So many of my memories within Kingdom (developed by Thomas van den Berg) linger on the small silence of a fiefdom functioning smoothly, of escorting lost pilgrims into the shelter of my barricades and enlisting them into breathless confrontation. Luring the wilderness into the waiting embrace of my archers, and seeking out conscious points of deforestation to construct looming spires and the natural arisal of meadows brimming with rabbits for the slaughter. Of simply resting amongst the soft murmurs of wind-chimes and piano melodies. The moments of stillness that arise in between points of intrigue, as my steed stirs breathlessly and each journey is taken in careful consideration of the setting sun. The small practiced meditations of systems so deeply-internalized they feel almost second nature.
Kingdom practices a tranquility not often found amongst similar strategy games. A space imbued with the gentle stillness of a civilization long over-fulfilling its former needs, and occasional moments of respite from known impending slaughter. The romanticization of the idyllic, a soft reflection of our simple existence amongst familiar natural surroundings. Of practiced hands slowly desecrating the wilderness until only barricades and sadness remain, and the entrenched anxieties surrounding the eventual toppling of kingdom crown.
At least until dusk falls under the eventual rise of a crimson moon, and with it the snarling grumbles of monsters determined to take back what was always rightfully theirs. Bringing ghouls and gargoyles and goblins haemorrhaging at the barricades, in pure relentless massacre and carnage until my kingdom eventually crumbles to the ground, and I realize that somewhere some time ago I made an irredeemable mistake. Whether in the form of deforestation too swiftly diminishing my archers’ ability to hunt forest beasts, the ill-considered construction of fortifications without the towers necessary for protecting wandering battalions, or through wandering astray when I should have been supporting the construction of a fiercer stronghold. There’s a discrete pleasure within the ruin of my Kingdom that so rarely goes appreciated within games, the immediate and unsalvageable calamity of my carefully-laid plans being snuffed out within a mere single night.
Although most of this is written from memory and rose-tinted sentimentality, and although Thomas van den Berg, Maarten Boot, and Amos Roddy have since released many delightful expansions and sequels within the Kingdom series, it’s nevertheless this original Kingdom my heart keeps lingering on. There’s a minimalistic simplicity discovered here that guides you through such a natural sense of self-discovery and learning, each system interspersed through your journey by simply indicating spaces of intrigue and allowing you to interact at your own discretion and possible ruin. Intertwined with the severity of punishment, this rhythm echoes some of my fondest memories within similar roguelight systems. When death is inevitable, your only sense of progress is found through your momentary glimpses of self-improvement, each loss simply bringing another opportunity to refine one’s strategy and consider alternative maneuvers. Each action as indiscriminate and simple as a pawn shifted along a chessboard, yet decisive and meaningful, until eventually you make it through the first night, and then another and another, and many more still.
A sentiment which differs from many an experience within similar strategy games, which oftentimes remain mired in learning their systems through carefully-written literature, skiving through their knowledge bibles for discrete keywords, and abandoning all bliss in the struggle of navigating through different interfaces. My strategies, skirmishes, and losses so long drawn out over even longer hours, that by the time I’ve begun recognizing my past mistakes or discovered a fresh mechanic, I’ve lost so much time to a strategy I’ve barely begun to comprehend. There’s a restless need within these experiences to keep filling my thinking with mindless stagnant maneuvers, with almost no time given to the simple pleasures of appreciating a well-crafted strategy or a moment of blissful serenity. And in an age of increasingly long-drawn-out experiences being published by massive studios, it’s this careful balance that I’ve come to adore most within Kingdom. The swiftness and unforgiving whiplash of punishment, and the moments of stillness that arise after enacting a deftly-strategic consideration, when nothing much is happening and nothing much will.
I have never conquered Kingdom, and each return over the years still represents another opportunity to linger another moment more. And, in some ways, I never hope to, to simply allow myself this one last mystery — my ramshackle fiefdom guiding me gently into that good night.
Demi Schänzel is a nonbinary maker of small-time experimental interface games. Often lost somewhere between the pages of some second-hand bookstore discovery, and supposedly in possession of pretty handwriting. You can find them, their words and feelings over on twitter @idlemurmurs