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What to play: ‘Kids’ captures the anxiety and confusion of human interaction

What to play: ‘Kids’ captures the anxiety and confusion of human interaction
Follow the leader, even if you don't want to, in "Kids," a short game that explores group dynamics. (Playables / Double Fine Presents)

“Kids” starts with a punch, and though instantaneous violence isn’t out of the norm in video games, here it feels unexpected.

The faceless figures of “Kids” — rounded black-and-white body outlines that make a squishy, gummy noise when they walk — appear friendly at the start of this interactive film-meets-game. “Hi.” “Hello.” The two childlike voices sound chummy enough when they meet at the center of the screen.

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Then comes the punch. And a thud as one of the avatars falls to the ground.

There is no more punching after that. “Kids” isn’t mean or brutal in the way most every game is. But it is a bit savage in its depiction of how we humans interact — or fail to interact.

While everything in this 30-minute-long abstract experience is delivered with a lighthearted humor — tapping these featureless pillowy creations as they fall and glide through air turns them more or less into goofy parachutes — “Kids” ultimately seems to be saying our conversational skills could use a little work.

A collaboration between experimental filmmaker Michael Frei and game designer Mario von Rickenbach, “Kids,” the second offering from their Zurich, Switzerland-based studio Playables, is certainly open to interpretation. It’s no surprise it’s also been shown as an art installation, and it works as a non-interactive film, too.

But pushing or pulling its tiny humans into and away from crowds on our mobile phones feels like the most suitable move — one that allows for a bit of personal direction as well as the ability to experience its 30-plus vignettes more than once. Sometimes you direct hundreds of tiny figures into a black hole, other times you squeeze them through tunnels and occasionally you instruct arena-sized crowds to clap or even point oppressively at a single person.

So while play allows for some inherent silliness, there is a tinge of melancholy present in “Kids.” There was, too, in Frei and von Rickenbach’s earlier collaboration “Plug & Play,” which touched on human intimacy by contrasting its welcoming, minimalist art with scatological and sexual imagery. Both games, however, seem to be circling around issues of loneliness and the challenges present in connecting with others.

What “Kids” brought to mind for me were some of my own fears in expressing myself. That manifested at an early age with being scared to raise my hand in class, and persists today with doubting and questioning my ability to voice an opinion in company meetings.

But “Kids” illustrates the danger in silence, the way a vocal persona could sway a dissenting group or even lead a pack into an endless black hole.

We also see how instantly someone can be ganged up on. One of the “Kids” vignettes requires the player to occasionally prey on a lone figure in order to advance. But by clicking from person to person we also see how easily crowds can be swayed as attention shifts from one body to another with no real rhyme or reason.

The kids will simply say “no, you” as they point, with some voices shy and forlorn and others downright aggressive. But the game is all the stronger for a lack of plot. “Kids” shows life as a game of hot potato, with both leaders and followers in fragile, perilous positions, and the rest just running in circles in an effort to avoid being the center of attention.

So perhaps what “Kids” reveals to us isn’t meant to be silly or sad at all. And that punch in the game’s opening moment? It lingers long after its conclusion. Humans, it says, are dangerous little buggers. By stripping most of its characters of a voice, “Kids” wants us to contemplate our own.

“Kids”

Developer: Playables

Publisher: Double Fine Presents

Platforms: iOS, Android, PC and Mac

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Price: $2.99

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