Kingdom Come: Deliverance draws praise and exasperation in equal measure. Its detailed depiction of life in 15th century Bohemia provokes the full range of reactions; from the wide-eyed “Most Realistic Medieval Simulator EVER!” – to the less enthusiastic “Kingdom Come Deliverance – Monk Simulator is SO BORING!” That the game represents more of a ‘simulator’ than a traditional RPG animates players on both sides of the fence.
To succeed in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you must submit to its rule.
Warhorse Studios’ attention to detail is manifest in Kingdom Come’s heavily researched anthologies, absorbing fact files detailing every aspect of medieval life – from farming to fashion. In-game, clothing, architecture and even fighting styles are grounded in historical sources, following a kind of real-world logic not usually present in RPGs. What some admire as precision and historical accuracy strikes others as needlessly pedantic; players expecting to slay a multitude with a few sword strokes are dismayed when they struggle to land a single blow and are easily bested by just one opponent. To succeed in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you must submit to its rule, learning its complex systems inside-out. In doing so, you come to inhabit a world far removed from your own.
Of course, this world is at best an approximation of medieval Europe, an artist’s impression. No feature of the game reveals this more than its music. Transplanted into feudal Bohemia, Jan Valta and Adam Sporka’s decidedly 21st-century score would flummox kings and peasants alike. What would they make of a symphony orchestra, a roiling mass of alien voices somehow moving as one, emotive but wordless? What of its strange symmetries, its curious repetitions – its huddled pitches, kaleidoscopic, ever contorting into new arrangements? By what yardstick could the people of that age possibly measure such a phenomenon? A storm cloud? A great wave? Would they hear music at all or, fearing a demonic host’s approach, might they arm for battle, or else fall on their knees before the voice of God?
We will never know. The point is, Kingdom Come’s post-Wagner, post-Hollywood soundtrack bears little relation to the music of the Middle Ages. In this sense it appears to depart from the game’s ‘authentic’ ethos, and radically so. Yet far from ignoring this ethos, the composers at Warhorse devised stringent constraints in order to conform to it. Interviewed by Gamemusic in 2019, Valta had this to say about the process:
“There isn’t too much original medieval music available – quite few real scores of that period persisted till our days, and these are mostly meant for the church practice. So we had to make it around (sic). I came with a set of general rules which we followed all throughout the soundtrack, such as: modality (instead of the modern minor/major duality); irregular form of phrases (just as if it were led “There isn’t too much original medieval music available – quite few real scores of that period persisted till our days, and these are mostly meant for the church practice. So we had to make it around (sic). I came with a set of general rules which we followed all throughout the soundtrack, such as: modality (instead of the modern minor/major duality); irregular form of phrases (just as if it were led by the lyrics), ancient cadences in harmony; almost no thirds in melodies; use of ancient instrument, no use of piano etc. Simply put, we used elements [that] resemble ancient times, and we avoided those [that] would sound too modern.”
In fact, more than a few manuscripts survive. These, coupled with plenty of recordings produced by a still-thriving culture of ‘historically informed performance’, mean that reverse-engineering a soundtrack with as much historical pedigree as characterises Kingdom Come’s swordplay would be far from impossible. Indeed, Valta immersed himself in many such recordings while he composed liturgical chants for the monks of the Sasau monastery. However, that the closest we come to genuine contact with medieval music is within the game world (diegetic), and specifically in a religious space, is no coincidence. Far from it; in an RPG, where immersion is everything, it is only at this narrow intersection where we can meaningfully experience ‘authentic’ medieval music.
To understand what I mean, listen to this recent (1996) recording of a 14th-century mass by the composer Machaut. Try to pick out shades of emotion in the music. Does it evoke imagery? Think about how it might accompany a particular scene; a touching exchange between two characters perhaps, or something more complex – a hint of violence, a deception with far-reaching consequences. If you’re struggling, there’s a reason. In a narrative medium, this music is not fit for purpose. It does not undergo shifts of perspective or changes of mood, nor can it say one thing and mean another. It cannot chart the convulsive interior lives of individuals because its purpose is to point towards the divine – precisely that which is unified, unchanging and external to us all. It is music without irony, from an age before psychology, meant for praise and praise alone.
In other words, music means what its context allows it to. Advocates of ‘absolute music’ will bristle, forgetting their allegiance to just such a context; a paradoxical belief that music can transcend context altogether. As inheritors to this marvellous fiction, we are able to meaningfully engage with music of any time or place, albeit filtered through our own. Nonetheless, though we may come to appreciate Machaut’s mass for its beauty and grandeur, we can never claim to be having an authentic experience of medieval music. Five centuries have formed and reformed our ears, each milestone leaving its imprint. We have journeyed through archways of polyphony, a well-tempered citadel, the murky woods of chromaticism, and out the other side. Attendant to these technical innovations have been ideological programmes, no less important to our perception of music. Classicism, Romanticism and Modernism have told us, respectively, that music reasons like a person; that it longs like a person; that it lies like one. Borne true by their fruits, these beliefs make up a seedbed of which we are never fully aware, a tangled ecosystem thriving underfoot even as we hack at its outgrowths.
A film composer once told me that, whilst scoring a Bollywood drama, he based the music for a violent scene on what he felt was a particularly dark, brooding raga (an arrangement of notes in Indian classical music, like a mode or a scale). “What were you thinking?” cried the producer when he heard, “That’s a morning raga, the scene takes place at sunset!” Dismayed, my fellow composer scuttled back to the drawing board and came up with a different idea using an evening raga. This went down much better – though, he confessed to me, what he wrote sounded so jolly to his ear that it ruined the scene for him. In a similar way, to experience medieval music with modern ears is to ‘hear into it’ modern associations, be they rhythmic or harmonic; in short, to render it no longer medieval. It has already become something new, something it never was before.
An artefact of modern imagination. Simply put, we cannot experience medieval music as medieval people did. We cannot be immersed in it because we don’t participate in its context. Perhaps that is why Valta and Sporka confine their most authentically medieval compositions to the monastery at Sasau. Cut off from the rest of the game world, the monastery’s purpose is to house patterns of life far removed from the commonplace. As such, it is ready-made to host a music devoid of habitable interior. We approach the music as Henry approaches the monks; an outsider, a tourist drawn to an attraction. Only here can medieval music both serve the narrative and remain authentic.
In music then, historical authenticity reaches its limit. Outside the monastery, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is lush and cinematic. Dynamic and flexible as only film music can be, Valta and Sporka’s score is sensitive to the story’s emotional beats and turns on a dime as Henry’s fortunes change. Listen to the cue that accompanies (spoilers) the attack on Skalitz near the beginning of the game to hear what I mean. The chaos of fighting is treated with driving ostinati and dissonant brass. A rising string line heightens the stakes as Henry forgoes safety and runs into the action. The murder of his parents provokes an abrupt silence; then, as Henry looks on petrified, a lone voice sings a plaintive, wordless tune, a mixture of innocence and sorrow that captures the weight of his helpless expression. Wonderfully resourceful and expertly orchestrated, the cue draws on the language of opera and film epic to involve us intimately in Henry’s struggle. It has to be this way, for we cannot escape our modern emotional tuning, over which stage and screen have final authority.
What this means – that in order to participate in the game’s narrative, the music must seemingly clash with its setting – would appear to end all hope for a genuinely authentic, singularly medieval experience, a simulation. And yet, though modern film music is as out of place in a medieval world as Gregorian chant in a nightclub, I experience no such disconnect while playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance. On the contrary, the soundtrack fits the game like a glove. Since it does so straightaway, without any adjustment period – and since the result comes across as a unified whole rather than an absurd mixture, it follows that music and setting must participate in a context capable of housing both; not unlike the Sasau monastery, or ‘absolute’ music. Exploring what this context might be forces us to reconsider what we understand to be an authentic medieval experience.
What is medieval, and what is modern? Or rather, what is medieval to modern people? Warhorse Studios co-founder Daniel Vávra, interviewed in 2017 about Kingdom Come’s musical direction, seems not to distinguish between the two:
“At the beginning, I wanted something that would correspond with the historical setting of the game. Something that would sound a little bit melancholic and archaic, with strong melodies – more Williams than Zimmer – and I also wanted to achieve the distinctive bohemian mood of famous Czech classical composers like Smetana and Dvořák, or the awesome Czech New Wave movie composers of the ‘60s like Liška or Fišer, because that’s the sound of my childhood.”
The last thing Warhorse can be accused of is historical negligence. Yet here, Kingdom Come’s creative director himself reveals that far from being a regrettable compromise, sourcing music from the 19th and 20th centuries was a deliberate choice from the start. For Vávra, the music of the recent past is not a hindrance to authenticity but its gateway. It can transport us back in time because, like the people of medieval Europe, it is both familiar to us and obscured by ironic distance.
Williams, in a moment defined by Zimmer, gains mystique and supplements a grandeur salvaged from the golden age of Hollywood. Set against the relentless abstraction ushered in by the latter – whereby minute musical fragments are brought into intense focus, then exploded to inhuman proportions – the immediate lyricism of the former becomes the object of acute nostalgia, a longing that grows as our media maelstrom dissolves identity into Zimmer-sized bytes. Packaged up and distributed worldwide, Williams’ legacy has been to universalise the Romantic symphony orchestra as the voice of the vanished past, long ago and far, far away. But this past, though quite real, is not a dry record of events coldly captured and stored on film. Rather, it is a living pattern, an imaginal realm whose participants are bound together by a tale of cosmic significance. We ourselves can enter into this pattern by many means, for it is reproduced in the art and entertainment of each generation.
Whether we are watching Star Wars, reading Tolkien or playing The Elder Scrolls, we are engaging in a particular mode of reflection with its own history and vocabulary; a tradition which, musically, Williams furthered but did not invent. Smetana and Dvořák, singled out by Vávra, had their own part in forging this tradition. Seeking to articulate in music their own cosmic vision (in their day a burgeoning Czech nationalism), both integrated folk music and medieval legend at a grand symphonic scale. The outcome, a combination of the heroic and the rustic, helped form a blueprint followed to this day by the likes of Williams, Shore and Soule. And now Valta and Sporka, reaching for a music to capture the spirit of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, derive their modality, their irregular phrases and their thirdless melodies not from a dusty medieval treatise, but from an utterly contemporary medievalist movement, a movement which grows in vitality even as the events of the middle ages themselves recede from all memory.
What world are we conjuring out of our collective longing?
It is in this sense that Kingdom Come: Deliverance – setting, music and all – constitutes an entirely authentic expression. If music voices the soul of a game, then Valta and Sporka’s score signals a work of true medievalism. To see its obvious anachronisms as contrary to its ethos is to confuse art with archaeology. In doing so, we forget that sheer detail, however forensic, can never bring about a world long-vanished, for the context in which details are selected and arranged is never the same. We are like children peering into an antique shop; we can look but we can’t touch. That curious minds have pressed their faces against the windows for centuries, that we have never stopped dreaming of the livery and the romance of the middle ages, that our dreams are shot through with nostalgia and melancholy – this should give us pause for thought. What world are we conjuring out of our collective longing? This question lies at the heart of Kingdom Come: Deliverance.