Suzerain: Personal Politics, the Global Community, and Empathy in Games
An interview with Ata Sergey Nowak, lead developer for Torpor Games’s SuzerainGames Features suzerain
This interview contains mild spoilers for Suzerain, and has been edited for clarity and length.
In the award-winning political RPG Suzerain, the buck stops with you. You play as Anton Rayne, newly elected president of the fictional country of Sordland, a developing nation with a tumultuous recent past, awakening among giants in fractious East Merkopa. Torpor Games, a Berlin-based studio intent on designing thought provoking videogames, developed Suzerain over the last four years with an eye toward teaching people about the personal stakes of politics. Released in December 2020, Suzerain has been met with positive reception from players and critics alike. Simultaneously, Suzerain has developed a thriving and committed community and has been shortlisted for awards at the Unfold Games Awards, the German Game Awards, and Games for Change, where it recently won the People’s Choice award. Torpor lead Ata Sergey Nowak sat down to talk about the unique challenges of designing and living with a political RPG/visual novel that forces players to commit to their actions, and which is intended to teach empathy.
Paste: Suzerain was a finalist for Best Narrative at Unfold Games Awards. Suzerain was a finalist for Most Innovative at Games for Change. Winner of Best Expert Game at German Game Awards. What has it been like seeing people that think deeply about the industry appraising and accolading you, the Torpor Games team, and Suzerain? [Note: since the time of this interview, Suzerain has won People’s Choice at the Games for Change awards.]
Ata Sergey Nowak: It’s our first game as a studio and we never expected anything really. Our expectations were very low. We didn’t expect to get all this praise. When I did this acceptance for the German Game Awards, it was a surprise on TV and I could not believe it. The juries of these organizations, I can comment on the German one, the top jury is made of 70 to 80 people—top universities, top media professors, top people in marketing, business, studios, very experienced people that chose us. Apparently, out of all the games, ours was one of the most discussed. Our attitude is that we want to make games that provoke thoughts, that address societal topics, put people in different shoes where they can, and change perspectives. To have that affirmed by these juries, these organizations, these award shows encourages us to keep on going; we’re being confirmed that what we’re doing is unique and we should do more of it.
Paste: Suzerain is a unique game that somewhat defies genre, while remaining very contained and concise. How would you feel if this new genre synthesis—RPG, interactive story, political sim—inspired clones?
ASN: It’s the greatest praise one can achieve, when someone imitates their art. It shows you’ve created something that’s so unique that other people are tapping onto and advancing from where you left off. The genre mix and genre combination is something that’s very unique because it’s where new ideas and new concepts are pushed to the limit. That’s where Suzerain came together.
The way we designed it was not fully intentional. It came also from the circumstances of our skill sets, what we wanted to deliver, and find the most optimized way of doing so, which was looking at what are the pieces we can work with? What can we do? Do all these pieces work together? It was organic evolution rather than intentional. These are our skillsets, when we all work together, we can do it in this way. It worked and that’s how it came about.
The aspect of strategy view really works when you’re really managing a country. If you’re just a citizen inside the city, it wouldn’t work as well to have this map. It works because you’re sitting down at the table and looking at the country.
Paste: One thing I’ve heard you say is that you both wanted players to engage with the personal aspect nature of politics and the 50,000-foot view that a President has. What are the ways you felt you all succeeded and failed in dealing with that tension?
ASN: This is something we discussed a lot. Through news reports, the overview, and all the UI menus we created, we did make you feel like you’re overseeing this country and getting updates on things that are constantly changing. The reports on the cities, the news coming from different newspapers, and on top of the dialog you’re having, all supports the idea of the country as a living thing. Laws are passing, stuff is being updated. On that level we did succeed.
The issue was, since you were president, there is no normal citizen you would have an engagement with. There weren’t enough opportunities in the story where you could connect with a normal citizen living through their lives. It became a hard thing to do in the storyline. That’s why [Anton’s driver] Serge was so loved, representing the people in a way. Someone that’s serving, that’s nice, that’s going through life, just doing their part sort of thing. He became that symbol. People got really attached to Serge because they saw themselves as a citizen through Serge, but from Anton’s perspective.
Paste: There was an interesting writing challenge there with the way that you depicted the ministers of the cabinet, because they all seem to believe that they’re speaking for the people, to the people’s interest for the president. Minister of Education Ciara Walda and Minister of Health Paskal Beniwoll having ideas about how to help the rural people, as well as Minister of Interior Lileas Graf.
ASN: The cabinet was like—if you get 10 different people in a small community, they would all advocate for a house to be run in their own way. People are like that—they all believe their perspective and believe their execution of that would be near to ideal. We wanted to represent different attitudes and, through those characters, represent different ideologies, obviously. Ciara and Paskal were the most human rights, most social in the cabinet, one less than the other and one more than the other; every character advocated for the society they wanted to be in, for their personal interest or their society’s interest. The point was characters don’t have a single truth, just like humans don’t have a single truth. We wanted to represent that sort of side of politics where you have all these different voices, but who are you listening to, who are you more like, and making the choices accordingly with the biased information.
Paste: One thing you’ve mentioned is you didn’t want people to play Suzerain as a numbers game, want them to approach it naturally. Between the guides and people looking at text files, they’ve figured out some degrees of min-maxing. When I played the game, it taught me or reminded me some things about myself. Tell us about this meta-gaming tension.
ASN: Making a game that’s not mainly based on numbers is a massive difficulty, because we initially built the narrative and added numbers after. We needed numbers to track resources, opinion, ideologies. That was a big difficulty. How do you quantify ideology?
Creating a metric of value was extremely challenging. We wanted players to go through the game emotionally; play as if you were Anton. Let players go through with their gut feeling or their roleplay.
This is my interpretation of Suzerain. We put all the possibilities of what can happen in the ruler in one story. Put all the options of what can happen to rulers in one game. Whatever storyline you drop into with your choices is up to you. Through that experience, you have a connection to what that leader went through. It could be Allende, could be Hitler in his bunker dying. All these decisions came here, this is also what happens in real life. Having that really strong connection between game and reality as a conceptual art piece.
Paste: With such a small dev team, how were you able to avoid crunch? What are you proudest about among your labor practices?
ASN: Before launch, we had a very tough period. Just to be fair and honest. Our milestones were slipping and we had to work a lot because we could not miss the launch date of December 4. We tried to keep in check, but we faced this situation: the reality of indie game dev is that money was running out and that date had to be hit. Once money is out of a company, you have no control. You can’t pay people’s salaries and it breaks down from there. Ideally, this is the part where project management experience and game development experience comes into play, you have to plan out things into certain ways to have a lot of flexibility so you don’t fall into these crunch periods. It was inexperience on our part; that inexperience led to a period of crunch at the end that was not ideal. It’s the reality of industry. It’s about burning money. In the games industry, there are so many examples of that.
Going forward, we’ve learned from that experience, and we have spread around our milestones accordingly. We are forcing people to take holidays and making sure they don’t work more than 8 hours a day, making sure they don’t work weekends. We’re being extra sensitive about that stuff. As a core founding team, we were the ones that depleted ourselves. We don’t want anyone else to go through that experience. We shielded everyone else from that. We endured it, we did not like it, and we do not want it to happen again.
[We have made it] very clear what time frames we work in. It’s important that work gets done, but we’re flexible about start and stop time. Weekend work is not allowed. The founding team has some trouble stopping on the weekends. We’re being extra careful. We learned a lot. Just to give an example, we had an intern during the crunch period and we did not let them crunch. ‘We need a day in the weekend here, but we’ll give you a day in the following week off.’ If they did not agree, we would not have done it.
We’re trying to create a standard of high quality of something that is often critiqued in the industry, even without a strong war chest of money. We want to optimize it as much as possible.
Paste: It is a widespread problem and I appreciate your honesty on it as well as your team looking to continue to improve that. One thing you’ve talked about before is the game being a tool to inspire empathy. From what you’ve seen in the community, has Suzerain been effective in that?
ASN: I definitely think so, there’s also something we observed. Suzerain ended up being an empathy machine for lots of types of leaders. It made people think about the concepts instead of the people. Instead of tying it to people, zooming out a little bit. “Who is this person representing and why?” Going through that process is something the game does very well.
It also made people have empathy for autocratic leaders in certain ways. We saw people that would understand the frustration and anger that certain leaders have. People, after losing the Constitutional vote, saying “Now I’m going to take my revenge.” If you read political history, there are several examples of certain leaders failing and then doubling down.
It also made them understand that compromise and management of a society that is not developed is also difficult. We made a survey for Games for Change and there we asked if Suzerain helped people have empathy for developing countries, and where they’re from, like if they’re from a developed nation and how their perspective change. We got a lot of comments. A lot of people from developing nations felt the game represented where they’re from. People in developed nations never thought about the value of what they have until they play through an experience where these things were not developed and not attained in a society. ‘This is important. Now I’m seeing that this is important.’ We were able to get people to think about the world and society from different angles.
Paste: I’ve seen some community criticisms I thought were unfair about the political perspective of the dev team, in someone saying the depiction of women was ‘too’ modern and progressive. I have seen very little criticism of the Bludish ethnic group’s creation and depiction. What have you seen in varying criticisms that you found valuable, and what is the wildest criticism you have seen?
ASN: One thing people forget is this is a fictional universe. We don’t talk about what women’s’ rights looks like throughout the globe. They don’t know if Sordland is the edge case, or what is expected of women’s roles in this universe. It shows more about how people themselves are reacting to the situation rather than the world itself. It’s depicting their own biases because there’s a lot of emotion in these posts. If you’re showing this much emotion from this situation, there’s something about you in here that you want to talk about. It’s very self-reflective.
Sordland is a developing nation, and we did highlight that there is private education and the women in the cabinet are from wealthy families and were able to circumvent challenges regarding gender. I can show you so many examples of female ministers in the 1950s in different parts of the world, and in certain countries you wouldn’t expect them to have even right now. Every country goes through things differently.
Just giving women political rights doesn’t necessarily politically benefit you in the game. If you’re living in a majority conservative country, expanding rights doesn’t necessarily directly benefit you. That’s how we broke the election down to different voter groups; and some have more voters than others. Politics in our world—most politicians follow voter groups, and where demographics lean rather than their ideals.
On the topic of the minority, we really wanted to focus on minority rights in the game. In every country, a similar situation exists. It’s a big subject we wanted to tackle as well. We spent a lot of time about it. There are several bills about it, several laws about it, several events about it. You’re right, there hasn’t been too much reaction or passionate talks about the Bludish, and it’s a subject we thought was too sensitive maybe. Apparently people are mature enough to handle that maybe, but less mature in some cases with women’s rights.
One interesting anecdote I can share about the minority stuff—we received a very emotional letter from a Kurdish fan in Turkey. This is one of the most touching things I’ve read in my life. This person has undergone through oppression, and has shared their experiences in this letter and they said that they wanted to play this game and kind of create an ideal world to mend what happens in this world, and make sure this oppression never happens again. They played through the game and allied with [minority activist and leftist politician] Mansoun Leke and hugged him in the scene you get if you do positively with Bludish relations. This person, reflecting on all the things they’ve lived through, all the oppression and all the slurs and all the things, and in that moment broke down and cried because they needed their own society to make amends. And they saw themselves in the game, mending that. It was a very touching piece; whenever I read it, it blew my mind. They thanked us so much.
Games can be so powerful, can go beyond the screen. Can [let] us mend certain subjects that we cannot mend in real life.
Paste: You studied translation and interpretation. How did ideas from your studies about cultural difference and communication influence choices your team made about Suzerain’s plot, mechanics, and characters?
ASN: Translation is all about understanding the cultural values and expressions. In the core of my studies was not the actual words or understanding the grammar but understanding how a culture thinks. I’m trilingual, was raised trilingual—my dad’s German, and my mom is Turkish. I was raised among multiple cultures. For me it was always about sensing what traits different cultures have, what traits different languages have. For my studies in translation, it was about how does a German expression of something feel based on the experiences and history of that culture; what does it mean and feel in that culture vs Turkish one, English one? It’s always about perspective; a philosophy of perspective is something I really believe in. Changing your reference points to create empathy and thought that is not original to the original reference point, but think about concepts at different angles.
We can live in harmony, maybe that’s the angle. That can only happen when there’s perspective and empathy. If you don’t understand your neighbor, you’re not going to help them.
That’s why we also have the ability to play the nationalist in the game. A lot of the problems in society [come from] a lack of understanding. Suzerain is a display that we can approach different subjects to generate understanding. Maybe we can come up with solutions. This is not a direct goal, but a result of the goal comes down to that—understanding, perspective, roleplaying.
Suzerain is currently on sale on Steam, GOG, and the Epic games store, and is bundled with The Life and Suffering of Sir Bronte and Yes, Your Grace as part of publisher Fellow Traveller’s Fateful Hour Bundle. Fans have expanded on the language in the game at sordish.org.
Kevin Fox Jr is a writer, historian, and nonprofit worker. He loves videogames, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.