate concerned Warhorse's 2014 and 2015 proclamations that the game wouldn't contain people of colour because, according to director Daniel Vávra, "there were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period."
People then pointed to historical texts and art that suggested, actually, there might have been Moors in the region, as they were definitely present in Europe at the time. It's hard to say definitively one way or another whether they ended up in the sorts of backwoods towns that dot Kingdom Come's setting, or if they only appeared in major city centres.
In response to the ensuing controversy around representation, Vávra, a Gamergate supporter, mocked dissenters on Twitter with, among other things, this image of a black man photoshopped into a faux-medieval setting:
Since then, a schism has formed around Kingdom Come. Some are hesitant to play the game because of the views of its most visible creator and what he seems to represent, not to mention how modern day biases might influence his team's choice of historical sources. Vice's video game site, Waypoint, even refused to cover the game on those grounds.
In January of this year, Vávra issued a statement retroactively re-contextualising his stance on Gamergate, claiming that for him it's always been about "freedom of speech and the freedom of opinion and thoughts," rather than the clear sexism, racism and harassment that the movement peddled in from the get-go. "I am not a friend of any kind of totalitarian rule and consider the accusation that I am a Nazi or close to any ideology that even remotely goes in that direction therefore as absurd, even personally offensive," he added.
However, others have rallied around Kingdom Come, partially because they see its all-white cast and its developer's support of Gamergate as a big middle finger to "social justice warriors."
"SJWs complaining about it = instant buy for me," wrote one Steam user on the game's discussion board. "Not even joking, I was going to wait a few months for price to drop and patches to hit but now I see SJWs are complaining I'm going to buy it immediately."
"This game is a lesson to developers," wrote another. "The budget was a fraction of that spent on the SJW game Wolfenstein yet its sales are dwarfing it. Pandering to the left will destroy your business. Carry on at your peril."
These days, alt-right groups (and worse) thrive on Steam because it's not moderated in any consistent way, with Valve taking a hands-off approach and leaving developers to enforce rule sets that apply in their personal community spaces and nowhere else.
It's even more lax than notoriously troubled platforms like YouTube and Twitter. Steam's community is, of course, not made up entirely of users who engage in these sorts of behaviours, but it's become one of the platform's most prominent cultures.
In the wake of the game's release, people have also done things like releasing a mod that gives dark skin to key character Cpt. Bernard as a joke. The mod is titled "Inclusive Cpt. Bernard", and it got over a thousand upvotes on Kingdom Come's subreddit in reaction to Eurogamer's review of the game, which criticised its politics.
It's the second most upvoted mod on the subreddit, beating out even the "save anywhere" mod that lets you skip the Saviour Schnapps.
The game itself, however, is largely free of overtly racist or sexist rhetoric. What's there hasn't been enough to set off most people's alarms, even though it's very much a game about white manly men doing white manly men things, women mostly being supportive mother-esque figures or prostitutes (when they get to be characters at all) and little details like a charisma buff called "alpha male" that you get for having sex with women at bathhouses.
The game also frequently depicts Cumans, a Turkic nomadic group, as killers and savages. It can be, in places, alarmingly careless, but unfortunately, that's par for the course in this genre. Kingdom Come offers a white-default perspective that values power -- but in that sense, it's not all that different from other large-scale RPGs.
"As upset as I am by the whole low-key white nationalism of that Kingdom Come: Deliverance game and its popularity," game developer and critic Liz Ryerson wrote on Twitter, "I have to admit it kinda only echoes the bland white Eurocentrism in most mainstream fantasy media like Skyrim."
She added in a DM that modern fantasy powerhouses like Game of Thrones and Skyrim "are still very much Euro-centric male power fantasies" that "contain only barely coded racial stereotypes like the brown Redguard characters being good at getting angry and physical activity."
Kingdom Come's most troubling rhetorical gymnastics trick, then, is one that people who've been playing games for a while are pretty used to: while people are happy to cite a commitment to historical accuracy to explain Kingdom Come's anti-diversity stance, that didn't stop its developers from adding borderline-magical potions, overt references to other video games and heaps of modern slang in the conversational dialogue.
As with so much else about Kingdom Come, where people draw the line on immersion is a choice, not something set in stone.
Kingdom Come's popularity, then, is reflective of the state of the RPG genre, the PC gaming landscape, and the priorities of its fans. It's a medieval game that flaunts its lack of fantasy elements while remaining very much a traditional white male power fantasy. It's a game that's supposed to prize immersion above all else, but in reality it reveals that some players are willing to overlook pretty glaring glitches and inconsistencies as long as they feel like they have choice and control.
It is, on many levels, the game PC players have been saying they want for years and it will sit comfortably on the shelf next to the many similar games that came before it and, in all likelihood, after it.