“I don’t understand why games can’t reflect war,” — Hendrik Lesser, publisher of the Ukrainian drone operator game Death from Above
Death from Above is a game about a Ukrainian drone operator fighting against russian occupiers. It is set to be released on Steam in the second quarter of 2023 and is being developed by the Finnish studio, Rockodile Games. Additionally, the game developers plan to donate 30% of the net profits from the sales to two Ukrainian charities — Come Back Alive and Drone Army.
Це англійська версія нашого інтерв’ю з засновником видавництва Lesser Evil Гендріком Лессером. Видавництво займається просуванням гри про українського оператора дронів Death from Above. Україньску версію інтерв’ю можна почитати за цим посиланням.
Unlike other projects about the war in Ukraine, Death from Above is being developed in Finland and will be published by the recently established German publisher, Lesser Evil. We spoke with the founder of the publishing house, Hendrik Lesser, about his path in game development, negotiations with the Ukrainian band “Antytila,” the choice of Ukrainian partners. As well as where the idea for the game Death from Above came from and why it’s impossible to avoid political undertones in modern games.
Hendrik Lesser, publisher
About the political consciousness and localization of Max Payne in Germany
— Hi, Hendrik! I would like to know more about you. I read that when you were just 8 years old, you asked to be taken to the Dachau concentration camp, and at 12, you declared that you wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Later, you studied political science, history, and philosophy. This background seems more fitting for a professional politician or human rights activist. Yet, you now work in game development and publishing. Can you tell me about your journey into game development? When did you decide to make games?
So, why did I end up making games if I studied philosophy, history, and have this politically conscious mind? You know, I feel that culture, and especially culture like games, are a medium through which we express ourselves. Since games, in my opinion, are the cultural technique of the century, me being interested in political processes and society and still going into games is kind of obvious. I believe that games have the power to change the world, and I want to basically change the world while making games with my team.
You might wonder why I didn’t only make politically conscious games. First of all, I need people who are able to do that, and I need the money to do it. I also need to develop my own skills. So for me, becoming a professional game maker is kind of the obvious path. But I always told friends and colleagues that I’m doing this to ultimately make political and social impact games. This is what I wanted to do.
— And how long have you been making games?
My first attempt at making a game came rather late. As a teenager, I thought I could become a game designer simply by reading about games and playing them. I thought, “Yeah, I will become a game designer.” Then, when I was around 13, we started trying to make a game, but it completely failed. Making games was way more complicated back then, nothing like Unity and all that. So we failed, and I kind of realized that I’m probably better at other things, and it makes more sense if I become what’s called a “producer.” I’m more like the creative guy who plays all the games, watches all the movies, or reads all the books so that I can make a game better while helping the game designers and directors. I am able to jump into different perspectives, from me being a player to me looking at it from the market perspective, etc.
I started doing this for real when I got my first full-time job at Take-Two as an intern. A couple of weeks after I started, they told me, “We have to ship GTA 3 to the UK and adapt the game to the German age rating.” So I was an intern and changed GTA 3 and Max Payne to be able to be shipped in Germany. And that was basically a creative producer’s job, understanding the content and why the age rating board was complaining.
— And when did you start working with Rockodile Games?
I think seven or eight years ago. We as a Remote Control Productions help other studios focus on development — we help them in everything with business, where the money comes from, the legal and so on. Rockodile Games is not only a partner on this game, but they’re part of what we call the Remote Control Productions family. We own a minority share of the studio, like we do with all the other Studios we work with besides this one.
— As far as I understand, at this time are you mainly focused on Lesser Evil and working on Death from Above game? Maybe got another project we need to know about?
I came up with the name of Lesser Evil many years ago. I found Remote Control Productions in 2005. So it’s a long time ago. I always thought about naming, something with Lesser in English. And it took me a couple of years to come up with a name. So I name my personal private holding company Lesser Evil. I think it was like eight years ago or something and I always had it in my mind. We have to do something with it. And now, of course, it’s the perfect time to do it.
About projects, well... We haven’t started a second project yet because we do Death from Above and Lesser Evil is not even a year old. We started basically last September or October. We finally decided what we’re going and then I was still pondering with Lesser Evil and all this. But we already have a couple of ideas and we already speak to some developers.
“By the way, if you know any cool Ukrainian developers who want to do political games — I’m all ears!
About “Antytila”, putin and “Come Back Alive”
— Let’s talk about Death from Above. As far as I understand, it was initially a project unrelated to war — simply a drone game prototype. Later, it was transformed to raise awareness for Ukraine. Do you remember the moment when you realized that it should not just be a game about drones, but a game about the war in Ukraine?
Basically, it happened at the moment I played the prototype! I’m a member of NATO and have been following Ukrainian topics since 2014, such as the invasion of Crimea, the invasion of Donbass, and so on. I have a couple of friends in Ukraine who also feed me information, and Putin has been on my mind for decades.
So when I played the game and remembered the footage of dropping drones on Reddit, Twitter, and Telegram, it was not really a thought process. It was like I just knew this is what we have to do. And to make a game supporting Ukraine was like icing on the cake, right? This is not only something I’ve always wanted to do in regard to political impact games, but this topic, the awareness for Ukraine, is so important and I could mix all of this.
— How many have you watched?
I think I’ve seen them all, probably hundreds of videos. But I’m not just looking for drone footage — we don’t want to create a super-realistic game that depicts killing people with limbs flying away. That’s not what’s important to us. However, I do watch the footage to gain an understanding of reality and what people experience when operating a drone.
For example, two weeks ago, a drone fed a dog with sausages, which was interesting and could be incorporated into a mini-mission. We’re still undecided on whether or not to include it in the game. It’s not about doing the same thing over and over again; that’s boring.
Of course, we can’t implement everything when we launch into Early Access. We hope everyone understands that the core of the game will be there, and we will continue to build on it based on feedback and sales. Our ideal vision is to have a variety of core gameplay options with drones, such as delivering ammunition or completing tasks like feeding dogs. However, the game is still a war game, where the objective is to destroy the enemy army. We will continue to explore new possibilities and see what else we can do to create an exciting and engaging experience for our players.
— What impressed you most about these videos?
You know, it’s both good and bad how closely the reality of drone footage resembles a game. When you watch the drone fly and drop its camera, it feels exactly like a game. That’s one reason why this project is so interesting — it blurs the lines between real-life warfare and gaming. The original drone operator footage is also impressive, as the tablets and switches they use look like they are straight out of a video game.
“While we’ve seen footage like this before, what’s unique is the sheer amount of it and how quickly we can access it, especially in the early months of the war. Nowadays, things are more controlled, with censorship from both Ukrainians and Russians, but in the beginning, everything was just out there”.
It’s amazing how it all feels now compared to 10 or 15 years ago when they were just discussing the future of drone warfare. Back then, it all seemed like something out of a science fiction movie, with operators sitting in distant containers controlling drones from afar. But now with the Reaper drone, it’s like playing a real-life version of “Call of Duty: Death from Above,” blurring the lines between reality and abstraction. And with most drone warfare, it’s up close and personal, where you can even see people’s faces in some cases. It’s both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
— I would like to talk about how Ukrainian developers and musicians appear in this story. For example, Nazar Davydenko. Did you see the work of Nazar with a tractor and decide that his art should be in the game? Was it difficult to get in touch with him? Did he agree quickly?
One of my colleagues, not me personally, got in touch with him, and from what I know, it was a smooth process. He was very cooperative. I don’t remember it being a long process. We had seen some footage before, and I had discussed it with my colleague, who is from Kazakhstan, a neighbor of Russia. She joined us only two years ago, and we agreed to reach out to different artists who had worked on projects related to the war, rather than randomly selecting someone. Ideally, we wanted someone from Ukraine.
Art by Nazar Davydenko
— What about the Antytila band? How did you hear about them? Why did you decide to involve them in creating music for the game?
Regarding the musician, we reached out to a few. And about the Antytila band... That was pretty cool. It took some time, but when we started talking directly with the frontman, it was very fast. Initially, Antytila wanted to understand our motives, whether we were driven by commercial interests or if we genuinely wanted to create awareness and make a difference. After a few exchanges with the frontman, we quickly decided to work together.
— How did you choose Ukrainian partners in general? I mean Army of Drones, Come Back Alive, and Gis Arta?
When it comes to selecting partners in Ukraine, there are many good organizations, both commercial and government-funded, with strong structures. It’s often a matter of coincidence how we end up choosing them. For example, we stumbled upon Гіс Арта by chance after someone recommended them to us. We liked what they were doing and they liked our project, so we decided to work together. I knew they were legit because of the range of work they had done, but not all charities are as reliable, and some divert funds inappropriately.
With Come Back Alive, we were confident in their legitimacy and wanted to work with an organization focused on individuals and helping people, rather than just relying on drones. With Army of Drones, we reached out to them early on and had a thoughtful discussion about how we could collaborate. After talking to Гіс Арта and some others, we all agreed that these were the right partners. While we’re open to additional partners, we also want to raise awareness for our existing ones. This is mutually beneficial, as our partners gain visibility outside of Ukraine or certain communities, and we receive more input and support. Some of these organizations are commercial entities already thinking about how they can position themselves after Ukraine has hopefully won, making it interesting for them to gain more widespread awareness.
— Correct me if I’m wrong, but apparently, the money you donate from the game won’t go towards weapons. Am I right?
Yes, the donations are going in another direction. Regarding the Army of Drones, you can either give them money to buy whatever they need, or you can be more specific. Because Kickstarter and similar platforms have rules about donating to charities, including donations to the military, we decided to donate money to purchase drones. These drones are not intended for offensive use but rather for scouting purposes.
— You mentioned earlier that the quality level of the game will be more dependent on how the Kickstarter campaign goes.
Currently, the campaign is already above 100%, but the quality of the game is not solely dependent on the Kickstarter. The game’s quality will be determined by our dedication and effort. We initially planned to enter Early Access soon, but after receiving feedback, we decided to delay the release by a month.
Regarding Steam, if only 100 people download the game, we won’t be able to develop it much further. We hope that many people will be interested in the game, and we can continue developing it for an extended period. The game’s success will ultimately depend on the level of interest from players.
I believe there is still much we can do with the concept of the game. For example, imagine playing together, with one player controlling the drone, and another player controlling the character on the ground. It’s a fascinating concept that could be very engaging. However, this concept would only work if many people were interested in the game.
— The concept of one player controlling the drone and the other controlling the character is very intriguing. Are you working on this?
The first prototype already supports co-op play for the drone’s core gameplay, but it doesn’t make sense for both players to control drones and drop grenades. Therefore, co-op play is not yet available. If we do implement co-op play, it will likely be asynchronous.
About political motives in Tetris and The Last of Us
— Let’s discuss the ethics and ideology of military games directly. I agree with the position that video games can be a tool for political and social activism. However, don’t you think this could alienate some players who are far from this war or may not fully understand that it directly threatens them?
It’s not an issue to me if they are alienated. Anyone who believes that the toxicity of gamergate was acceptable is unequivocally wrong. As with any ethical issue, it’s not entirely black and white when it comes to games and what they should represent. If one doesn’t want to deal with politics in games at all, then that’s simply not realistic. For instance, even in a game like Far Cry 5, the objective is to kill extremist religious Hillbillies, which is inherently political. It’s naive to think that politics can be eliminated entirely from games. Civilization, for example, may be deemed a political game as it illustrates the concept of progress in history.
“Even in games that may not seem overtly political, such as Tetris, one can argue that the mechanics themselves contain political undertones, such as the need for order and structure”.
Art exists to provoke and challenge people, even if that means alienating or offending some individuals. Art can serve as an outlet for people to express their emotions, including fear, anger, and hate. The fact that games can provide such a platform for people to express themselves in the midst of geopolitical turmoil is a positive thing. If a game can resonate with a certain group of people, such as Ukrainians affected by war, then it has served its purpose.
Of course, there will be those who are offended by such games, but that is the nature of art. It can trigger people to think and reflect, and ultimately change their perspectives. The announcement of such games may initially be met with skepticism, but as people begin to understand the motives behind them, they may become supporters.
Expressing oneself artistically and culturally is paramount, and if such games can also raise money or serve as a propaganda tool, then that is acceptable. Ultimately, games can be used as a means for individuals to express themselves, even if it means offending or alienating some people.
— I saw that one of your goals is to provoke a reaction in other Europeans. But with this approach, you could fall into a trap with Ukrainian players. For example, the case of “Glory to the Heroes”. What would you say to Ukrainian players who plan to play your game? How should they feel about your game?
As the developer of the game, I do not intend to offend or hurt anyone. My goal is to raise awareness and provide a platform for people to express their emotions and thoughts on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Regarding playing as Russians in the game, I believe it should be up to the individual player’s discretion. I understand that this could be a sensitive issue for some players, and I respect their decision not to play as Russians. I want Ukrainian players to know that the game is not meant to diminish the significance of the conflict or the suffering of the people involved.
Moreover, I believe that games, like other forms of art, should be allowed to comment on ongoing wars. I don’t understand why there’s a double standard. Games are just another medium of expression, and they can provide a unique way of telling stories and conveying messages. Interactivity is a fundamental aspect of our art form, and it allows players to experience and engage with the content in a more immersive way. However, I do recognize that games have the potential to be more polarizing than other art forms, and as developers, we have a responsibility to approach sensitive topics with respect and empathy.
As for the example of Glory to the Heroes with the multiplayer, that part eludes me. People ask me why we can’t also play as Russian drone operators. My answer is that I don’t want to glorify the Russians at all. I don’t want them to win, get points, or anything. I want them to lose this war. Ideally, they just need to leave the country. Then it’s over. But I’m not going to make a game in which you can get points by killing Ukrainian soldiers. What the hell?!
If someone were to make a game where you can also play as the Russians in 10 or 30 years, that would be different. For example, in World War II games, you can play as both Germans and Americans. However, since the war is ongoing, I want to make a statement here. I’m not using this for propaganda purposes, and it’s not just about creating a commercially viable project for the future. In 50 years, there will be even more sophisticated books and analyses about what really happened. This will delve more into the emotional side of things. However, at the moment, making a game where you can play as the Russians would feel like a slap in the face. That is not something I want to do. Therefore, for a concept like this, we need a little bit more time and self-reflection.
And by the way, don’t get me wrong, if the Russians were to do the same game for themselves — it is normal. I would still ask my government not to allow it in Germany, but if the Russians were to make a game like that, it would be their right to do so. I may not agree with their propaganda, but I acknowledge and respect their freedom of expression. Some people genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing, even if I find their beliefs delusional. I may suggest that they seek therapy, but ultimately, I have to recognize that different people have different perspectives.
— Your quote: “I don’t want to do the same as the Russians do, 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.” What’s the point?
In two words — fight back. That’s the point.
— If we talk in general, I read in your interviews that some studios hide political motives behind financial ones and indies can be more political. Do you think it is possible today to have a big AAA game with a strong political motive? One that will address uncomfortable and controversial topics for most people? Can this kind of game be successful?
I don’t think we are anywhere close to a major publisher releasing a AAA game with political intent from the beginning. However, we can already see political undertones in games such as “This War of Mine” and “The Last of Us.” These games contain subtopics and messages that can be seen as political, such as the anti-violence message in “The Last of Us.” Meeting characters in the game that were previously killed can also be seen as political commentary.
Therefore, it can be argued that games such as “Disco Elysium” and “Papers, Please” are already deeply political, despite not being AAA games. While I am optimistic that there will be more politically charged games in the future, I do not believe they will be at the forefront of AAA releases anytime soon. For those interested in the topic, I recommend watching “Five Came Back” on Netflix.
For larger companies, finding a balance between their culture and values while still creating politically charged content can be challenging. It is important to ensure that such content aligns with the values of the company and does not cause a significant number of employees to leave.
As an anecdote, at one point, in a US-owned studio, it was requested that employees no longer bring guns to the office. However, this policy change resulted in a significant number of employees, estimated to be between 10 and 20%, leaving the company.
While some argue that this was a necessary safety measure, others suggest that it was a politically motivated decision. It is unclear whether there were any prior incidents of gun violence in the office that might have prompted this policy change or whether the decision was based purely on political beliefs. Regardless, it is evident that this policy change had a significant impact on the company’s culture and its employees.