2015 Kingdom building game, developed by Thomas van den Berg and Marco Bancale
Kingdom is a small, focused, effort aimed at providing a very particular experience. The interesting thing about the way that Kingdom conveys this experience is that it does so almost entirely without words, letting the player work out how the world works for themselves.
I must be in the demographic at whom pixel art is aimed, because kingdom brings back all of the old feelings I used to get when I was trying out some new shareware game or other that came on a demo CD. My parents owned a mac when I was small, and between the years of 1996 to 2000 I played the ever-loving shit out of demo CDs.
My standard diet of game back then was awful, abstract, shareware games which made no effort to explain themselves to the player. Sometimes it would take four or five attempts to even start the game, to press the right buttons in order even to get the strange thing in front of one to actually play. When one did start playing, things would often get even weirder. I remember one game was a strategy game based on Aliens. The player played the marines, attempting to escape; the computer had control of the aliens. The game was turn based and there was an element of x-com style leap-frogging and overwatching that was required to even have a chance of getting to the other side of the board. All of this was presented in the most atrocious pixel art I have ever seen. The Aliens looked like a vicious scribble, while the marines were two or three green lines with pink or brown bits on the end (when they died, they turned into little red patches on the floor). The board itself was a total mess, and I still, to this day, have no idea what the hell it was supposed to represent.
I had to work out, on my own, what the hell everything here did. How things moved, how if they did not move the full distance, they would get a chance to fire. I worked out first hand that when the aliens died they sprayed acid on everything in the squares around them, which was of course instant death. I spent hours working it all out from first principles: it was a formative experience. There is a certain pleasure to finding out how a game works without explicit instruction; it feels like discovering something hidden and new.
However, players have a reasonable expectation to be told how the game they have just paid for works. It may be an abstract delight to wonder around a virtual space without any idea of how to influence it, but it is not the kind of thing for which most people are willing to shell out thirty quid. Thus, being mysterious by intent is left to little indie games like Kingdom.
I shall now spoil large sections of Kingdom by stripping it of mystery. If you have any desire to play it, do so now. It is only six quid and six or seven hours long.
The game begins with a mounted monarch, the player, in a forest beside a river. The game prompts one gently that the left and right keys will move one in the corresponding direction, and one sets off in search of the point. The scenery is gorgeous: there is a cohesion and warmth to the art direction which makes the pixel art feel vibrantly alive. Rabbits shuffle around in the grass and deer skip lightly away when startled by the player.
So the player moves their pixelated ruler through the forest, which opens into a clearing—the sun shows its face from behind the trees. Here there are a number of shiny gold coins. If there is a universal in the language of video games, it is that shiny gold coins are to be picked up, so the player wanders over to them. From the ground, the coins teleport to the top right hand side of the screen, falling with a little chink into the coin purse which has appeared up there to house them.
A little way off there are a couple of vagrants hanging around a campfire. Throw them a coin or two and they turn into villagers. This sets up the central means by which one interacts with the world. The coins are, of course, currency, and therefore most of one’s interactions in Kingdom involve buying things. This becomes blatantly clear when one comes across an un-lit campfire and drops a coin on it to set it alight. Once alight, the fire is suddenly surrounded by tents. Among those tents are two shops, one which sells bows and the other which sells hammers. One quickly discovers that when one buys a tool, a villager comes running to pick it up, and their role changes. People with hammers make themselves busy hammering almost anything at which one has thrown coins, while the people with bows make themselves busy shooting rabbits—which apparently drop more coins.
Once the central interaction is grasped—throw coins at things you want—one gains an intuitive knowledge of what to do with almost anything that one has not seen before.
Outside the bounds of the cozy base, the world is suddenly full of things to interact with. There are lumps of earth at which one can throw money, rocks at which one can throw money and even trees desperate for the royal dollar. Clods of earth become walls when money is thrown at them, which gets one thinking that, if there are walls, there is probably also something that should be kept out of the base. One also discovers that the rocks turn into turrets when hammered, with one of your bowmen taking up permanent residence at the top—another tip off to the fact there is something dangerous around. Outside the town there are other little shanty camps where more vagrants can be transformed into more villagers.
It is simple; one has a limited supply of gold, but—initially— an almost unlimited number of things upon which that gold can be spent. There is also a feeling that it must be spent wisely. Some looming danger in the forest is coming, against which one must fortify, and it is probably coming for one’s crown.
My first encounter with the game’s enemies was not, on the whole, a success. I was riding through the forest at night, when I came upon a strange portal, throwing an eerie purple light on the surroundings. Upon trying to investigate closer, some bugger with a purple face jumped out of it, stole some gold from my purse and then fucked off back into the great portal. I was confused, and thought perhaps that I should have died. Perhaps I had been lucky and met one of the game’s less than lethal enemies. Confused, and with a now empty purse I turned back for town, only to be set upon by another interloper. It stole my crown, instead of my gold.
As the game says, no crown, no king, and so I restarted.
Thus the gold that one carries in one’s purse is not only a currency, it is also one’s lifeblood, what keeps the forces of darkness from overwhelming the kingdom. Kingdom does not have to explain more than one currency to the player. In grasping the value of gold for action , and having gold removed from the player when attacked, the point of connection between being attacked and one’s actions being limited is made abundantly clear. Further, the thieving demons do not kill those villages who they attack, rather they steal their tools and then their gold—linking the loss of personnel, mechanically, to the loss of currency.
This unified currency is, however, not unproblematic. It becomes so when a point is reached, surprisingly early, where the money is literally falling out of one’s purse. With all that gold, one can basically do anything one wants. The reason for this is farmers. When one throws coins at a stream, that stream becomes a farm and a scythe shop appears at the base. Scythes, which villagers pick up to become farmers, and farms are expensive. However, after they are set up, they become a veritable money tap. Ignore the farmers for a couple of days and return to them, and they spew forth huge quantities of gold.
No longer does gold limit action. Instead, gold is simply a necessity of life, and one must stop off at a farm occasionally to make sure that the gold tanks are full.
Of course, partly this change in the character of the game is an evolution of its core experience and that is to be praised. The priorities that one starts with are not the priorities that one ends with. Very quickly after one has established a base and started expanding one’s walls a little to either side, it becomes clear that part of the game is really about taking and holding territory.
As one moves the walls forward, bit by bit, one’s kingdom grows. It comes to encompass multiple farms, ancient temples and shrines. The larger the kingdom grows, the more the game deals in a second currency: time. It becomes more difficult to be everywhere at once and do everything one needs to do in the daytime. This makes it more difficult it is to know what is actually going on away on the other side of the kingdom. Because the game does not speak to the player though any language other than the objects currently on the screen, and the noises that the things currently on the screen make, it is almost impossible to get news from afar.
One is locked into a local perspective, while also lacking clear information—after a while—about the number of people who work for one, or the money that they are making. In order to find out what is going on, one must go and look. Going from one side of the kingdom to the other, late in the game, takes almost a whole day, so if things have gone majorly wrong on one side of the kingdom, it will not be until tomorrow at the earliest that one will find out about it. This can lead to some worrying situations where one returns to base only to find a giant troll throwing rocks at your inner walls, after having devoured all of one’s archers.
This would be more interesting as a mechanic if it were not for the fact that the monarch is almost entirely impotent even when present at a great battle. It helps to know what is going on, because it helps to know how fucked exactly one is. However, one’s presence or absence does not really change things. One cannot even demolish buildings after they have been put up. The player may as well be a ghost, drifting around the kingdom, their only purpose to gather and redistribute gold in a time efficient manner. There is very little to actually do in the kingdom once the walls are set up and there are enough defenders to hold off most attacks. One gets into a routine, running out to the vagrant campsites to pick up new recruits before running back to base to make some bows for them. Perhaps stopping off on the way to collect the obscene lucre that the farmers have somehow managed to pull out of the ground. There is also very little actual set dressing. So one ends up with something that looks like acres upon acres of wasteland, bounded by walls.
This is a great shame really, the world feels so alive before one occupies it, full of wildlife and rich forests. Perhaps this is the point: that the encroachment of man on the virgin environment denudes it of interest. Either that, or there simply is not enough content to fill the vast expanse of space that the game leaves.
Kingdom is at its best is in the early stages where everything is new and dangerous. When money is scarce and one has to really think about how one is rationing out limited resources. At that point the game is essentially a puzzle, trying to work out what one needs in order to survive in a world which is not keen on explaining its purposes.
Yet this puzzle is still not as deep or interesting as it could be, and that makes me a little sad. There is so much unrealized potential in Kingdom. One’s populace never becomes unhappy with their lot of serving the king. One never has to ration food and there is no sense in which the human beings in the game are ever really dangerous to one another. In the opening sequence of the game, one walks by a stone carving of the title in the background, and in doing so that title crumbles to dust. This is an attempt to prepare one for the inevitable collapse of this kingdom one is trying to build from scratch. However there is not enough of substance to undermine its strength.
The valley in which one finds oneself can be made safe, the demons can be purged by destroying their portals, and the kingdom can reign safe and victorious. What then of the crumbling title? Where does that imagery go? The game subverts its own meaning, in a sense, by being a game with an end point. Would it then, be better if there was no end, if one had to play forever? (one can indeed play forever if one so chooses). No, I do not think so. All that would happen in that case is that one would have an ever swelling army of archers hanging around the walls of a barren kingdom—one’s very own North Korea.
For all its flaws, I enjoyed playing Kingdom. I loved being thrown into a world that I had to make sense of for myself. Mystery has an attraction all of its own. Kingdom gave me a slice of that delicious feeling I used to get all the time back in 1996 by treating me like an adult and recognizing that I could work things out for myself. Like those shonky shareware games however, once the mystery is gone, so is most of the game. So if you read this far, and have not played the game, I’m sorry that I robbed that mystery from you. Mystery is a worthwhile thing while it lasts.