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Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Announced

hk_s_repre_05 So why put up the Kult: Heretic Kingdoms post-mortem now, nine years after the game? Well it gives me great pleasure to announce that after an epic quest in the world of games publishing, a sequel is finally arriving! The new game, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, will be released later this year as confirmed today by a press release by the publisher bitComposer.

The new game is developed by Games Farm (the new face of the original game’s development team) with game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripts by International Hobo. The Shadows website for the game is already up, and includes a teaser trailer for the game – check it out!

Cross-posted from – please comment there!

Kult Post-mortem (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves

Alita In 2005, an unknown Slovak company released a EuroRPG that managed to pull in 80% and 90% review scores. The game was Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) and this is the story of how it came to be made.

Fortunate Meetings

In December 2003, Ernest Adams wrote a piece for his popular Gamasutra column The Designer’s Notebook entitled “Inside a Game Design Company”. At the time, International Hobo (or ihobo) were a unique phenomenon – although there were certainly consultants working in game design and dialogue scripting, no-one had tried to form a company that would offer both of these services under one roof. Yet this was the very founding principle behind International Hobo: that to do game narrative well required game designers and writers to work closely with one another, and that a company that could provide outsourced services in both these areas together would offer a significant practical advantage.

At the time we had just released our first game, Ghost Master (with the now-closed studio Sick Puppies) and had received critical success for it – including a 90% review score in the US magazine PC Gamer, and a nomination for Best New IP in the Develop Awards, which also nominated International Hobo as Best Outsourcing Company. However, we were struggling to acquire clients and were substantially short of our targets for this. A strategic mission to Japan had provided great contacts (and we did later work with several of the companies that I met on that trip), but cold calling developers for over a year had produced nothing but pain and heartache.

But on the back of Ernest’s article, I received an email from Peter Nagy who was running a company in the Slovak Republic called 3D People (who later rebranded as Games Farm). Peter and his team were working on a EuroRPG – they had a rather neat isometric game engine, and some fantastic art designs and graphical assets, but they knew they needed help on both the design and the narrative. We provided a free consultation on their documentation, and came back with a proposal to take what they had and turn it into something quite different from everything else on the market. 3D People liked what they read, and commissioned International Hobo to completely overhaul the design and narrative of the game – and to do so in rather a hurry, since they were working to an aggressive schedule. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that is still going on today.

Rewriting the Story

The basis of the story materials that had been delivered to ihobo for revision was a tale of epic betrayal at a besieged city. There was actually a great deal to like about this part of the backstory, and this was to become the legendary tale of how a crippled outcast would rise to become a brutal dictator known as the Theocrat. There was also a great suite of characters with exotic names like Tar Evanger and Carissa Cantrecht, who were part of a secret society called the Penta Nera. Much of the ideas in this original draft survived into the final game, although the way the plot was put together was a little too obvious and conventional.

For instance, the draft story began with a young orphan living in a distant abbey who comes back from a morning walk to find his home attacked and burned to the ground. It was a set-up we’d all seen a hundred times before, and we felt it could be done better. However, 3D People already had the burning building assets – so we needed to rework it in a way that would still make use of the existing materials. We came up with the idea that it would be a much more intriguing opening if the player is attacking the monastery in order to recover a powerful relic – but upon arriving it becomes clear that someone else has beaten them to it... The burning building thus takes on a very different emphasis than the boring ‘my family has been murdered’ cliché. We were also keen that if the game was only going to have one central character, it should be a woman.

As well as remounting the plot, we had to do some work on world-building. The setting in the draft materials was pure generic fantasy – the kind of hodge-podge fantasy setting that Dungeons & Dragons had popularised, made from 50% Tolkien’s legendarium and a scattering of scraps from everything else. We were always going to be an underdog title, so there was a risk of not getting noticed if we were too obvious. I suggested dropping the cookie cutter fantasy races – elves, dwarves, and orcs (which were far too heavily associated with the endless parade of Tolkien clones) and focussing more on the other races 3D People had designed – the Taymurian wolf-folk, and the fearsome ogres and goblins who became the Sura tribes. This immediately helped the setting feel a little fresher. 3D People were also keen on necromancers, so we made a role for undead in the world, serving as slaves who worked the deep and dangerous mineshafts. But the world also needed a name, and the one we’d been given (Rywennia) didn’t have much identity...

Enter the Heretic Kingdoms

My biggest single influence as a writer had always been the work of fantasist and literary writer Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champion sequence – Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, and so forth – had been a major influence on Dungeons & Dragons, despite being rather less well known than Tolkien’s stories. Moorcock is one of very few authors to have won awards for fantasy – including the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award – as well as literary awards such as the Guardian Fiction Award. His Elric novels were set in a world called The Young Kingdoms, a setting that explores the nature of Empire, race, and freedom through magic, cruel ancient races, and dragons who drip burning venom. In the same way Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms explored power politics through the lens of an ancient and brutal Empire (a mythological surrogate for the British Empire), I wanted to find a thematic angle that we could use to make the world of our game stand out from the crowd. But what could be our hook?

At the time, the ‘culture wars’ between religion and its critics were starting to hot up – the New Atheists began publishing their best-selling diatribes in 2004 – and I thought this might be an interesting angle to explore in a fantasy game. I was mindful of Hannah Arendt’s account of how the totalitarian states of the twentieth century began by persecuting a scapegoat minority (often, Jewish communities) and gradually came to use this political situation to seize control and consolidate their power. What if our fantasy setting was a world so poisoned against religion that it had come to conduct the very kind of abuses that had turned it that way? What if this was a place that embodied Mary Midgley’s adage “the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution.” What if this was a world where there was an Inquisition dedicated to annihilating religion – at any cost?

This was the germ of the idea that led to the Heretic Kingdoms, and I had hoped it would be a setting that would have something interesting to say to both theists and atheists. However, it ultimately may have had more appeal for the latter... At a conference that Ian Bogost ran in Atlanta, I met a Christian who had reviewed the game in the speaker’s lounge where I was chatting with Ian and Ernest. He had liked it, but expressed concerns that a setting where ‘God is dead and religion is heresy’ was a difficult premise for many Christians to accept. Of course, the phrase ‘God is dead’ is straight from Nietzsche – and what the German philosopher had meant was much more subtle than is usually thought... but still, it was easy to think this was an anti-religious game. Personally, I don’t see it that way at all, and I’m glad many reviews thought it struck a good balance between both sides of this conflict.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms was a game about authority and identity – about the ways that people acquire and fight over power, and the symbols they erect in order to seize control. The Garulian Empire rises to power on the story that they have ‘killed the God of the Land’, then the Theocrat overthrows them by claiming to be a descendent of he who killed the God, then the Inquisition overthrows him – in order to seize power for themselves. ‘Religion’ in this setting has been severed from any kind of spiritual, ethical, or communal role and is simply a means of indoctrination and control. This is not a world where good battles evil, because it’s not clear if anyone – including the player character – can actually be considered the good guys. Rather, megalomaniacal nobles and mages are locked in a deadly struggle to seize the last remaining relic and use it as a pawn in their various power-plays. It’s an ambiguous world – with a mysterious Dead God, and absolutely no elves and dwarves – and the player is thrown right into the heart of it.

Next: An RPG Between East and West

Belief, Knowledge, and Moral Claims

I recently received an interesting comment to my 2009 piece Moore’s Paradox and the Belief in False Things. I’ve decided to reply to it as a letter-post.

Here is the comment that AnH posted:

Thank you for posting this article (I guess this comment is a little out of place, as it is five years after the original publication date). The essay is thoughtful, but I personally would disagree with a number of your interpretations of the key ideas presented in the text.

First of all, Moore's paradox has very little to do with epistemology. The question at hand is not one about what knowledge is, but about the absurdity arising from asserting two contradictory statements. Wittgenstein's remark, namely that there cannot be a verb that means "to believe falsely," is simply intended to illustrate the difficulty presented in Moore's paradox, and not to claim that we cannot believe false propositions. If there were some verb V that meant "to believe falsely," then that verb could be inserted into a sentence of the form "I V p," where p is some arbitrary proposition. However, to believe is to take something to be true (perhaps this is where you think epistemology enters, though epistemologists are mostly concerned with belief as a condition of knowledge, and not as a subject of study in and of itself), and thus to state that you take something to be true and that you believe that what you think is true is false is something of a contradiction.

So the issue at hand is not that you can't believe false propositions, it's quite obvious that you can (many people falsely believed that the earth was flat for many years). The issue is that you can't believe one thing and simultaneously believe that what you believe is false.

On to verificationism. You state that verificationists assert that all unverifiable statements are false. However, verificationism is not a theory about truth and falsehood of statements or propositions, but about what kind of statements have meaning. On the verificationist view, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless.

Lastly and most importantly, your claims about knowledge seem to contradict everything common sense tells us about knowledge. It would not be the case that if Elvis were discovered alive tomorrow that our knowledge of his death would cease, at that moment, to be knowledge. If we discovered Elvis alive tomorrow we would not say that it used to be the case that we knew that Elvis was dead and now we know that he is alive, we would say that we thought we knew one thing, and it simply turned out we didn't. "I thought I knew..." is a common phrase in English.

It is generally an axiom of epistemology that there are things that we can know. Epistemology dismisses skepticism and instead asks, "assuming knowledge is possible, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be met for an instance of knowledge to obtain?"

Very few contemporary epistemologists are not fallibilists. To say that it is necessarily the case that we can only have knowledge if what we believe is true is not to say that we can only have knowledge of necessary truths, or that knowledge is an infallible mental state. Thus I feel your comments about human pride and our "unwillingness to admit that we believe false things" are perhaps a little unwarranted. In fact I can assert that I believe falsehoods without invoking Moore's paradox (as long as I don't make any such claims about specific beliefs).

Last comment: your solution of Moore's paradox seems to rely on a definition of belief that does not involve truth. But this definition, for you, follows from your claim that we believe unverifiable statements, and unverifiable statements are false. Like I said above, however, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless. Thus unverifiable statements, such as moral claims, cannot be proper objects of belief. An emotivist may argue therefore that moral claims are essentially just sentences that are used to illicit certain kinds of responses from others. Of course verificationism seems to be a very strong theory of meaning in the sense that it keeps certain sentences that should be said to have meaning from having meaning, but it cannot be used to dispute an understanding of Moore's paradox.

My reply is as follows:

Hi AnH,

Many thanks for your detailed and thoughtful rebuttal of this post! Not at all a problem that it's coming ‘five years late’ - all material at this blog is always up for grabs whenever you want to talk to me about it. As is usual for older posts, however, my understanding of these issues has improved greatly since the time that I wrote it, and I accept much of what you say in your rebuttal. I would like to raise a few points of interest...

Belief and Knowledge

"(perhaps this is where you think epistemology enters, though epistemologists are mostly concerned with belief as a condition of knowledge, and not as a subject of study in and of itself)"

Yes, this is where I am asserting epistemology comes into play – I’m not certain how much being concerned with ‘belief as a condition of knowledge’ excuses the need to understand belief as a phenomena. It seems to me the latter is a prerequisite for studying the former! However, I am primarily a moral philosopher and a metaphysician and not an epistemologist. As you may appreciate, my specific beliefs make epistemology hard to commit to!

"The issue is that you can't believe one thing and simultaneously believe that what you believe is false."

This is the claim I dispute. But the nub of my disagreement is that the suture between propositional logic and belief fails, and once it fails the ‘law of non-contradiction’ ceases to have force. In order to understand belief (whether as a condition of knowledge or otherwise) it is necessary to see that it is not propositional in nature, nor is it a single phenomena. For one interesting thread of this discussion, see Tamar Gendler’s productive concept of ‘alief’.

"On the verificationist view, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless."

You are right, of course. What I need to make my intended point is to stress not falsehood but epistemic relevance. Both false and meaningless statements are claimed to lack epistemic relevance (in two different ways). For the way I approach epistemology (mostly from the outside!), I can treat both of these dismissals as closely related. Other people will naturally approach this matter differently.

Some Flat Earth Pedantry 

"(many people falsely believed that the earth was flat for many years)"

I believe it would be fairer to say that many people falsely believe that many people believed that the earth was flat for many years. I say this because if you dig into this mythology you'll find it is far older than most people give credit for, and was not (to give the most famous misunderstanding) a factor in Columbus' voyage. If you consider the number of humans that actually ever believed in a flat earth, it is vastly less than the number of people who believed that ‘many people believed in a flat earth!’

 The Truth of Moral Claims

"Thus unverifiable statements, such as moral claims, cannot be proper objects of belief."

Moral claims are not unverifiable. The claim that they are unverifiable assumes an absolute yardstick against which they could be judged. But in fact, the only thing that we have that constitutes such a yardstick is logic (and mathematics, which Stephen Yablo demonstrates contains truth only because it is logically constituted). Consequentialist attempts to suture mathematics and morality have been nothing short of a disaster for moral philosophy (which thankfully consequentialists are recognising and fixing with a new focus on decision procedures). For more on this, see either Allen Wood’s rebuttal to Derek Parfit in the latter’s On What Matters, or my own forthcoming Chaos Ethics.

Moral claims can be verified provided their context is understood. In this respect, they are in a very similar situation to knowledge claims, including scientific knowledge claims, whose verification is always dependent upon the relevant theoretical background, a context that cannot ever provide an independent foundation to such claims. There simply isn’t an absolute yardstick beyond logic, and we thus run awry when we believe, along with Plato, that we can get out of the cave and discover information that can still be safely imported back into the cave. The cave is its own world! Stare at the sun as long as you like, you’ll never learn anything about the cave.

In this regard, I find a useful point of reference is Peter Lamarque's exploration of Wittgenstein's concept of a practice. Lamarque makes the point that the value of the queen in chess is objective within the practice of chess. Extending this argument, I would say that moral claims can be objective within the practices that define them – for instance, ‘taking steroids is wrong’ is a true claim for the practice of professional sportsmanship (anyone who disagreed with this claim is not participating in the relevant practice). The apparent ambiguity of morality comes not from any aspect of unverifiability but from the diversity of competing moral practices.

But this takes us a long way from Moore’s paradox!

Many thanks for the interesting points of discussion,


Curiosity and the Play of Explorer Games

Over on ihobo today, some further remarks on the role of curiosity in games - and specifically in the context of exploration play. Here's an extract:

The motive for playing space explorers stems from curiosity, specifically the drive towards discovery. There is a related aesthetic motive in terms of sensory pleasures - to witness the beauty of stars, planets, nebulae, and comets in an imaginary world. The motivation behind playing Proteus moves in a similar direction, although here the faux-simulation is of the joys of hiking (which I also enjoy). Proteus, unlike the space explorers, however, is a box of delights filled with designed-surprises (albeit procedurally populated) such as its frogs and bees, whereas the space explorers play upon the mystical draw of 'outer space' that science fiction (orthodox or otherwise!) has cultivated. It is epitomized in Star Trek's opening soliloquy: "where no-one has gone before"...

You can read the entirety of Curiosity and the Play of Explorer Games over on