A little while ago VALUE did a stream on the Post-Apocalypse. We discussed its mechanisms, historicity and representation in Fallout 4, a big-budget game that takes place after the collapse of American society. I do not think Fallout 4 is a particularly good game about apocalypse. Kingdom is.
— By Doc Random

In Kingdom you play as a king or queen, who is unconventionally powerless for a divinely ordained and/or fairy-tale persona. You cannot attack or provide buffs, boosts or other forms of “public empowerment”. As this monarch about the only thing you are able to do is ride around on your horse and interact with the world directly around you. Your horse walks in a trod and can only be made to gallop for limited bursts. You can gather coins and people and give these people instructions on how to spend your coins.

That’s about it for the tools you have at your disposal to turn a wild, forested land into your Kingdom. For this you need keeps for a steady income of wealth, farms and workshops to increase other resources and walls for safety. You will need the latter, because the peace of daytime is a deception, a lie to hide an uncomfortable truth: there is something rotten in your kingdom. This becomes clear in the first night which brings an attack by goblins. Almost every night these attackers will come back and over time they will bring more powerful monster friends. You play a game that you are not likely to win. In fact, I am not sure it can be won — I have read there are a series of portals you need to destroy, so far I have only found one.

The main reason for the game’s difficulty lies not in how the game ramps up the challenge level exponentially, which in itself is a time tested if somewhat uninspired way of making a game hard to beat. It is rather how the game lures you in to gather more resources, bring more people in, capture and cultivate more territory, develop more buildings, to get more shit done in the space of a day. In Kingdom it is over-extension in search of greater productivity which undoes the fruits of one’s labour. At least it has been that way on all my plays. The thing is, even if I completely expect that this over-extension will happen, I am not able to foresee in the moment of play when one coin-grab, new outpost, or gallop of my horse, is just one too many.

Robert Malthus, reverend and party-pooper extraordinaire

Malthussian Gloom and Doom

The game’s style is a beautiful  “modern pixel art aesthetic” with toned-down colours. Its control scheme is also beautifully simple. Its game loop of dawn, development, (dumb decision,) destruction(, downfall) is equally attractive in its simplicity. It is also homologous to a rather simple and dispiriting economic set of ideas: Malthusianism.

The core idea of Malthusianism is that when growth is exponential, but the expansion of carrying capacity is arithmetical, one runs into a tiny bit of an apocalyptic-sized problem. The founder of this set of theories, Reverend Thomas Malthus, was focused on population growth and agricultural technologies. With the latter — at the end of the 18th century — not  keeping up with the former: Malthus proposed two possible outcomes or “checks”: restraint or catastrophe. He must have been a blast at parties…

This  idea that a Malthussian catastrophe or negative check is likely to take place in relation to a variety of growth phenomena  has become highly influential. Even if many real world scenarios have been shown to not follow Malthussian predictions. The idea that unfettered population growth and resource extraction will mean that a large part of us is going to hell in a hand-basket has taken root in our society’s collective imagination — and admittedly seems to be an increasingly realistic scenario. It is hard to know if Licorice and Noio the game’s two Italian/Icelandic and Dutch developers, were themselves inspired (directly or indirectly) by Malthus, but Kingdom is a Malthussian game, or at least invites you to think about the ruinous consequences of unfettered growth.

As I said, the game is about growing your Kingdom, which is in intself necessary to withstand the nightly monster attacks. Yet its core mechanic is not about growth, it is about restraint —  the first of Malthus “checks.” Failing to incorporate a positive check into your gameplay will result, sooner rather than later, in the second of the Malthusian checks: catastrophe. In Kingdom this takes the form of goblins and other monsters crawling over your walls, stealing your coins and ultimately taking your crown. In another game, this may well have been survivors and zombies, commanders in chief and nuclear arsenals, or the Dutch government and the rising tides of the sea. It wouldn’t matter as the vainglory of growth and the katharsis of apocalypse would amount to the same thing: a world in ruins.

Because it is a rogue-like strategy game -i.e. no saves and no resources carry over from your previous play – this means that every time this Malthusian collapse takes place, you have to start all over again. And again, and again, and again. It is a never-ending cycle of fresh yet false hope, that this time around it may end up differently. This time around I will stave off the forces of chaos and entropy for a little longer to construct a larger, better kingdom that maybe can stand the test of time.

Ruinous Fun

In Kingdom, the night is dark and full of terrors

In my 5 plays so far with this game… no success. The furthest I could make it was the 20th night. Rather than look up a strategy guide or ask advice on some forum, I have resolved to accept my Malthussian fate. It may not be the cheeriest of games — which should be clear from the moment the actual “Kingdom”logo of the game crumbles to dust when yet another hopeful monarch enters the scene —, but the poetics of creation and collapse give a certain fatalistic attraction to every single one of my plays. I enter a new game not unlike one of the characters in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. A world that is doomed and there’s little that I can do about it, except to make it as comfortable for myself and my people on the way down.

In the intro I claimed Fallout 4 was not a good (post-)apocalyptic game. This is because it is, in fact, not a game about collapse of society and how to deal with the fallout. In Fallout 4 the nuclear apocalypse literally serves as the prelude to the comeback-kid story of your protagonist and Yankee culture in general. Kingdom, however, is a good game about collapse, because collapse is at the heart of the game. Kingdom doesn’t fall for the allures of re-construction and renaissance. Its narrative is a simple one: all will come to ruin.

Actually, I am Darwin
Doc Random is editor at Interactive Pasts, co-founder of the VALUE Foundation, and Assistant Professor at the Leiden University Center for Digital Humanities. He has an eclectic taste in games and vows that he can talk archaeology with any random game title you can come up with. He also likes piñas coladas and getting caught in the rain, but only when in the Caribbean.