Earlier this month, publisher Lesser Evil and developer Rockodile Games announced their upcoming game Death from Above. The title places the player in the role of a drone operator belonging to the armed force of Ukraine, tasked with fighting the invading Russian forces.
While video games often portray war, it’s very rare for developers to tackle an ongoing conflict, making Death From Above an initiative that you don’t often see in this industry.
To learn more about it, TechRaptor talked to Hendrik Lesser, founder of Lesser Evil, who explained that Rockodile Games created a prototype of a drone-based game last year, but it wasn’t connected with the war in Ukraine. Lesser himself brought up the idea to shift the setting to Ukraine.
The reason behind that idea is linked to who Lesser himself is. He’s the son of a Dutch-Indonesian lady who had to face discrimination all her life. His grandfather refused to marry his grandmother because his family was against the idea of marrying an Asian woman.
As a result, Lesser grew up surrounded by politics, so much so that when he was 8 years old, he asked to be brought to Dachau concentration camp, and when he was 12, he told hid parents that he wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
This kind of topic really matters to Lesser, and he grew up studying political science, history, and philosophy. “The values of who we are, really matter to me,” he explained.
While he certainly doesn’t celebrate the idea of killing Russian soldiers, he wants Ukraine to be able to defend itself and also to provoke a reaction in other Europeans and in people around the world who want to defend liberal and democratic values, the rule of law, diversity, freedom of speech, and what we often call “western values.”
He wants us to not just talk about these values, while also appeasing nations like China at the same time, but be ready to defend these values when necessary. A way to do that can be a game like Death from Above, which supports the people in Ukraine, including the defenders of the country.
Interestingly, Lesser explained that he did not really have any hesitation about the idea of tackling this kind of sensitive topic. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think about it. He does it all the time. This is not at all a thoughtless initiative, and he believes that video games can be a cultural art form. While they’re a bit different from books and movies due to their interactivity, they can be used to “indoctrinate.”
While the word “indoctrination” is often used negatively - he argues - it happens all the time through advertisement, school, parenting, and more. Most indoctrination doesn’t have negative purposes, and this initiative wants to teach that games can express political beliefs and can support a country that the creators believe has the absolute right to defend itself.
Lesser wants Ukraine to win the war because he feels that it’s defending his own values and the ideals of democracy he grew up with. This means he has a personal interest in the perspective of Ukraine’s victory.
He explains that he had a discussion with a Russian developer who accused him of not understanding the situation because he’s too far detached from the conflict. He believes that this is “utter bulls*it.” Every day on Russian national TV, pundits advocate solutions like bombing Berlin, sending the army all the way to Portugal, or nuking this or that European capital.
“How is this not my business?” He asked. “Ultimately Putin and the people around Putin are threatening my everyday life. Not just me personally, but our way of life.”
According to Lesser, “all games are culture and some are also art.” While not every game is art, some can be, and like art, they should be protected by freedom of expression and freedom of speech. While there are regional subtleties (for instance in Germany, Lesser’s home country, there are legislative limitations for the use of Nazi symbols), game developers should be as free as possible in expressing their beliefs. Lesser believes as a game developer that “selective outrage” arbitrarily discerning between themes that are OK to cover and themes that shouldn’t be addressed is unacceptable.
Lesser has no issue calling Death from Above a “propaganda game.” In political science, propaganda is often called “strategic content.” He openly supports Ukraine. He wants them to win, and he is not afraid to make it black and white, portraying the Russian army as the enemy.
While the majority of the development team is from Finland (which certainly has a history of fighting against Russian imperialism, even successfully, to a certain extent), the game designer is from Ukraine. Like Lesser, they did not hesitate at all about embracing Death from Above’s theme.
The developer has been negotiating with Ukrainian artists and musicians to add to the team. and contracts are being signed [Editor’s note: after the recording of the interview, Lesser Evil revealed a partnership with Ukrainian artist Nazar Davydenko, who will be creating the illustrations for the intros and outros of the game, along with a collaboration with Ukrainian band Antytila, which will compose the main theme]. On top of that, the developers work with Ukrainian charities Army of Drones and Come Back Alive (which will receive 30% of net proceeds from Steam sales, a number that will grow to 70% after the game breaks even). Ukrainian drone software developer Gis Arta and NGO Aerorozvidka are also providing consultation and expertise.
Asked whether the Kickstarter campaign has been going according to his expectations, Lesser answered “yes and no," as he has to fight for press coverage. The developer has sent press releases about the game and its campaign to 1,300 outlets. Only very few covered the game with original articles, and that’s a “crazy under-average” result despite the fact that the rate at which the email has been opened is way above the average. Lesser feels that, to a degree, gaming writers don’t know what to do with his project and are intimidated by the possibility of a “shi*storm,” so they’d rather just not mention it at all. Due to that, it’s very tough for people to even learn that the project exists.
Lesser also explained that Lesser Evil was not allowed to book any ads on Twitter, as the platform considered the game “too political.”
On the other hand, Lesser had old acquaintances he hadn’t talked to for several years back the project and reach out to affirm that they fully support the message, and they’re really glad that someone is doing this. He has also received appreciation from members of academia: While some would perhaps like the game to be a bit more intellectual and sophisticated, they fully understand the reasons behind the project. Even members of the international legion fighting in Ukraine reached out to offer support, and that feedback has been very reassuring for Lesser, confirming that this is a positive initiative.
Interestingly, Death from Above also includes some elements of comedy, which may surprise some considering the seriousness of the topic. Lesser explained that this kind of comedy is all over the internet, with the trend launched by the NAFO fellas, Ukrainian soldiers dancing on TikTok, and memes about Russian soldiers stealing washing machines and even a raccoon from a zoo. The inclusion of these elements is commentary on what is actually happening.
Nothing of that has been invented by Lesser or his developers, and it isn’t just isolated cases. It actually happens in the real world, and the game simply portrays that and comments on it.
Ultimately, Death From Above isn’t very complex because the developers can’t spend several years creating a large project like Disco Elysium (Which incidentally, Lesser adores) and release it when (hopefully) the war will be already over. They want to do something now so they created a game that is short and sweet and can have an impact as “propaganda” for the cause they believe in, when it’s most needed.
Death from Above is currently available to back on Kickstarter and wishlist on Steam. It’ll be released for PC with an estimated launch window of June 2023.
Below you can check out a talk titled “Democracy Is Non-Negotiable” that Hendrik Lesser himself hosted at the latest edition of Reboot Develop a few months ago, providing more insight into his philosophy.
Full Disclosure: the author of this article backed the game on Kickstarter as soon as it was available.