A few days ago the game studio Double Fine launched a widely successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund their next project Massive Chalice, a fantasy turn-based tactics and strategy game that focuses on ‘feudal’ bloodlines.1 Unlike many game campaigns on Kickstarter, which post their project close to the release date, Double Fine decided to launch Massive Chalice with little more than idea and a bucket-load of enthusiasm; this invitation to actively involve the supportive gaming community in the pre-production process (called ‘backers’ on Kickstarter) has not only spurred skyrocketing pledges (currently $877,750 at the time of this post), but also conversations among backers and bloggers regarding how to build a medieval-like social system that incorporates twenty-first century liberal values: namely, gender equality and gay rights. It is with the structures and histories of medieval manorialism, in other words, that seem to be the space to explore current political and civic issues—and, I might add, accomplished with crowdsourcing funds from individuals rather than (or in addition to) major investors.
This post departs somewhat from the usual fare on L&L, but I’ve been following the threads of the conversation closely over the past few days and it is really neat to see how people ‘deal with’ the Middle Ages, especially when perceived political structures are no longer ‘politically correct.’
In brutally simple terms, medieval manorialism is the vesting of legal and economic power in a lord, supported economically from his own direct landholding and from the obligatory contributions of a portion of the peasant population under his jurisdiction. In the video and subsequent quotes posted below, the term ‘feudalism’ appears and is often used to describe the political organization of medieval society. First coined in the 17th century, the term ‘feudalism’ is anachronistic and usually no longer in use in academic circles since it falsely connotes the idea of a unified political system across Europe. While kings did grant land to nobility (called ‘fiefs’), such as when William the Conqueror provided land to his fellow Normans in exchange for military service, political and social organization differed widely across Europe. More generally, Jacobus de Cessolis, in his chess morality Liber de moribus . . . de ludo scaccorum, uses the pieces on the chess board in order to explain the roles, relationships, and political hierarchies of medieval society. He also creates different occupations for each pawn, who in turn serve the king. The widespread popularity of Cessolis’ Liber (300+ manuscripts across Europe) clearly illustrates that the work resonated with its readers—and where they fit into medieval society.
Manorialism in Videogames
While I will not want to engage in a discussion of medieval manorialism and economics in this post, I do want to highlight the fact that game designers often draw from this social, economic, and political structure for their own fantasy or medievalized games. Medieval-inspired manorialism structures appear most commonly in “rags-to-riches” game sequences and strategy games. In Mount and Blade (2008), for instance, the player does not follow a linear storyline but rather chooses their destiny based on choices made in the game. The player may feel like they are stranded in a sandbox-like medieval world and encouraged to explore the land, eventually gaining fame and power to climb the social ladder. Each battle is attributed a renown value, and the player gains the renown by winning battles. With increased renown, the player achieves higher standing in the game and may be offered vassalage by the leaders of one of the five factions. The player can then manage a fief, gain further renown, hire knights and peasants, and climb the social ladder to eventually become a lord.
Social casual games on mobile applications follow a similar desire for upward social standing within a pseudo-medieval world. The iPhone and iPad strategy MMO Lords (2011) also modernizes medieval manorialism by integrating social aspects: players can play as a duke, baron, knight, marquis, or other medievalized figure and build a fortress by hiring other players as vassals, buying and selling within a thriving market economy, and creating alliances with friends. Similar to other casual games such as Medieval Times, players in Lords begin as a commoner who was born to a noble family but orphaned by war and subsequently raised by peasants, a plot sometimes found in medieval romance. The goal of the game is to gain back possessions that were supposedly lost. All relationships and ties to other players, whether they are vassals, allies, or enemies, reinforce the competitive, strategic nature of the game—that is, to increase rankings on the game’s leaderboard by amassing large sums of money and building a strong kingdom.
Medieval-inspired manorialism also finds expression in Skyrim, Civilization IV, and Stronghold Kingdoms, but Crusader Kings II (2012) probably comes closest to the bloodline idea in Massive Chalice. Crusader Kings II attempts to simulate medieval Europe as the player assumes the role of a king. The object of the game is to become the most powerful dynasty in medieval Europe. Beginning in 1066, the player starts as a Christian noble and plays through the character’s successors in order to become a powerful emperor (by gathering ‘prestige’). Crusader Kings II does not focus on fantastical elements as much as it tries to immerse the player into an alternate historical medieval world (i.e. re-enacting the Crusades or negotiating with the Pope for the management of the bishops). Marriages, relationships, and bloodline strategies become critical for forming allies, securing power, and gaining prestige.
Enter Massive Chalice
Still in its infancy, Massive Chalice has already resonated with gamers everywhere (or, at least the 23,240 backers to date). The player’s management of lords, ladies, and houses as the king or queen of the realm incorporates previous elements from medievalized games briefly outlined above, but also promises to make forging marriages and generational timelines a central component of strategic gameplay. While Double Fine’s inspiration draws upon medieval manorialism, the use of a more traditional fantasy setting separates Massive Chalice from historical games such as the Crusader Kings series. This otherwordly setting has, I believe, opened up a ‘possibility space’ for examining current social, political, and civic issues.
In a lengthy video update on June 6th, project lead Brad Muir and designer John Swisshelm discuss a number of design concepts for the game, including battles, mechanics, items, and other features typically found in fantasy strategy games:
The premise for Massive Chalice is to level characters throughout their lives, who in turn fight demons, pass away, and are succeeded by new heroes. The life-death cycle should be plentiful and the relationships formed in the game between houses (or ‘bloodlines’) designate the offspring’s abilities and class(es). As Muir mentions, permadeath can happen from old age in the game and “it should be something [the player is] dealing with all the time,” occasionally with the psychological effects of loss in a game. The design team is also toying with the idea of ‘bloodline relics’ wherein a later generation can equip a relic from an ancestor in order to gain greater abilities. After a prominent hero becomes older, the player can grant them with a fief and lordship on the grounds of their excellent military service.
The game designers are still brainstorming how matchmaking will work, and, as Muir remarks in the video (around 12:30), they have a considered a few possible ideas at this point:
- Grant lordship to a hero and provide the hero with a ‘commoner’ spouse. Their children will have the same last name, power level, and abilities as the hero, with no quantifiable influence from the commoner.
- “Royal Matchmaking:” arrange a match between a male and female hero. Their children would be a hybrid class with abilities from both parents.
“We want people to feel connected to their heroes’ marital relationships,” Muir states, “but without it being a bunch of scripted dialogue.” The beauty of discussing these ideas in a semi-open forum is that they can end up manifesting in a number of unexpected ways in the game based upon active, serious discussions about these issues by the players. Soon after the initial launch of the campaign on Kickstarter, backers began asking about gender equality in the game. In a number of countries in the Middle Ages, land and titles were passed down in a strictly patriarchal system, which most videogames still uphold in their own versions of modernized manorialism. In the video Muir and Swisshelm discuss going against this organizational structure and suggest creating a social system in the game that promotes equality between the sexes (around 15:20). In Massive Chalice, men and women can not only fight on the battlefield together, but the player can also grant anyone—male or female—land and a lordship.
“We really don’t want to have any differences between the sexes. They’re both going to be super bad-ass on the battlefield, killing demons together,” Muir envisions. The only difference between men and women in-game is the character models. Therefore, if the player retires a hero to a manor (or ‘keep’), any children produced in the manor will gain the surname, class, and abilities of that hero (man or woman). There “really does feel like there is a solution” for the Massive Chalice bloodline issue, Muir remarks, “we can have it be all about the surnames.”
Queering the Middle Ages
Backers have also highlighted another problem with this image of a normative, heterosexual system: the exclusion of same-sex relationships (see the discussion around 32:30). No manorial system—in either the Middle Ages or in videogames—acknowledges same-sex relationships, a current heated political topic in the USA, Ireland, France, and other parts of the world. For Muir, the possibility of including same-sex couples in the game is about fostering a feeling of tolerance: “we want to be super-inclusive with the game so that people don’t feel left out.”
The initial descriptions of Massive Chalice seem to suggest not only a re-imagined medieval society, but also a space for addressing many current cultural issues. Swisshelm asks, for instance, “can you have other things that a couple of heroes can provide to the kingdom other than just kids?” “If you want to take two heroes,” Muir states later, “and put them in a keep together they won’t be able to produce children, but maybe couples don’t have to just produce children for you. . .couples could [become scholars] and focus on advancing technology to fight the demons.” Muir also describes a scenario in which a same-sex couple could world productively within the confines of the game: “you could totally have a same-sex couple of mages [who] are researching some very specific new spell or new technology that will help you. That can totally exist within the fiction of the game and it can exist within the mechanics of the game.” I mean, “why not?”
Folks opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage have taken to forums and comment threads to argue their side as well. Muir notes that feedback from Kickstarter backers inspired his team’s decision to include same-sex relationships: “we did not talk about [the possibility of gay marriage] until we launched the Kickstarter,” he told RPS. “We were so focused on pure pragmatic mechanics and how it would work and coupling and all these things that we hadn’t [considered it].” In an effort to suggest the creation of an inclusive, medievalized world based upon generational bloodlines, Double Fine has unwittingly opened a topic that is at the height of debate over civic (and I would add human) rights.
Muir points out that if Double Fine pitched this game to a major game studio, the game studio would likely not accept this kind of inclusiveness—sexual and gender-neutral relationships that transgress an image of an (outdated) heterosexual, patriarchal society. “Through your game design you can easily exclude people,” Swisshelm notes, so it is important to talk to the gaming community about these ideas. He goes further, exclaiming that “the rules you make for the simulation have a message inherent in them whether you choose to have it or not. That message can be ‘we’re just going to take some historical basis of male-dominated feudalism.'” But that is not the message of this game. Personally, I would love to play a game that supports same-sex couplings and gender equality.
A Tolerant Middle Ages?
So, is Massive Chalice truly an idealized medieval-like world, a world that attempts to remedy many of our own cultural issues (funneled through the idea of a ‘feudal’ Middle Ages)? I find it encouraging that medieval ideas can bring about, and indeed highlight, the need for tolerance in our own society (see 37:20 for their discussions of ‘feudalism’). As Muir observes, “It’s weird, too, thinking about that medieval feudal era and then trying to leech out a lot of the weird sexism. . .because it was not the best time for being a woman in society.” The point is not to reenact of a medieval world, like Crusader Kings II, but to provide answers within what many consider to be a social system at odds with our most fundamental Western values: “we could go very realistic [and] historical with [this game] or we could do something neat. This is a fantasy. This is our world. This is maybe even an ideal way that some of these relationships could be set up. A man or woman, two men, [two] women can run a household and contribute to the kingdom, contribute resources, technology. That would be a world that I’d rather live in.”
While this game’s high-level concept is about shaping a medieval world to our own values, it is also a fantasy world that provides a counterpoint to highlight these hot issues. We must “pull as much out of it while keeping the setting, trying to have it be more inclusive and feel more modern,” Muir muses, “It would certainly be a more inclusive world. In 2013, it seems to make sense.” It is no longer good enough to have a team of young, Caucasian males fighting random monster X within a roleplaying, adventure, or strategy game. The issues surfacing for Massive Chalice showcase the fact that people are yearning for worlds that are perhaps more relatable, games that include a diverse array of gamers who do not conform to past social stigmas. Gamers, in other words, no longer carry the image of a socially awkward Caucasian male living in his parents’ basement. Games are for everyone.
This forum—created through a postmodern, decentralized, individualized, crowdsourced, web-based economic system—not only bridges the dialogue between players and game designers, but also highlights cultural questions and issues that matter to people. As academics, we are used to discussing things—books, ideas, movements, objects, etc—after they have taken shape; after they have an established following; and after they are real. But placing a discussion that is happening right now into a cultural and historical context speaks to the ideas and knowledges folks are drawing upon in order to create this idealized world—a gameworld shaped and funded collectively by both gamers and designers.
In the end it is more than simply discussing bloodlines in a game: it is about discussing our place in the world and a future world we want to live in—for our own children, natural resources, and technologies. For our own generational bloodlines.
Massive Chalice has another 19 days to go on Kickstarter. You can back the project by going here.
- The $750,000 campaign reached its goal within five days. [↩]