How Hendrik Lesser hopes Death From Above will bring the Ukraine War home | The DeanBeat
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It’s a pleasant memory to recall a “beachside” fireside chat that I held with Hendrik Lesser at the Reboot Develop Blue conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Our stage was beside a beautiful pool against the backdrop of the deep blue Adriatic Sea.
But our subject was troubling, as Lesser’s Lesser Evil company is making Death From Above, an arcade-like game about the ongoing war in Ukraine. In the game, you operate a drone and drop grenades on Russian soldiers and tanks below. It debuts on Steam early access soon.
This is a controversial game that brings politics in games together in an uncomfortable way, and Lesser makes no apologies for that.
In a way, our setting was beautiful but appropriate. Not far away, a bunch of ruined buildings looked like they were bombed in the Croatian War of Independence. In the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, there were signs that showed where the 2,000 shells landed during the siege of the city in the 1990s.
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Europe is painfully close to the front lines again with the war in Ukraine. There were Serbs and Russians and Ukrainians and Croats — among many other people — at the Reboot event. There were indeed a mix of Russians and Ukrainians at our panel. Lesser and I had a long conversation about the game — our second since he announced it — and we took questions from the audience as well.
Lesser was hungry for feedback, as this kind of subject feels like it’s taboo. And people are trying to ignore it. But the game debuts on May 25 exclusively on Steam Early Access for $10. Lesser will donate 30% of the proceeds from the game to non-lethal Ukrainian charities. Once production costs are covered, about 70% of proceeds will be donated, with 30% dedicated to continued development.
Death From Above is an arcade-style drone simulator game set during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You will play as a Ukrainian military drone operator fighting the occupation forces, salvaging valuable equipment, and restoring communication lines disrupted by the conflict.
Lesser said the company is “uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, and pro-democracy.” And it will publish video games with clear political or social intent and messaging. Lesser believes that 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, he believes.
Here’s an edited transcript of our fireside chat.
Hendrik Lesser: I’m the founder of Lesser Evil, and also the game director on a game called Death from Above. Besides that, I do a lot of other things in politics, but that’s not really the priority today. I became an activist through making games.
GamesBeat: You gave a talk here last year that went over pretty well. It made people think a lot. Do you want to summarize that talk for us?
Lesser: The main call to action last year in the talk was to talk about being a digital culture warrior. What I meant by that is thinking about intent when you make games. What is actually the goal of the game? In my world, since we were already kind of at war, this is how I started the talk. We’re in a hybrid war, about ideas and how we want to live our lives in the world. I would like to see more game developers make games with political intent. That was the summary.
GamesBeat: And that wasn’t very long after the war started.
Lesser: It was at the end of September, yes.
GamesBeat: A lot of people might react in shock to that line of thinking, but also to the fact that you’re making this game. That by itself is interesting. Why would people be so shocked that you could make a game that’s almost like a documentary?
Lesser: For a long while, I think we in the industry felt that we were only allowed to depict events in games that took place 20 or 30 years ago. For example, my friend who worked on Vietcong, which was released about 20 years ago. This is something we felt as an industry, that we’re not allowed to be participants in things that are happening right now. On another hand there are discussions about how games should be apolitical. They should just be entertainment. That’s another level. And ultimately, the war in Ukraine, for some people it’s unclear. What does it really mean? I get that. It’s very complex. It’s threatening. You might be afraid for yourself. It’s something that’s so in your face, it provokes you to think about it. In some cases you don’t have the mindshare and the time to do that.
GamesBeat: And games are supposed to be for kids, right?
Lesser: To a degree, yeah. They’re supposed to be for kids, for escapism, and that’s it.
GamesBeat: And so why do you not agree with that? Why did you decide to do this?
Lesser: To me, even when I was a kid, I felt like games were a culture technique. This is how I call it. You can produce culture with it. It doesn’t need to be artistic. It can have all kinds of different intentions, but it can also do that. And this will dominate this century. It kind of does already. It’s digital. It’s interactive. It’s social and multiplayer and all these other words. I always thought that it was so obvious. Similar to the movies, you can do many different things with it. It’s not just a toy. It’s a bit unfortunate that they’re called “games.” Maybe if we had different semantics, it would be easier for people to understand that this is for everyone, for all people. Maybe in the future, with AI, it’ll offer an opportunity to reflect on yourself, to feel some emotions, or just have a good time.
GamesBeat: By contrast, you can look at the documentary section of a service like Netflix and find all kinds of things there. With the range of content that’s available in film or TV, people are not shocked to find content that might resemble this. Why, again, is it so different for games?
Lesser: Documentaries try to have this serious intent, a bit like a serious game. It’s about education and all this. The game we’re doing, it’s an arcade game. It’s not very intellectual. It’s not very deep. It’s not about shades of gray. It’s very black and white. This is something which is difficult to take. We say clearly who we think the enemy is. In a lot of documentaries we see lots of shades of gray, which is also great. But most of them are done with more of a thought process, more reflection, pondering after the fact.
GamesBeat: Can you describe more about what you do in the game? What does the player do?
Lesser: The player is actually playing a drone operator, as regards the core gameplay. You fly around a 3D environment and you see some Russian invaders. You can go there, maneuver, and then go into the camera where you’re dropping grenades on them, like we’ve seen on Telegram and Reddit and the news now thousands of times. That’s the core of the game. Of course there are different msisions and little narrative, but at the core it’s as simple as that.
GamesBeat: You announced this how long ago?
Lesser: Six weeks, seven weeks ago. As far as how long we’ve been working on it, that depends on where you start to count. The game originally came from an idea that had nothing to do with the war. It was just a casual drone game. The team was working on that for a couple of weeks, I think. And then in August or September we looked at the prototype and had a bit of a thought process. We decided to go further after that and make it this game. So ultimately, around Q4 of last year.
GamesBeat: It feels almost like it’s developed in real time with the war. The war is still going on. Quite often historical games or historical documentaries happen so long after events are over that it doesn’t feel so real as what is happening right now. Why do you think it’s important to get this out so soon?
Lesser: For us, this is why I’m also not shy to say this is a propaganda game. It’s about participating in the war right now. When I talk to American friends they say, “Yeah, we’ve kind of forgotten about the war.” That’s part of it. I want people to not forget there’s a war happening in Europe. A bigger neighbor invaded their brothers and sisters and ended their relationship, probably for a very long time. That’s one thing.
On the other hand, we plan to put a lot of revenue toward causes in Ukraine. We want to help right now. One of them is Army of Drones, who fund these kinds of scout drones. It’s not a directly military purpose, but they want to make an impact. The other one is Come Back Alive, where we help people to stay alive who’ve been wounded in all this. We want to make a difference now, because the war is happening now. If I do all this and then make money in 10 years for veterans and so on, that’s a good thing too, don’t get me wrong. But I think now we can make a bigger impact.
GamesBeat: What kind of reaction have you gotten since you announced this?
Lesser: That’s quite interesting. Of course we expected a lot of people to be very pro or very contrary about this idea. One of the main reactions was silence. We reached out to 1,300 gaming press outlets in the world. Five did something in the early days. Then I reached out to a couple of people I know, for example you. We did an additional story. We changed our strategy and started talking to general interest press. They were either not interested at all or very interested, because they saw it as very unusual that something like this came out of gaming.
GamesBeat: That’s what was interesting to me. Nobody does this. I can’t remember the last time someone made a game about a war that was still happening. In that sense it’s unusual, and if it’s unusual, it should stand out as something worth talking about. But then it does almost feel like people are running away from what you’ve announced. Not only silent, but actively trying to get away from it.
Lesser: You’re totally right. What we also experienced–coming here is great, because I talk to a lot of people. I talked to someone just 10 minutes ago, and their first reaction was, “Is that really morally good, what you do?” And I said, “Well, let’s have a discussion about it.” I’m already successful in the sense of, I help people see this differently. We have the discussion, dive in, see the different perspectives, and ultimately say–if you’re not just looking at the abstracts and absolutes, it helps them to understand. Even just expressing our emotions is already legitimate.
I’m fucking angry at this. Why can’t I express myself with a game like that? Even in a simple way. I don’t need to do something that’s factual or super arty. I can just do a game like this in your face. I think ultimately, people don’t want to dive into this too much because it creates fear. You fear for your own interests. The ex-president of Russia threatens to nuke multiple European cities on a regular basis. We try to ignore that, and I get it. You’d rather sit here in the sun. I wish it were like that for everyone. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to have the feeling like I need to do this. But this is happening, so this is the reaction, at least from my side.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that we’re talking about this here, too, because 30 years ago this was a war zone as well.
Lesser: You can witness it still. There’s a massive hotel complex over there that’s basically destroyed from the war, because they can’t decide who owns it.
GamesBeat: That gets to the question of, why are we comfortable or not comfortable here? Call of Duty in some ways is a big abstraction away from the reality of war. It’s realistic in how it looks, the graphics, but it’s never about something real. It’s not about history or events in reality. It’s an escape.
Lesser: Is it, though? You still have Americans in Iraq, Special Forces here and there, Vietnam going back in time and all this. It creates these fictional stories, but in real-life settings. Even the regions it’s about. In my opinion Call of Duty is also propaganda. I’m not saying I don’t like it. I’ve always played them. I especially like the ones that come up with some more challenging stories, the ones where you die and all this, where it’s not just about jingoism, hooray, we’re all the greatest. That’s a little bit more interesting.
GamesBeat: I come from the U.S., and even just being here, I’ve had a couple of conversations about Call of Duty. People have brought it up that it is propaganda, that people outside the United States look at it a different way than how we see ourselves. For us, Call of Duty seems like a realistic depiction of the American military, whereas other people see it as something made in partnership with the military, something we push out into the world to try to–I don’t know, to silence other points of view about it? But it’s interesting to see the difference. Why is Call of Duty okay, and why is a game about the war in Ukraine maybe tasteless, maybe not okay?
Lesser: If you think back on the first Call of Duty, you had the scene playing out in the Russian campaign, where you didn’t get a rifle. That was one of the strongest moments in gaming as far as what people say is an anti-war moment. The teams around Call of Duty – not all the time, but some of the time – something they’ve done very well is doing both. It’s like the idea of an anti-war movie. Movies always somehow glorify violence at the same time they’re trying to be against it. One of my favorite movies is Apocalypse Now. It glorifies violence to a very strange degree, and you’re fascinated by it. At the same time you see that it’s the most horrible thing on earth. “Epic” is a term that gets used all the time. Epic can also be horrifying.
It’s interesting, and I think it’s necessary to us in gaming that we try to trigger these emotions, and then have people think about it a little bit more deeply about what’s going on and how that actually affects your own life.
GamesBeat: Getting into some of the design choices that you’re making here, you are controlling a drone. You’re an agent of death. You’re not shying away from any of that. You’re blowing up people. You’re blowing up tanks. You could just have us blow up tanks. That would somewhat abstract the player away from what they’re doing.
Lesser: It’s a legitimate point. We’ve thought about some of the impact. One of the main attacks on the game–the conscripts in the Russian army are forcibly drafted to fight. Isn’t it really bad for us to kill them? First of all, as you said when you introduced me, the company is called Lesser Evil. I’m not saying that we are saints or that everything we do is awesome. I’m just saying that what we’re trying to do in a virtual world – which is also, by the way, a big difference, given that we’re not killing anybody for real – it’s the lesser evil.
Having these guys in there, I think, is important. Abstraction, again–we could make an abstract strategy game of it. Who would play that? The people who are already interested in the subject matter in the first place. We deliberately said, “Let’s make something everyone can pick up.” The gameplay is easy. The mission design is easy. I don’t want little kids, if we’re talking about youth protection, to necessarily play the game. I think they’re too young to really understand what’s happening there. But besides that I want anybody to theoretically be able to pick it up.
GamesBeat: When we think about game developers looking at a political situation and then running in the opposite direction, that has happened a whole lot in the last decade or so. Ubisoft talking about how Far Cry is not a political game.
Lesser: It’s a ridiculous notion. To be honest, I find this really despicable behavior. It’s like saying something else is fake news or something, distorting truth. They make a game about killing white supremacist religious zealots, but then say, “No, this is nothing to do with politics. We don’t want to offend anybody.” Seriously?
In this case–I’m not saying we should kill people in a physical world. But in a game I’m all up for it. I loved the music, the vibe. I felt good about it. Isn’t that also the intention of the game maker, that I feel good about playing the game? I realized from the first second that this is political, and it actually resonated with me. Why not be honest about that? I don’t get it.
GamesBeat: I think there is one point that everyone probably shies away from, and that’s making a profit from war. When some of these companies make these games, they’re trying to be careful to step away from that impression. Yes, we’re a for-profit company, but we’re not war profiteers. I don’t know if anyone has flung that in your direction. You have these non-profit causes you’re connected with, so it might not stick as well. But what do you think about that notion? We’re against these types of things because we don’t want to be perceived in a certain way.
Lesser: To a degree I think this is a very complex question, this idea of why we’re so negative about war profiteering. We have people who profit crazily, selling bread for 10 euro instead of one. That’s kind of extreme, that maximizing of profit. I think we can agree that’s a bad thing. But nowadays the military-industrial complex in Europe is making more ammunition because we live under threat. If they make a profit, that’s their business. What do we expect? Should they change their status to non-profit? We can’t have both. We can’t protect ourselves and everyone who’s building that, taking certain risks, being entrepreneurial, whatever–that they should not profit at all, that notion is very strange.
But as I said, you then find out–in the pandemic people made crazy money selling stupid masks, buying them for 30 cents and selling them for 10 bucks. Those guys, to me, are bad people. I don’t want to be connected with that at all. But if you make whatever, 10, 15, 20 percent profit margin on this, be my guest. This is what entrepreneurship is about.
GamesBeat: It does get easier to see the hypocrisy in the way we live. There was a company I wrote about, a venture fund that had a second fund started last week called Vice Ventures. They invest in anything that is a vice – cannabis, gambling, sex, you name it. Their stance on it is interesting. They’ve said, “We’re investing in things where people are not doing harm to others.” They may be doing harm to themselves, but they’re not harming others. The woman who runs it said, “Would you rather have me invest in an oil company?” She points out that hypocrisy about where we draw the line.
Lesser: Again, it proves the point about why we called this Lesser Evil. We’re not trying to be the ultimate wisdom keepers or protectors of justice for all. We’re not making decisions about anyone else’s morals. That’s a slippery slope. I come from Germany, where traditionally we feel that someone saying, “This is the ultimate truth” leads to very bad things. We have to be a little bit more honest about things, a little bit more human in a way. Vices are not going away. Not any time soon.
GamesBeat: You brought up the phrase “digital culture warrior.” Do you want to explain that a bit more, where it comes from?
Lesser: I came up with the phrasing of “digital culture warrior.” The idea is that we take a bit more ownership. One of the Ukrainian journalists I was talking about the game asked me why I’m doing this. I thought about it for a few seconds, because he wanted a very short answer, and I said, “To fight back.” For me, “warrior” is reflective of a certain attitude, to stand up and fight for what’s right or whatever in the situation makes sense. To me, in how I see the semantics of “warrior,” it’s not aggressive per se, but it’s someone who has the will, the tenacity, the conviction in the moment of threat to stand up and do something, not just run away. I’m not saying that running away, depending on your circumstances–I’m not saying that everyone who does that is a coward. But I cherish the ones who stand up and fight.
As for the cultural side of things, part of my talk last year–I’m sure that there are a lot of people here who play Civilization. In Civilization you can win with a culture war. You don’t defeat everyone with your military. You just have such a dominant culture that you take over. That’s ultimately my call. I’m not saying we all need to train with guns and invade Russia tomorrow. That would be stupid. It’s madness. But let’s find better ways to create different kinds of culture that help make this not happen again. At one point in time–hopefully this never happens, if we have conflict between China and Taiwan, but I think we are in this culture war. I’d like to win that way. Not after we’ve nuked everybody and we see who’s still alive.
GamesBeat: You have a small team. You said this is like an arcade game. You’re not going to spend lots of time making this game. But what do you think the potential of this space is? If you did have that very large team and budget, what kind of games do you think you could make in this genre?
Lesser: When it comes to potential, I don’t really know. What I know is that from a business perspective, it’s much more of a blue ocean than a red ocean. Who else is doing political impact games? There has been a wave of social impact games, and of course I’m not the only one making a game about the Ukraine war, but a lot of the others are even smaller in size. This is important, by the way. I’m not the only one. There are guys in Ukraine making games about the war. That’s even more commendable than what I do.
But coming back to the question of what kind of games I would do, I’d do multiple games, for sure. I mentioned different categories. I love strategy games. I’d love to make an interesting strategy game that’s connected to moral choices, for example. We’ve been playing RPGs that involve a lot of moral choices. Stellaris has more narrative and such. But I think you can push this even more, to a degree. It’s also connected in games like Frostpunk.
Going back 20 years ago, one of the ideas I had was making a game about child soldiers in Africa, because it’s crazy fucked up what still happens there. Lots of people basically ignore it. And to be honest, please don’t anybody hate me for this, but I think you could make a great game out of that too. At the same time, you could create this awareness. I think there are a lot of situations that have been prominent in discourse in the past–yes, we still know that there are child soldiers in Africa, but who does something about it? Who talks about it? There are so many topics we could still approach. The list is getting longer and longer.
GamesBeat: One of the games that made a big impression on me more recently was Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2019. It’s a very realistic game, and they pushed it as far as the moral choices that you had to make, the type of situations you were put into. I think they wanted to make a statement about what situations we put soldiers into. You go into a house to clear it and it’s full of civilians. You face the question of who the civilians are and who the terrorists are, and you shoot the ones you think are terrorists. Some of them are women. Some of them have babies they’re trying to protect.
Lesser: Yes, there are kids in the room, right?
GamesBeat: That made me feel very uncomfortable. When I said this in a preview story, everybody piled on me for saying that this game makes me too uncomfortable, and I wonder if this kind of game should be made. The Call of Duty fans, a fair amount of them said, “This is exactly the kind of game that we want.”
Lesser: I see Call of Duty overall in the same way. They create, again and again, very interesting moments. You ask yourself, “What the fuck did I just do? Why did I just wipe out the room? Is that really the right thing to do?” It’s depicting what I mentioned before, this mix of war and anti-war at the same time. The Call of Duty you’re talking about I thought was a bit less cool in the sense of–I don’t think they made a full decision about what the game is. You have a situation like this, but then the next scene is more comical. The tone of the game was inconsistent, to me at least.
Ultimately we’re still experimenting with stuff like this. There will be more and more. There’s a great documentary on Netflix about propaganda in World War II called Five Came Back. Some of this stuff really worked well and resonated with people. The next attempt flopped. The next one won an Oscar. There were very different actions. I think we still have to find out how to do this right. Something like Papers, Please is such a small game with one kind of motive–I’m not saying it’s easy at all. It’s a very cool game and it wasn’t easy to make. But it’s more focused.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how much we want to get into the notion of how to make these games. This is a kind of sidetrack in this sense. But the interesting thing about that 2019 Call of Duty game to me was the agency that they gave to the player. How much of that agency should the player have? As you enter into a room they have a cinematic take over from the player. You can’t shoot anyone yet. You see a woman moving away from you, and then you have to decide. Do I shoot this person or not?
In one of these scenes–different things are happening in different rooms, but in one of the rooms the woman is reaching for a bomb detonator. In another room a woman is reaching for her baby. You can’t shoot the baby.
Lesser: It would have been banned in many countries.
GamesBeat: You can try to, but the trigger won’t pull. That means the developer took that agency away from you at that moment, because they decided that was a line that they weren’t going to cross. When I saw the preview of the game, I didn’t have the game controller in my hand, so I didn’t know about that restriction. But when you find out that you can’t actually cross that line as a player, I thought better of the developers.
Lesser: One thing that’s of course happening, but on a much too small scale, is games happening in spaces like art galleries. To a degree we have to understand that some of this–a game where you can kill that baby, you can’t sell this to a mass market. That’s horrible. You can’t do that. You can’t have 12-year-olds playing that. But if you have something like this in an art exhibition where you have context and so on, it’s a different thing. Ultimately I think provoking the player–you might have killed the baby there out of reflex.
I’m thinking of Heavy Rain here, where there’s a conversation, and it was making me so nervous that I shot the guy in the head. I thought, “Fuck, I didn’t want to do this,” because it was this standoff. But I killed him. That’s interesting. I still remember that. I didn’t want to do it. In the situation I think they did a tremendous job of putting me under so much pressure that it wasn’t a conscious thought. It just happened.
GamesBeat: The Walking Dead games were very good at this. You have a choice. They put you in an impossible situation. You have to choose the lesser evil. What are you going to do? And then they give you a scorecard later on. You did what 70 percent of the other players did as well. Or in this scene you were among the one percent who made a given choice.
Lesser: If you’re in that one percent ten times maybe check in with your therapist.
Question: I’m sure you’ve spoken to Ukrainians, and I’m curious about how they react. I don’t have any expectations of what that would be, but I have friends who are in Ukraine. I used to enjoy military shooters and things like that, but once the war started, I had this visceral reaction to them. I’m playing and entertaining myself with weapons that kill people. The abstraction all of a sudden went away, and it really took the fun out of things that I used to enjoy. I’m curious what the reaction was from people that you’ve met when you talk to them about this game, and how they experience it.
Lesser: First of all, we have Ukrainians working on the game. The game designer is from Ukraine. The team is about 20% Ukrainian. I would have never done the game without talking to Ukrainians first. Me, the guy from Germany, doing this without talking to anybody beforehand, that would be horrible. But that’s what we did, and the reaction was positive. Over the course of development, before we announced it, we talked to the people from Army of Drones and Come Back Alive. We got a very famous Ukrainian band doing the theme song. I’ve given a lot of interviews now to Ukrainian journalists. To be honest, it feels like 99 percent of them love it, in a sense that– “You’re doing something. You’re creating awareness. It’s great that you do this even though you’re not from Ukraine, but you’re standing up for this, that you have the guts to do this.”
Even on the emotional side, just having the heart to do this. It speaks and resonates very much out of my gut too. That’s really what seems to resonate. We’ve also seen this on social media. I’m part of NAFO, the crazy community group helping defeat what we call the vatniks, the pro-Russian guys. There have been a lot of people there who support us, and some of them are from Ukraine.
Question: Full disclosure, I’m affiliated with Henrik. I’m at one of the studios working with him, but not affiliated with the game at all. But I had a couple of discussions here with a lot of people, and a question came out of that. A lot of people found that this was kind of an extreme first take from a publisher, going all out with a war game and a propaganda game. One of them had the question: was it intentional for us to go to a certain extreme to make room for people to follow up with things that are less extreme? Somehow getting into that space of, “Well, at least you’re not as bad as that game.”
Lesser: A totally fair question. Everybody who knows me, they know I have opinions. In this case I’ve been dealing with this topic for decades. I’ve studied politics. I’ve studied philosophy. I’ve been reading about history since I was a kid. This is not something I just came up with where I wanted to do political impact games because the invasion started.
Basically, with this extreme take, it was a bit of a coincidence. The guys made a prototype. I saw it. One of the main memes from the war is drones dropping grenades. It’s one of the main images. It was a good opportunity. It sounds horrible, but it was a good opportunity to do something which was already in me as a feeling. I always wanted to do political impact games. Then I had a situation, a studio with a passion for the gameplay, and the gameplay is actually good. Let’s combine this. We talked to some of the Ukrainians who are our colleagues and–this is how it happened.
It wasn’t just me sitting somewhere and strategizing. There were so many different things that created this opportunity. It resonated to me, so let’s go. We’ll see what we’re going to do next. Similarly, in the talk I gave about different categories, I named the hard propaganda one as the most extreme. To a degree, I think it’s the best way to start out, because everybody will talk about it. If I would have made a super gray whatever and it was released three years from now–it just made so much sense to do it this way.
I can’t 100% answer this, but it always felt, while we were doing it–yes, it makes sense. Let’s continue. In all of the discussions we have here now I can still defend it easily. At least from my point of view.
GamesBeat: Were there design decisions where you drew your line and decided you weren’t going to cross that?
Lesser: Totally. The team primarily called it. Some of the first text, on the core idea of what you were going to do, it was the same, but on the semantics it wasn’t. Some of the first lingo was things like, “Here you kill the Russians.” And no, it’s about Russian soldiers specifically. You have to be very specific and detailed, because otherwise you’re very easily racist, things like that. We don’t have crazy physics with the soldiers because I don’t want to have limbs flying around or things like that. That’s not what I want. I don’t want crazy gore. I want to make a political point.
Sure, this is about all kinds of details. To give you another example, we were talking to the band about their lyrics. In their first draft of the song there was the line, “Russian boy go home.” And I said, “You need to change ‘boy.’ We’re not talking about killing kids.” Details like this, you have to be very hawkish. That’s why I’m the game director. I have that background. I’ve been through the news and history and all that to have a firm idea of what kind of moral minefield we have to go through.
GamesBeat: How does history guide you here? When you think about all the things that have happened, what can you draw upon for lessons as you think about this and execute this?
Lesser: First of all, it helped me to have a position. From what I learned about history–I grew up with a colonial background. I’m a quarter Indonesian. My grandfather didn’t marry my grandmother because of racism. He couldn’t marry an Asian woman. I don’t look like it, as you can see. Then I grew up in Germany. Diving into the history of things like this helped me to have a strong opinion. Sure, there are some things you can debate, who did what to whom and when, but ultimately to me it’s crystal clear that Russia is the invader. This war is wrong. There’s no justification. To be able to do this, it’s not just emotional. It took me decades to formulate a very, in my opinion, educated and emotional opinion.
GamesBeat: To me it’s interesting that when we go up some levels and think about art and history, or art and reality–we have a lot of examples of this in the past. If you look at the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s, you had very popular songs, like Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Those songs changed attitudes about the war. Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On.” These are iconic songs that are always attached to movies about the war, because this art was meeting reality and trying to change what was happening.
Lesser: The Vietnam war is a great example. Most people, including Americans, knew that this was not a justified war, that this was wrong. In this case, this is why I’m making pro-Ukrainian propaganda. I don’t think Ukraine defending themselves is unjust or anything like that. First of all, what else should they do? Second, those of us who think of ourselves as a liberal democratic society, we should support and help them as much as possible. I believe they are protecting me too. That has a certain logic, which I then followed. This is why I create culture. I’m not comparing myself to Bob Dylan, but it’s the same trigger. It’s a protest culture in a sense. Let’s fight back.
GamesBeat: The other example I was thinking of came from the McCarthy era in the United States, the 1950s, when you had different Hollywood figures coming under scrutiny as to whether they were anti-Communist enough in their leanings, or if they were even pro-Communist. The HUAC witch hunts divided Hollywood. We saw some movies that were thinly veiled criticisms of this era, like On the Waterfront, which had a hero who was a snitch. High Noon had a hero who was abandoned by his friends when push came to shove.
Lesser: To be honest, I think one of the darkest times in the United States, the McCarthy era, was close to the fascist takeover. At least from my point of view. This kind of snitching like you mentioned, it’s a very despicable kind of human behavior in that form. It gets political. Who gets this budget for their next movie? Well, let’s rat him out. He said something weird when we were smoking weed together. It’s very horrible, and I’m very glad that at a point in time American society pushed back and said, “You’ve taken this too far. This has to stop.” They did overcome that. But it took culture a long time to discuss this and reflect on this and say that it was very wrong.
GamesBeat: As far as finding anybody who might want to fund this game, or more games like it, what are you finding out? Is there anyone who wants to take a financial interest in it?
Lesser: Let’s say–after we announced it some publishers did reach out and ask us if they could work with us on the game. To be honest, it felt a bit generic, so I’m not sure if it was entirely sincere, if they had really looked at the content. A lot of friends I have at publishers have said, “Kudos for what you’re doing, but we could never do this. This wouldn’t fly with management or shareholders at all.” It’s too difficult and too controversial.
We’ll see. I don’t expect crazy things from our first game, to be honest, but this is the start of a journey for us. I very much wish for myself and my organization to be able to do something like this, even if it’s not commercially successful. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t necessarily set out to profit from the company, ever. I have a bit of a cash reserve, so why not do some shit like this where I can express myself as a human being? I’m very happy that I can do that.
We’ll see how long we can do this. At some point in time if we make another game that’s selling really well and we have more money in the system, everyone jumps on board and this becomes a hipster thing–I don’t know. I don’t expect it to become a hipster thing any time soon. To a certain degree I wish for that. But also with my talk and everything, I don’t expect anybody to do the same things I am.
GamesBeat: You’ve had people express their support for you, even if they step backward from the line you’re standing on.
Lesser: Yeah, yeah. That’s definitely happening right now, to a degree. But I see it like this. Every little ally I get, every person who was skeptical, and who I can help think about this in a different way, that’s a win for me. This is going to be a long journey. I did a lot of politics before. We lobbied for subsidies for more than 10 years. I have patience. I’m a long-term guy.
GamesBeat: What keeps you going? Why did you want to put yourself in this position?
Lesser: Like Will Ferrell said, it’s provocative. It keeps me going. This is why I’m happy to be a human and alive. I can do stuff. I can just decide to do something like this. I live in a free society. Seeing the feedback loop, it’s very exciting to me. To me, doing things differently, coming up with new ideas, that’s what gets me up in the morning, besides just working with so many people. I work with 500 developers in our family. That’s great. I see so many people. We help and coach and mentor. We always say, first we empower them, then we emancipate, and then if they still decide to work with us, wow. We help build real, true partners.
That’s all exciting to me. Being part of this industry and shaping it, what an honor, what a privilege, what a coincidence.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you can do this as an indie. This is the part of the industry where you can operate without limits.
Lesser: When I started to do political stuff in games–I was a product manager very early in my career. I worked on Stronghold Crusader. It’s like a lot of games where you build strongholds, build castles, but in this one you also invade the Holy Land. You either play as Richard or Saladin. The subtitle of the game, at least in the U.K., was in English. “Fight For What You Believe In.” My brother-in-law is from Egypt, so I said, “Hey, I want to put that there in Arabic too.” We had, on the box, in English and in Arabic, “Fight For What You Believe In.” And that’s already a bit of a political act.
For Vietcong I wrote a comic book for the marketing side of it. In the story everybody dies, because it’s not like a video game where you’re some superhero guy, and you get all the reloads you need, so this is how you survive. In the comic, everybody besides the characters from the game, they die. That’s also political. I always wanted to do something, a little bit here, a little bit there.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else I haven’t asked about that you want to get across?
Lesser: It’s like I said before. I wish that more people had more political intent in their games. If you want to know how that feels, please talk to me. If you want to publish some of them or work with us, reach out. I’m very happy already that–I even had people calling me a fascist after my last talk here, and now, after we released our statement on what we do, they’re saying, “Hm, maybe we should make a game together. That’s interesting.” It’s more exciting and more intellectually challenging.
Ultimately, though, do what you feel is in yourself. Why are you making games? If you just want to entertain, that’s totally legit as well. I don’t want to be condescending here at all. But I would wish for more people to think about that, to see this idea that games can also be culture. Ideas can change the world, like you said about music.
GamesBeat: Have you gotten any feedback from Russian people as well?
Lesser: I actually have a lot of friends from Russia. We started working with Russian publishers out of Moscow many years ago. The first time it was in Kyiv, but then Russian publishers hired me to produce a game for two years 20 years ago, so I have a lot of relationships there. A lot of those guys who I still know these days–some of them even really like what I do. A lot of them feel more along the lines of, “I understand what you do.” The ones I’m not necessarily friends with, some of them are like, “Who the fuck are you?” They’ve tried to delegitimize me. That’s one of the main attacks. “Why do you care? How do you know what’s going on here?” They try to be condescending.
That’s easy for me to defeat, because as I said, I’ve been reading about this for decades. To a degree, I keep myself in the illusion that I’m right, which is of course my illusion. But I even had a guy who was first on Telegram, being very negative, and then he had the guts to come to my LinkedIn site and try to attack me there. We had a little conversation, and he stopped attacking me. I’m not sure if I really got him to see me differently, but at least he saw that his first two, three, four attacks didn’t really work.
My summary is that a lot of guys saw–this is happening right now, but this is not just coming out of the blue because I don’t like Russia or whatever. It’s because of the fucking war. It’s nothing to do with them being Russian. It’s a country invading their neighbor. Ultimately I think this is also the truth, which is that if you were honest with yourself, you would see that there are reasons people are upset about this, and they’ll do something about it.
So this is how I see it. We’ll see what happens when the game comes out. Of course we expect potentially being review bombed and shit like that. We’ve seen our IT attacks go up like this. We’ve seen troll farms attacking us, where the same narratives come from totally unrelated Twitter accounts. Don’t get me wrong, but this is something I expect. This is part of the game. I expected this to happen. To be honest, I’d do the same if I were on the other side. I get what’s happening, to a degree. The only thing I hope for is that nobody kills me in the street.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that three decades ago, this place was at war. A couple of days ago I went on the Game of Thrones tour in the old town. One of the things the guide pointed out was the maps of the city, showing all the dots, the red spots, where shells landed in the old city during the war. The city wants you to know that. The guide wants you to know that. They don’t want it forgotten. Their neighbors were dropping bombs here.
Lesser: The great thing is, nowadays–there were a lot of people actually shooting there, or coming from their country, who can now be here at the conference. We can overcome this again. But we shouldn’t forget. Again, I’m from Germany. We shouldn’t forget. It’s one of the mantras I grew up with, and I totally stand behind it. We shouldn’t forget.
Question: What is your production schedule like? When do you think you can get your game out?
Lesser: The plan is to be–we’re just finalizing the release date for early access. It’s not going to be fully done. But it’s probably going to be in five or six weeks, quite soon. We’re following this whole idea that we want to produce something while this is still happening. That’s the plan for the moment. I hope a lot of you check it out, wishlist it, share it, and help us defeat the guys who want to review bomb us. We want to get the word out, reach as many people as possible, and give money to Ukrainian organizations. That’s the goal.
Question: Are there any decisions you had to make about game design that were different or more difficult because you were making a game like this?
Lesser: Ultimately, no. Also, if you do another action game or shooter or whatever–I’ll give you an example. I worked on Grand Theft Auto, two of them. GTA had what they called “kill frenzies.” One of them was “kill all the Haitians.” That’s fucking racist, right? You could say, “kill the mobsters,” but it was depicting it around a country. In all games, you should be conscious, especially if you’re doing potentially controversial, violent, political stuff, about the details of it. So I don’t think it’s really that different.
We did discuss things like, do we put Vladimir Putin in the game? Do we put well-known figures in there? Do we just kill soldiers? It’s been unusual. These kinds of choices. But ultimately we still want to produce a fun game. It still needs to feel good. The controls need to be good. There needs to be a good feedback loop. That’s all the same.
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