Should we cover every game? Kingdom Come made us ask.

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

kingdom come deliverance - look, black people
Judging by this painting from the exact area and the exact time period, 7 out of 10 people are in fact black and one is a floating head.

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.

warsaw demonstrations
Not everyone was excited about the communist takeover.

Artists Rights

daniel vavra controversy
While doing my research I stumbled on this image. I had to ask Nicole if it was earnest or satire.

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.

The first time I answered “no” to the question “should you always separate art from artist”

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.

 

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9 Comments
  1. Anonymous 6 months ago
    Reply

    Heya Galp. For what it’s worth, for me it’s the stubborn insistence of “I’m doing all this to be 100% historically accurate” defense is the creator’s most damning thing. Because, when you make something like this, every historical bit is arbitrary. As my historian friend mentioned, for example buildings three stories tall barely exist at that era. Yet, they exist a lot more common in that game, because he feel like adding them in the game. So that’s that. As with his “I have historian in my team” defense, I’m going to start to descend into internet style “my uncle work in nintendo” style of playground argument I guess, but I also have historian friend and if I get a penny on whenever they start to rant when pointing out the historical inaccuracy in that game (which I’ll be honest, is beyond my knowledge) I’d be actually able to afford this game now.

    Also, don’t worry about “I only manage to see problems after someone point it to me” bit. An analogy that I like, is that understanding social problem is like driving a car. When you’re just a passenger without any driving experience, you barely know problems with the driver. Then you start learning to drive, or someone teaching you how to drive, and when you’re back at passenger seat, you now realize how reckless or dangerous the driver is, or how they barely know how to change gear, etc. Of course the analogy isn’t perfect, but what analogy is?

    • Galp 6 months ago
      Reply

      Hi – I agree with you about the historical defense, in the sense that once you have potions you can take some other liberties, as you say. But I also think Dan Vavra used that defense because he thought it would fly better than “I’m a stubborn guy and don’t want to do things just because I’m told to, and a whole bunch of kickstarter backers agree with me and you’ve been badgering me since 2014 and racism is a North American obsession, I’m making a game about my part of the world, leave me alone.” Is that a better defense? Sorta 🙂

      It’s a good analogy. It’s been happening a lot more lately, for a variety of issues, which is both good and surprising. Nic sent me this very interesting article about the original Police Quest and it was fascinating thinking back on playing that game as a kid without having the slightest clue there were any issues at all. So we have come a long way from a major publisher making a game with someone like Daryl Gates at least.

  2. Paul 7 months ago
    Reply

    Just two points – in this quote of Dan Vávra:

    ////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 is fairly clear he only listed Polygon as an example of the “most progressive” site, that also still features vast majority of men. The fact that he says that usual ration is 10%-20% is not invalidated by Polygon (again, used as an example of The Most Progressive site) having slightly more. He was simply pointing their hypocrisy.

    Second point, Kingdom Come takes place in 16km2 of rural bohemia. If you go to area around Rataje today, you will be extremely lucky if you encounter nonwhite czech, and it will most likely be vietnamese (who came in 80s-90s). Featuring black (or chinese, or japanese…) people would make zero sense. Plus they would only get accused of tokenism anyway (and rightly so). If someone decides to make a game about 1400 ethiopia, I would not expect the game to feature Czechs either.

    • Galp 7 months ago
      Reply

      I don’t mean to be pedantic, but he didn’t say “usual ratio”, he said “the most”. And I don’t know why he picked Polygon. Maybe it’s the most progressive and the first one he looked up or maybe he had to search through 10 to find one that sort of fits his range. In my head Waypoint Vice is the most progressive and when I looked up their editors it looks like 2 out of 4 are female (but 2 of 6 if you count all staff). I just don’t get the impression he’s arguing with any ability to change his mind, he’s just trying to prove points and bending things to back up his argument. Lots of people do that, but I find it irritating and difficult to just take the rest of what they say without skepticism. It’s the sort of thing I ask my writers to rewrite when they do it.

      As for the second point. I honestly don’t know. I read a lot of articles arguing both sides and the multicultural side had some tapestries and paintings to back things up with. So I think it’s at least murky enough that you could add some traveling merchants if you felt like it, since people have been asking since 2014. I don’t think he HAS to. I do believe in the artist’s rights. I just think it would have been an easy, nice, free thing to do. I’m not sure if they’d get accused of tokenism (I’ve never personally seen an article on a game being accused of tokenism for the same thing), but it was absolutely sure they would get accused of excluding. So why not do it?

      In the end though I’m not sure of his intentions or reasons for digging in. I came away with an impression of a difficult, stubborn person and that sort of personality is certainly enough to explain his actions without extra malice so we covered the game and Caleb scored it without influence. But it’s not like Vavra had tons of progressive quotes and thoughts that I ignored to give this article a slant. I tried to convey the vibe I got after digesting a lot of his own words.

      • Galp 7 months ago
        Reply

        This comment is actually from Paul – WP is being wonky about letting him reply and I thought it was worth pasting here. I am Paul from the KCD article. Just a point, when Dan Vávra wrote that about Polygon, Waypoint did not exist yet (to my knowledge) and Polygon is widely known for their “progressive” slant so it makes perfect sense he picked them as an example. He is not native speaker (like me) and I feel like you are being actually extremely pedantic on that point – he was not writing some scientific journal or anything, his point (which stands) was about pointing hypocrisy. Eurogamer, which also made huge stink about KCD not having black people in their review, was recently also found to have around 99% of articles written by white guys. Hypocrisy incarnate.
        Now regarding the second point, I know it because I am czech too. Czechland is still mostly homogenous country. There is significant Roma minority as well as Vietnamese. Roma first appeared in Bohemia around 1420 (17 years after game takes place), Vietnamese only migrated here in late communist era. The idea that because some artists of the era were aware of nonwhite people and painted them, is an evidence that there were black people here, is preposterously stupid and any czech historian worth their salt would shake their head in disbelief. Warhorse employed full time historian on staff and consulted with around 20 people, all experts in their fields, listed in credits. I will agree on one thing though. Dan Vávra is a stubborn guy, and when attacked, he can quickly turn into sarcastic asshole. But overall he is a great guy, one who did more for videogaming scene in Czech Republic than pretty much anyone else.

        • Galp 7 months ago
          Reply

          You might be right. After reading a bunch the only thing I could definitively say is the part you agreed with me, that he’s stubborn. Everything else was muddy.

          I think it’s also worth pointing out that he’s not overtly offensive and his game is no worse than collecting sexy cards of women you bed a la Witcher 2. And as was pointed out by Miquel, we could have some of the same discussion around Elex which we reviewed with barely a peep. We’re talking about Dan Vavra and his game because it became the current focal point for these topics – I’m guessing partially because of timing and partially because of his demeanor – not because he made a horribly toxic game. In a way we’re using him to see if a new bar has been set for sensitivity in video games, which means he’s not extreme, just slightly off from where people think we should be.

  3. Miquel 7 months ago
    Reply

    Hi Galp,

    don’t go too hard on yourself, mate, I think you did the right thing writing an editorial the way you did. The joke was a clever one, you were just walking – in my opinion – into a hot water pool. I think you can find plenty of jerks working on the film, music or video game industry to make the same kind of joke (like Michael Bay, for instance).

    Regarding the ELEX “meta” I was referring to the jank, open worldliness and internal consistency that game offers. Leaving aside its more far-fetched aspects in the storytelling, or how it shuts up a lot of people by having everyone to play a power fantasy in the skin of a white guy.

    Thanks for your response, looking forward to your next article 🙂

  4. miquelramirez 7 months ago
    Reply

    Hi Galp & Co,

    I celebrate your decision to talk about KCD, making an editorial aside. That’s I think a honest intellectual and ethical position.

    Just three comments for you to consider.

    Look up the name “Lidice” and ponder about how sensitive is to associate Czech people with Nazism even with the wit you have done so. Blowing dog whistles inadvertently is dog whistling anyways .

    The second observation is that the bottom line for this controversy is that some seem to prefer retconning current states of affairs into historical narratives instead of reflecting in how different is the world now, and contrast both. Or rather those with historicity as an artistic aim.

    On a practical sense this is not different from a Chinese film featuring Matt Damon prominently in the US cut, and being a bit of a prop in the cut made for Chinese audiences. KCD Remastered US edition has a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?

    On a philosophical and political sense I find this both unsound and dangerous. The manipulation of history, in this case by relaxing the constraints posed by recorded evidence, has never brought about anything good. Even when it is done to further a good end which is to “shore up” the normality of what is already normal (multiculturalism).

    The last comment is that you quite liked Elex and KCD is quite similar in many ways that matter, both from meta and the gameplay povs.

    • Galp 7 months ago
      Reply

      Sorry for the late reply – I was out of commission for a few days.

      Regarding the first comment. I looked up Lidice, had no idea of that horrible story. I did not mean to associate the Czech people with Nazism at all. It IS an inadvertent dog whistle. In trying to think “do you separate artists from art or not” I tried to think of the most extreme case of that example. Hitler being both terrible and an artist immediately popped in and I googled his art and found that Mary image so incongruous I thought it was a good example. I will amend.

      Regarding Elex – it’s true. I loved the hell out of Elex. I think I made a slight note in the review about how my enjoyment was not affected by its extremely narrow scope (you play a grizzled white guy which is close enough to what I play anyway but Elex gave no choice) but none of these issues were on my radar at the time of the review. If I’m being perfectly honest – I needed the issues spelled out for me before I realized there were issues and then I needed to have a conversation with someone who understands the impact better than I do (in this case it was Nicole). I’m not entirely sure why I always gave games a “pass” on behaviour. Maybe because they’re so labor intensive and personal? Maybe because I just like games. I’m not sure but they seemed exempt from whatever moral judgement I applied to other mediums for no good reason.

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