Historically-accurate medieval games have, in recent years, been pigeonholed into real time strategy. Recent entries into this genre have still been enjoyable; titles such as Crusader Kings II remain as modern success stories in single-player gaming. Even Age of Empires II, released in 1999, maintains a steady player-rate of around 12,000 per month on Steam. The problem with the setting’s synonymy with detached strategy is that it anchors the medieval period’s potential to a genre that has limited narrative and thematic potential. However, 2018’s Kingdom Come: Deliverance and 2017’s Bannerman are emblematic of games that are pushing the medieval setting to its creative limits, without imbuing their narrative and gameplay elements with tropes from high fantasy.
Medieval-inspired games have taken forays into other styles—Dragon Age, Vermintide, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, etcetera—but they all are more influenced by high fantasy than they are the gritty realism of medieval culture, history, social strata, and politics. Too many games, in terms of narrative, have had their creative potential scuppered by muddying their storylines and themes with Tolkienesque cliché. The most interesting story moments in Western RPGs have drawn inspiration from medieval-inspired political intrigue, culture, and society. For example, the success of the War of the Roses-inspired A Song of Ice and Fire lies more within the series’s historical drama and regicidal tendencies than, say, dragons and zombies. The same can be said of video games, too, where their most memorable narrative moments come from careful writing and historical mimicry, as opposed to their incorporation of fantastical intertextuality.
In recent years, no games, strategy genre aside, subscribe to the same level of thematic accuracy and representation than Kingdom Come and Bannerman. The former tells a tale of vengeance and retribution against King Sigismund’s invasion in Bohemia, circa 1403, whereas the latter is a grim tale of warfare as the player assumes the role of a bannerman—a role rife with danger. Surrounding the stories are backdrops that have not been mashed together from a variety of influences, but are historically focused. Playing both games almost feels like flipping through a secondary or tertiary historical source, except visual (and fun, for the record). Kingdom Come reveals that the development team has gone to great lengths to ensure all the details in the game, including the geographical accuracy of its overworld, is measured to modern accuracy. Warhorse Studios, the studio behind Kingdom Come, even went as far as to consult and work with a local expert. Brimming under both games is an unbridled passion for history, which seeps into the rest of their design.
Each story feels fresh merely because the games refuse to dilute their source material; each title is wholly committed to a narrative embedded in the medieval era, which is the most rewarding aspect of either project. Most importantly, the effects these games have come from their chosen genres. Bannerman would not illustrate the horrors of medieval warfare so effectively if it was not a 2D side-scroller, much as Kingdom Come would not be an endearing journey through 15th century Bohemia from an RTS perspective. If these titles merely trod along the well-worn path that players expect from medieval games, then the effectiveness of their narratives and historical commitment would be lost in translation.
However, portraying medieval life does come with downfalls. Each game has received mixed reviews regarding their combat, with Kingdom Come feeling weighty and realistic at best, but downright awkward at worst, and Bannerman fluctuating between breezy and clunky in equal measure with its brutal difficulty. Kingdom Come’s combat mechanics, as Richard Flint noted in his review, initially seem “clunky and unresponsive,” but as the player develops with the game over time, the combat feels increasingly intuitive. The game allows for more immersion as the mechanics mimic the struggles of the protagonists so effectively. Henry, at the beginning of Kingdom Come, is a complete novice at combat, which the player can empathise with as they, too, are ordinarily hopeless at swordplay. The gameplay feels much more rewarding as it eases up and reveals more depth as the story goes on. By sticking to not just the aesthetic sensibilities, but also the real details of the medieval period regarding combat, each title allows the player to embed and immerse themselves organically. These games do not give an inch away in their artistic visions, so no part of either falls into contrivance.
The response from the industry and the market are important for the future of these types of games: they need the support. The market, after all, is dictated by trends. Kingdom Come, at the time of writing, has shipped one million copies, which is impressive for a game funded from Kickstarter. The sales, along with the fact that the game was crowdfunded very quickly, shows that a market for these experiences exists. However, problems have arisen in the media’s take of some of these titles, which might not bear well for the future of these styles.
Kingdom Come has fallen victim to a misplaced campaign of identity politics from the world of journalism because of the developer’s dedication to historical accuracy, which is a lofty concept, but gaming journalists are not medieval revisionist historians, nor do most have the expertise to be. Sites such as Polygon have written misleading headlines for Kingdom Come, with the project’s early life eclipsed by a politicised narrative regarding the game’s lack of inclusion of people of colour. Sites including Waypoint outright refuse to cover the game to this day. The media is, perhaps, an indicator as to why narrative-focused games have not jumped into medieval historical accuracy; these years were messy, problematic, and non-inclusive, which are all concepts widely considered unpalatable for video games in 2018. Kingdom Come and, to a lesser extent, Bannerman are attempts for the form to tackle topics that are irreconcilable with contemporary values, much like film, music, and literature before it.
The medium is thirstier than ever for experiences that go against what players expect. The Witcher has been so vastly successful not just due to the project’s stellar design, but also because the source material was so alien to audiences more familiar with Western-oriented media. The story drew on a folklore that has rarely been touched upon in games, which is where the series’s idiosyncrasies lay. The medieval period offers the same potential as non-Western folklore, and the historiography of the time is rife with potential. If gamers, publishers, and developers trust in experiences like Kingdom Come and Bannerman, they can, collectively, expect surprises in the single-player realm. Western fantasy is reaching its pinnacle within gaming, with titles such as Divinity: Original Sin II and Pillars of Eternity almost perfecting the craft. Hopefully, future RPG games will draw as much inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry as they do Tolkien before the creative well dries up.