There’s a castle, ugly and imposing in that medieval European way, and it’s under siege. A wave of serfs and soldiers breaks against its uneven walls, slowly persuading ladders and battering rams into place. Arrows bounce clumsily off the ramparts – programmed by somebody who valued simulation over showiness – and big, burning missiles knock away chunks of masonry.
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The destruction doesn’t go unnoticed by one knight, headed for the main gate on horseback when he realises: the bloke behind the catapult is having more fun. He promptly dismounts and leans unceremoniously over the operator’s shoulder to have a go. 30 seconds later, the battlements look like swiss cheese.
This is the hands-on premise of the Mount & Blade series, which Armağan Yavuz describes as “medieval career simulation”. It’s a genre he helped invent upon founding TaleWorlds in Ankara, Turkey, a decade ago.
It isn’t just TaleWorlds who’ve contributed to Mount & Blade’s success, of course – the games have a proud and prolific history of modding, which has turned Calradia into Middle-Earth, Westeros and a steampunk Sudan.
In Warband, TaleWorlds basically turned over their entire scripting code to players. That solution offered almost total freedom but led to lots of problems when running mods simultaneously, or installing the studio’s official updates.
“We had a lot of headache from players who were frustrated that their favourite mod was not working,” laughs Yavuz.
The equivalent modding system in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is in some respects more restricted, but opens up the parts of the game that will “give modders the most power”. TaleWorlds say that mods should be unaffected by patches, and that players will be able to cherry-pick their favoured combination of settings, textures and AI tweaks.
“We came up with, I believe, a great system,” says Yavuz. “What we have now will allow modders to create without stepping on each others’ shoes or disturbing the core of the game. The sky’s the limit, but I expect there will be total conversions and I’m pretty sure there will be something about Game of Thrones.”
Playing Bannerlord, Yavuz believes, is all about getting your hands dirty: “You can get into the fight, use ballistas and break down the doors yourself.”
And yet you can also issue commands on the battlefield. And before that, determine the formation and positions of your soldiers. And before that, build siege equipment. Battles are merely the ground phase in a much larger game that takes in an entire crumbling empire, Calradia. And you are just one person capable of bringing change to a land occupied by AI warlords with their own agendas.
This sprawling, systemic world nearly turned out very differently. When asked whether his vision for Mount & Blade’s first numbered sequel has changed during its four year development, Yavuz falls silent, thinking hard.
“It definitely has,” he muses. “During those four years, we were able to do a lot of testing and see what works and what doesn’t. We had to drop some ideas. And, I guess, got some really great ideas in the process.”
The Bannerlord that TaleWorlds began with attempted to fold a far more traditional narrative into Mount & Blade. But it came at a cost to the sandbox appeal of the series, and the team instead doubled down on smarter, deeper and more dynamic systems.
“It’s a brave new world,” says Yavuz. “We have so many games that try to build upon storytelling like movies or books. An interactive thing has so much opportunity to go beyond somebody’s scripted story and let the player create the narrative him or herself.”
Bannerlord is set 200 years before the events of Warband, in a period inspired by the fall of the Roman empire. When you come to it, Calradia is in crisis, and it’s up to you how or even whether that’s resolved.
“It’s a really interesting period in actual world history and one where I’m sure there are lots of lessons to be learned,” Yavuz explains. “You have this civilised empire with a large sophisticated army and democracy and everything, and then it’s under a lot of internal and outside pressure. What are you going to do about that? I think for the modern audience it has a lot of interesting discussion topics.”
As you’re moving about the overworld, sieging castles and carving up territory, others are doing the same. AI warlords are making their own way, and you’ll witness their rises and falls.
“It’s like a reality TV kind of thing,” says Yavuz. “As human beings, we really care about other human beings, and in the game world it’s really important to emphasise all these NPCs by making them smarter and have more organic AI.”
By way of example, the co-founder and designer describes the bartering system TaleWorlds have set up for Bannerlord. AI characters will silently search for deals in the game’s background, making decisions based on their unique priorities. That means there’s no pattern of behaviour to recognise, no safe, set approach; when you come to make a trade for an important prisoner, you’ll need to think carefully about what goods or arrangements that faction wants.
“It creates a lot of interesting situations that make a lot of sense,” Yavuz reckons. “As we add more features, the potential to get more interesting behaviour from the AI just increases exponentially.”
There’s a peculiar quirk to Mount & Blade: Bannerlord’s sieges. If, once the gates are broken down and the ramparts reduced to rubble, you’re knocked out cold – well, the battle will conclude without you. And why shouldn’t it? You aren’t the centre of some cinematic universe. You’re just one agent of change in a medieval career simulation.