If you’ve ever read our About section you’ll see that I intended to make the site apolitical and squarely focused on gaming. After writing that paragraph months ago the issue never came up and I forgot all about it. When Caleb, asked to cover Kingdom Come Deliverance I still gave it no thought.
In a separate conversation Nicole asked if I wanted her Verdant Skies review as she planned on talking about its positive inclusion. As I was thinking about the site’s scope I read Green Man Gaming’s article reacting to the backlash of Eurogamer’s review of Kingdom Come. Eurogamer gave a glowing review and ended with a non-recommendation because of Daniel Vavra, the game’s creator. So now I’m giving it thought.
As a game review site there’s no way to not take a stance. Reviewing as if there’s no controversy is a statement and so is refusing to cover it. Trying to avoid the larger decision about the site’s scope, I decided to first see if there is in fact an issue.
What are the issues?
1. The game includes no people of color
Kingdome Come is a historical simulation of 1400’s Bohemia. It features only white people. Vavra insists that aside from being from the area himself he has consulted respected historians to ensure accuracy and there were no people of color in that time in that region, period.
The counter is that there are historical accounts of various ethnic groups moving through the region during that era. It would not ruin historical accuracy to assume some settled there or mixed genes.
Regardless, it’s easy to demolish the claims of slavish devotion to historical accuracy. And a simple misunderstanding of cultural sensitivities is not a defense as the issue was brought up back in 2014 and several times since.
Nor is technical difficulty and budgets a plausible reason. The team is small and the game is ambitious but darker shades and some model tweeks were probably doable.
2. Daniel Vavra is a defender of gamergate and that sexism bled into the game’s treatment of women
To be honest I did not follow the gamergate saga as it was happening. What I know of it was gleaned through secondary mentions and my overall impression is that it’s now shorthand for being generally sexist/racist and or several other ists. This summarizes much of the case against Vavra in this regard. And this is Vavra and studio co-founder, Martin Klima’s responses.
My conclusion after all the reading is that Vavra is combative and prone to strawmen arguments, hyperbole and a casual disregard for facts. There are many instances like this, where Vavra defends against claims of sexism:
And the funniest thing is, that when you look at how many women are actually working at those magazines criticizing gaming industry for sexism, you will realize that it’s the same as in gaming companies, 10-20% at most. Polygon has 21 editors and only 5 of them are women.
It’s a small thing, but when I evaluate people’s honesty I start with their own words. I think it’s telling that he bothered to look up the exact number of female editors but then still used the wrong percentage range. 5 of 21 is 23.8%, so not “10-20% at most”. And I never like when people defend themselves by finding other examples of poor behaviour. I prefer they just tell me how, specifically, the critics misunderstand their situation.
When very simply asked to define what a gamer is, Vavra starts well with a basic dictionary definition and then carries on into a long rant that attacks the media, people who like bejeweled, brags about himself and circles back to finding the casual-game loving world disgusting.
Vavra doesn’t feel like an open minded man and paints a portrait closer to what his detractors describe than the pure devotee of accuracy that he claims to be. Despite all that, I think it’s his final defense that holds the most merit and at least a strong driver in his intractability. You can feel his country’s history under communism feed his anger at being constrained.
As someone who experienced at first hand totalitarianism, censorship, lack of freedom and a regime that dictated what people should think, write and create, I utterly abhor any attempt to reintroduce such things in the name of any kind of good intentions. The communist regime also “meant well” and their rhetoric was almost identical to that we hear today from the likes of Jonathan McIntosh and other American progressives.
I’m guessing if the controversy was about the humane treatment of animals instead of inclusivity or treatment of women he would still argue as vociferously.
When discussing the whole issue with Nicole, I agreed that the game could have included John the merchant who happened to be a Black guy. “But if I was making a game and wanted to do that, I would then feel compelled to do proper research into how people of that era and that time would have reacted. I’m guessing they were fairly racist/xenophobic . So then I would have to integrate it into the story and the subquests around the race relations. And if I did all that my game would probably be better off for it, but that’s much harder to write well and more fraught with potential missteps. I can see a designer going fuck it, I just don’t want to deal with any of that. Is that wrong to do?”
To which she replied: “I do understand how that could complicate matters but without broaching those issues it’d be hard to call the game world historically accurate, as Kingdom Come asserts. I would advocate for portraying Black people, if not as active members of a side arc then as just members of the society. Merchants, innkeepers, heck, even if they were just traveling through the region I’d be more accurate than omitting them. I feel like there are so many steps between including them fully in the narrative and not at all that I can’t excuse not including Black people at all in my mind.”
I agree with Nicole, and if I was making a game I would take this route. But a game designer, especially one funded through kickstarter, can certainly do whatever they want if they are willing to deal with the obvious backlash. Doing so, however, does drain the strength of Vavra’s lament that his team is now suffering because of the unfair criticism; since ensuring this was a non-issue would have taken considerably less effort than constantly defending the decision for four years.
It’s obvious that Vavra wanted the fight and was willing to cost himself (and his team) sales in order to have it. How noble that is depends on how much you believe he’s fighting for artist’s rights versus just really not wanting people of color or powerful women in his game.
The Site’s Decision
When I’m unsure of a decision my go-to coping method is to dump out all available data and let the universe sort it out. When Caleb asked how much of this he should include in his review I asked him to continue reviewing the game “straight”, as if there is no controversy.
Eurogamer’s decision to turn an obviously glowing review into a negative one at the last second feels like adding editorial to what is essentially a reference document. And all other factors aside, I think you can make up your own minds and the review should be a review of the game alone.
But in order to decide who to reward with your money we should show the background story as well. Hence this article which will also be referenced in Caleb’s review tomorrow.
As to the larger question, of whether you always separate the artist from their work (Kotaku’s stance) or blacklist the offensive (Vice Waypoint’s stance); I lean towards the latter in theory. Freedom of speech and all that does not extend to forcing a private site like this one to send fans and money anywhere that openly embraces terrible views. But I don’t feel Vavra crossed the bar. Whatever lack of sensitivity he displayed is karmically being penalized in sales thanks to the backlash and subsequent articles pondering the issue like this one. That feels about right.