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.
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.