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Germany’s Lesser Evil and Finnish developer Rockodile Games have launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for a game about Ukraine’s war against Russia.
Death From Above is a small indie title without a huge budget, but it aims to make an impact on how people feel about the year-old conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It’s an arcade-style drone simulator game where you drop grenades on Russian tanks and soldiers amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The idea comes from veteran game developer and publisher Hendrik Lesser, who believes that it’s time for games to become overtly political to match a world where geopolitics has come roaring back and democracy is under assault in so many places.
While gamers (like myself) have no trouble killing other soldiers in first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, such games are set in a nearly-realistic fictional world. In that sense, games about war are nothing new. But it’s a controversial step to make a game about killing Russian soldiers when the war is still happening, Lesser acknowledges. Still, he believes it’s not about exploiting the moment. It’s about calling attention to a terrible war happening right now.
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“While we embrace controversy and difficult conversations, we don’t believe in controversy for its own sake or the sake of sales,” Lesser said.
Lesser made a speech about this subject of being a “digital culture warrior” at the Reboot conference in the spring of 2022. At the time, he didn’t mention any particular game.
“It’s a conscious decision to engage with a difficult zeitgeist issue that directly affects millions of people’s lives in Ukraine and beyond, a decision that some might see as controversial,” Lesser said.
Lesser said the project got started last year after one of the teams started making a prototype of a drone game that had nothing to do with war. Then he came up with the idea to make it into a drone game about the war to raise awareness for Ukraine. The developers didn’t hesitate in supporting the idea.
While Lesser hasn’t been overtly political in his work in the past, he felt like the Ukraine war changed things.
“What I’m trying to do here is to definitely create awareness for Ukraine but also provoke with a game called Death From Above under a new publishing label called Lesser Evil,” he said. “It’s is definitely in your face.”
In the game, you will play as a Ukrainian military drone operator who fights enemy forces, salvages valuable equipment, and restores crucial communication lines disrupted by the conflict.
Lesser said that 30% of the net game proceeds supporting Ukrainian initiatives. After the game breaks even, the companies will commit 70% of the proceeds to help Ukraine.
While Lesser has a publishing and consulting business at Remote Control Productions, he started Lesser Evil as a new publisher to make this game as his own personal project.
The game is mostly gameplay without cutscenes, and a little bit of voice narrative. In that sense, it’s more of an arcade game and a simulation than a gritty narrative. It’s about the practical use of drones to scout terrain and then do some heavy damage to the enemy.
Your targets are tanks, vehicles, ammo and fuel depots, headquarters locations and Russian infantry. As you search for enemies, you can switch between a top-down view and third-person perspective.
As you use up your drone’s ammo, you must fly back to your operator’s position to refill it with grenades. You have to decide whether to risk delving deeper into enemy-controlled territory or stay at a distance to assure your survival.
Among the missions: You can take over control towers to restore communication lines. You can patrol the area, neutralize defenses, then bring in the operator for a successful mission.
It’s not all serious. Lesser said there were videos of Russian soldiers stealing washing machines. So in one mission, you can recover the stolen machines.
“You can collect washing machines,” he said. “Some Russians are stealing everything. It’s pretty bizarre.”
The game could have focused on less visceral enemies like just the Russian tanks. But in a nod to realism, Lesser said most of the drone footage shows attacks against Russian soldiers. And while the Russians are the enemy, the game doesn’t dehumanize them, Lesser said.
“I don’t want to do the same as the Russians do,” Lesser said. “Like call Ukrainians pigs on national TV. It’s not about attacking the Russians or saying all Russians are evil or anything like that. That’s not the point.”
The politics of games
The game doesn’t have an anti-war tone. Rather, it acknowledges the reality of the need for the Ukrainians to defend themselves when faced with aggression.
Still, Lesser said the developers are engaging in these topics because they are convinced they are essential and that the power of video games can be a tool for political and social activism. By contrast, big game publishers have shied away from taking sides in conflicts. Ubisoft, for instance, refused to say that its Far Cry 5 game, where the enemies are white supremacists in Idaho, was political.
Lesser felt it was spineless for companies to say they had no political intentions when that was the hook they used to get people interested in a game.
“That’s utter bullshit right,” he said. “In Far Cry 5, you kill crazy right-wing religious extremist hillbillies. If that’s not political, I don’t know what politics is. Ultimately, I want to basically go into the other extreme and say this is super political.”
Indies have more leeway to be political. Road 96 had thinly veiled criticisms of American culture and border politics under the rule of a demagogue president. And Orwell made a stand against universal surveillance. These games were made by small developers.
He also said all games are political, and some just try to hide that for financial reasons.
“I think we should be courageous enough to just be blunt, and just be right into your face,” he said.
We talked about 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the disturbing game which pushed the edge in showing gamers the horrors of modern war. It made people like me uncomfortable to play a game where children were getting attacked or recruited into fighting. The 2022 sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, hit serious topics as well but it noticeably pulled back from that controversial edge.
Lesser thinks that’s a mistake. He’s a fan of the anti-war and anti-establishment tone of the games, but he doesn’t want games to censor themselves like that, especially not for financial gain.
“I get that they try to be a little bit more entertainment. But on the other hand, maybe they should also do this a little bit better,” he said. “I’m trying to do something good with this game.”
Lesser acknowledged that making the game is a risky personal move. The Russians are not likely to be happy with him. And it could be a financial setback. But he feels he must do it. It takes him back to his roots in college when he studied both political science and philosophy.
“Everybody has to step up. I want to a certain degree, everybody to be triggered,” he said. “I want some people to be offended by it. But at least if they think about it, maybe it will change their opinion.”
The Kickstarter campaign and beyond
The Death From Above game is currently a short experience, and the aim of the Kickstarter is to gather support to help build a community and raise money to improve the game.
Lesser said the company has enough money to complete a version of the game, which will have a couple of hours of gameplay. But how big the game is and the quality level will be more dependent on how the Kickstarter goes. Lesser is enlisting help from Ukrainian musicians and artists to draw attention to the campaign and the final game. All told, there are about five people working on the game.
The aim is to release the game on Steam in Early Access in the second quarter of 2023.
Lesser said 30% of net proceeds (and 70% after breaking even) will be equally split between Come Back Alive and Army of Drones from the moment the game releases. All donations made will support non-offensive initiatives.
The Rockodile Games team has three people in Finland. They have been making Unreal Engine games and doing outsourcing since 2013.
Whether the game succeeds or not depends on how fun it is to play and how it makes an impact. If it is dismissed as anti-Russian propaganda, it may not get much attention.
Lesser Evil’s manifesto explains its view on using video games to draw attention to the war.
We are Lesser Evil. We are uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, and pro-democracy. We publish video games with clear political or social intent and messaging. Video games are this century’s most widespread, impactful, and important cultural medium. As works of human expression, they should be emotional and make the player feel something.
That’s why we’re not afraid to create experiences that are based on our convictions. We believe in making statements. We aim to initiate difficult discussions, spread awareness, and take a stand. Gaming is a politically and socially conscious medium — we should never apologize for this!Hendrik Lesser
Perhaps if Lesser can walk the tightrope and do his part to make sure that people don’t forget about the war or the effort it takes to preserve democracy, then the game could be perceived as being a noble cause and more useful than a poor attempt at propaganda.
“We are trying to help Ukraine defend itself,” Lesser said. “This is not a profit-oriented venture here.”
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