Why Kingdom Come: Deliverance's Attempts at Realism Can't Help Feeling Contrived

When realism breaks immersion.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

I idly checked Mod DB this morning to see if anything interesting had popped up for Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The first thing I found? A mod that removed the "Saviour Schnapps" requirement from saving. Not surprising: The Saviour Schnapps mechanic is one of my least favorite elements of Kingdom Come.

The intentional restrictions are what makes Kingdom Come feel in some ways more like a mod than a game. It's the additive "hardcore mode" that some players seek, but is rarely included in the base game simply because it's overly restrictive. Yes, save scumming is cheap; but when the period between autosaves are as long as they are in Kingdom Come, the inability to log a save is annoying.

But that's par for the course in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game that feels like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign put together by an overzealous rules lawyer. I've been noodling around with the Xbox version of Kingdom Come since it came out on Tuesday, trying to get a handle on how I feel about this somewhat controversial RPG. Some of it is quite impressive, like the scene of your home village after its pillaged by a roving army. Some of it is painfully annoying, like the aforementioned need for a Saviour Schnapps to quit in one of the long periods between autosaves. But mostly the word that comes to mind when I think of Kingdom Come is "contrived."

Somehow, in trying to feel as realistic as possible, Kingdom Come manages to feel more mechanical than ever.

You get all that?

It's an interesting phenomenon that's made me think more about the tricks that developers use to bring their games to life. Not too long ago I wrote about all the ways that Monster Hunter: World makes its creatures feel massive and menacing, from the way they can break the environment to the way a single roar can freeze your avatar in place. It strikes me that the best games are the ones that convey an almost effortless sense of "being there," whether in the lonely spaces between Shadow of the Colossus or in the freezing trek up the Throat of the World in Skyrim.

Kingdom Come, by contrast, wants to convey that sense through its systems. This is not surprising given that Kingdom Come is an RPG—a genre built to simulate the world through numbers. Thrust into the role of Henry, a blacksmith's son who sounds suspiciously like one of the peasants from WarCraft II, you have to contend with hunger, fatigue, and other mortal ailments. If you're hungry, you'll be constantly reminded that you need to eat soon. If you're tired, it'll become almost impossible to navigate as Henry sways and tries to blink away sleep.

But I couldn't help feeling like I was piloting Henry as if he were a robot, constantly monitoring his vitals so that he didn't suddenly keel over dead. There is no pushing through in Kingdom Come. If Henry is hungry or tired, his needs have to be addressed immediately, or he's going to quickly suffer some adverse side effects. Henry is nothing so much as an extremely fussy Sim who happens to live in 15th century Bohemia.

Kingdom Come's Paradox

Obviously, that's the point of a game like Kingdom Come. Henry's shortcomings are meant to convey a sense of verisimilitude that you won't find in other games of its kind. In essence, it's a direct response to every Reddit thread that has complained in way about Skyrim's lack of realism.

And yet, as you pile on more and more systems to simulate systems, it paradoxically becomes harder to forget that you're playing a video game. There's a lot to manage at any given time, from how much you're eating to how much you can carry, and Kingdom Come seemingly throws up roadblocks everywhere. Not surprisingly, it takes longer for Kingdom Come to cut you loose and let you explore at your own pace than other games of its type. You have to spend a lot of time simply learning to engage with its systems.

Another side effect of Kingdom Come's approach is a surfeit of busywork. When the story opens, you're initially dispatched to pick up items from the village for your father. If you happen to pick up the ale first, there's a good chance it'll be warm by the time you get home, at which point it's back to the village with you to get some more. This is "realistic," but it also violates one of the cardinal rules of game design: Don't waste a player's time.

Later, as I tried to figure out how to get out of the castle where I was taking refuge, I noticed that the quest marker had disappeared. I found myself wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do next. I was eventually able to work out that I was supposed to speak with the guard by the gate, pick the locked chest in the armory, and disguise myself as a soldier so that I could leave.

Simple enough, right?

But first I had to acquire a lockpick, which was sold by a nearby trader (who looks for all the world like just another random villager). And because a single lockpick was kind of expensive—anywhere from 18 to 25 gold pieces—I had to find someone who would give me money. Lady Stephanie gave me the money I needed for the lockpick, only for it to break in the midst of Kingdom Come's extremely fiddly lockpicking minigame. With no money for another lockpick, I had to reload back to the battlements and do it all again.

Kingdom Come starts to find its feet when its systems fall away and the atmosphere becomes paramount.

Notably, Kingdom Come picks up a bit when the systems fall away and you're allowed to indulge more in the drama. Probably the most powerful moment in the game's opening hours is when Henry sees the bloated and rotting corpses strewn throughout the village and is visibly ill (sadly, it's in a non-interactive cutscene). This is also where you get your first taste of the combat, which actually works pretty well in the way that it requires you to chain together directional slashes and stabs to overwhelm enemy blocks.

But the village is weird in its own way, too. The bodies lying on the ground were holding fruits, vegetables, money, and pretzels (?), which I couldn't resist snapping up just in case I started getting hungry again. It struck me as odd that Kingdom Come would let me loot the corpses even as Henry moaned audibly, and it got even stranger when I later encountered another villager doing exactly the same thing, and Henry became angry with him. I guess there's no system that accounts for Henry being a raging hypocrite.

These weird immersion breaking moments are everywhere in Kingdom Come, and one reason I'm not super inclined to overlook them is that immersion is its raison d'être. These details matter.

If Kingdom Come has done anything, it's to make me think about how games put me in the moment. I don't think Warhorse Studios is wrong to go down this avenue—Fallout New Vegas' Hardcore mode has shown that it's possible to successfully add in similar survival elements—but I do think it's hard to execute properly. And in the end, I'm not sure punitive systems like the Saviour Schnapps mechanic add much of value to the overall experience.

Notably, Warhorse Studios is already talking about scaling things back a little bit. The studio has promised to address complaints about the save system and the lockpicking in the next patch.

In the meantime, Kingdom Come is novel; but in trying to be as realistic as possible, it winds up tripping all over itself. And in so doing, it winds up shattering the illusion it tries so hard to create.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Number1Laing #1 Number1Laing 7 months ago
    "This is "realistic," but it also violates one of the cardinal rules of game design: Don't waste a player's time."

    Is this "rule" why we have so many games that seemingly play themselves? Fiddly RPGs with complicated systems are not for everyone but they aren't by themselves, a problem. A lot of people actually really like this stuff, and Warhorse made a game for those people.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #2 Kat.Bailey 7 months ago
    @Number1Laing There are plenty of games with interesting systems that don't resort to time-wasting fetch quests for the sake of a contrived sense of realism.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #3 Kat.Bailey 7 months ago
    Deleted February 2018 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for scottnewton #4 scottnewton 7 months ago
    I find this so interesting Kat. It reminds me of the 'uncanny valley' - the idea that the closer we get to simulating life the more critical we become of smaller details. Clearly Kingdom Come is proving to be a popular game but I wonder, regardless, whether 'realism' is the right USP for an RPG. Since - obviously - players can't 'feel' in a game, you can often make up for this with clunky UI and rules that are much more strict than in the real world. I wonder which games walk the balance best between realistic variables and organic flow?
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #5 Kat.Bailey 7 months ago
    Deleted February 2018 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #6 manny_c44 7 months ago
    I'm playing through the game now and am not bothered by these things at all. Quite frankly having a realistic story-driven medieval game with a sense of authorship (as opposed to a focus-tested 'slipper chute') is itself a special occasion. I'm enjoying it quite a lot.

    It is interesting that a game made entirely outside of the traditional funding scheme, in Czechia by an independent creator and is immediately received so positively by players gets bad press, even before an official review is submitted.

    It's almost as if...
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  • Avatar for hankhank22 #7 hankhank22 7 months ago
    is almost as if it’s a semi crappy, half way acceptable , totally niche game with wonky systems that not everyone will enjoy.
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  • Avatar for hankhank22 #8 hankhank22 7 months ago
    @manny_c44 it is almost as if it’s a semi crappy, half way acceptable , totally niche game with wonky systems that not everyone will enjoy.
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  • Avatar for ryanwawsczyk66 #9 ryanwawsczyk66 7 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey "time wasting fetch quests for the sake of a contrived sense of realism."

    The prologue is there to teach you the game mechanics. You were given a quest to pick up some items and told not to waste time and bring back one of those items while it was still cold. You approached the quest without accounting for time because so many other games ignore time in their questing. So when you got back and it wasn't cold anymore you were told you did it wrong and made to go back out and do it right.

    It's teaching you the importance of time in game while also showing you that you're not going to get a flashing game over screen with someone yelling your name when you mess up just to reload you in before you fucked up.

    It's respecting your attention to the details it gives you and "punishing" you by giving you a do over with some admonishment whereas later in the game you might not get a do over and just take a hit to your reputation.
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  • Avatar for apoc_reg #10 apoc_reg 6 months ago
    Cant help feel you are being a bit.. snooty here Kat

    Personally i think its a great different experience that isn't just like everything else. Also don't really get the problem with its depiction of the world, this i meant to be set when times were different so don't think they should put unrealistic characters in for the sake of modern PC culture. Maybe that disconnect is just more foreign to Americans than Europeans (which i am) where we are very used to this style of history
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  • Avatar for apoc_reg #11 apoc_reg 6 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey And even more that do just that
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  • Avatar for benjaminthomasboerne #12 benjaminthomasboerne 6 months ago

    This basically. Didn't follow instructions and got in trouble.

    It is VERY hard to "fail" a quest in this game - but it is easy to make it way harder on yourself or close off certain options.
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  • Avatar for davedalrymple11 #13 davedalrymple11 6 months ago
    How does time pass in this game?

    One of the odd quirks I find with a lot of games that use a sped-up day-night cycle (as in Fallout: New Vegas or The Sims) is that you spend an abnormally large portion of your day taking care of your basic needs. Trips to the bathroom take half an hour instead of five minutes. Walking a mile takes the better part of an afternoon instead of 15-20 minutes. Of course, this rapid timer works in concert with various other abstractions to create a satisfyingly immersive illusion. (For example, you never have to buy groceries in The Sims; the fridge is always full. And RPG maps inevitably consist of improbably small settlements. They scale down the world to save space, and speed up time to create the illusion of epic travels.)
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  • Avatar for SmellOfMale #14 SmellOfMale 6 months ago
    Weak female can't deal with the game for men only, nothing interesting , pass by boyz
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  • Avatar for SmellOfMale #15 SmellOfMale 6 months ago
    @davedalrymple11 because you play garbage version of Sims, in Sims 2 you have to go to the grocery ,pick the god damn basket, put food in it, then pay for it, then put into your car and drive home
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  • Avatar for SmellOfMale #16 SmellOfMale 6 months ago
  • Avatar for shanecamburn28 #17 shanecamburn28 A month ago
    ROFL! I find it somewhat funny that so many people speak so much hate and disdain for this game... Basically your first 5-10 hours of gameplay you WILL inevitably SUCK at EVERYTHING! The first time you get into a fight you are armored with clothing and armed with a sword you can't handle in the face of enemies that are mid-game level difficulty. You must run to live, try to fight and you will die (maybe on a new game after beating it though, you might be able to pull it off). The first time you throw dice you will lose (unless strange luck befalls you). The first time you try to break into something and steal, you will likely get caught... The idea is to mimic real-life cause-effect.

    However, as you practice ANYTHING, you will slowly get better at it... On a first playthrough you need to decide who you will be. Will you be a righteous knight, the dark assassin, the burglar, the pickpocket, the archer, the woodsman, the town guard? Henry can mold in any directions, including Jack-of-all-trades. Yet, each thing takes time. After diddling around with a shortsword and shield a few hours you will get higher technique and perks which allow the handling of the shortsword/shield combo become more fluid and second nature. Same for picking locks (which requires steady hands -- or finger rotation in this case), picking pockets, shooting a bow, and everything else in Henry's world.

    It is a game of developed skill and ironically one that other people's advice usually doesn't work best for everyone -- you need to choose and develop your path.

    I find it to be an outstanding title and my sole gripe is that it isn't long enough with enough DLC/Mods yet... Just my two cents.
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