The Virtual Life – The Unsettling Humanity Of Nina Freeman's Kimmy
This column was originally published April 20, 2017.
Kimmy is a different kind of game from the rest of developer Nina Freeman’s works. Freeman, who now works at Fullbright as a designer on Tacoma, has released a number of personal vignette-like games throughout her career. Her early projects are notable for being games that explore sexuality in interesting, thought-provoking ways. How Do You Do It?, for example, humorously focuses on a small girl mashing her toys together in a vaguely sexual way as much as she can before her mother gets home, while Cibele is a narrative-driven experience that focuses on a relationship that blooms over an MMO.
Freeman, who was an English undergrad, says she owes a lot of her development and games-writing to her interest in poetry. “I wrote a lot of personal work when I was writing poetry, and I tended to write about stuff like sex and sexuality. In games, sex and sexuality are usually presentational, while in poetry you’ll have a lot of famous work about it,” she says, before listing examples like Allen Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop.
“I spent a lot of time in college researching that and writing a lot of erotic poetry. It was just something that I was used to writing about and that, in the poetry world, is pretty common to write about. So when I started making games, I brought that over naturally because it was the perspective I was coming from.”
Kimmy marks a departure from the sexuality-driven topics of Freeman's previous work, instead being an adaptation of an experience Freeman’s mother told her. In Kimmy, you play Dana, a young girl in 1968 who comes across a smaller child named Kimmy. Dana, believing Kimmy has been sent to her by god, takes Kimmy home to her mother who immediately returns Kimmy home. However, Kimmy’s mother decides to let Dana babysit her daughter for a quarter a day (remember, this is a fair bit of money in 1968 for a kid). Dana’s mother sees this as an opportunity to keep her daughter busy after school, so she allows it to happen. The adults are busy and wrapped up in their own kinds of drama, so the children are left to their own devices.
From there, the game unfolds, letting you spend your after-school hours with Kimmy, meeting both Dana’s friends and Kimmy’s would-be friends to play games with them. These segments are presented in a visual novel-esque manner, with both Kimmy and Dana talking to other kids who have their own share of problems. There are Anthony and Amber, who seem well-adjusted but are prone to bickering, and Blythe, who’s spoiled and likes to do things she knows she’s not supposed to, like stealing and drinking her father’s beers.
All of this sounds rather lighthearted, and its pleasant coloring book aesthetic helps reinforce that notion. However, Kimmy is a surprisingly dark game that goes to unexpected and very human places.
Even from its start, Kimmy evokes a certain kind of dread, a sense that There Is Something That Is Not Right Here. People make references to how Kimmy was tied to a porch during the afternoons before Dana became her babysitter. As someone who lives in the rural South and has often heard stories about Ye Olden Days, I just shook this off as a bygone thing that adults did. However, soon enough, the horrors of reality start appearing on the outskirts of Kimmy and Dana’s lives: neglect, abuse, self-loathing, and even death are all around the bend.
When Blythe talks about beer in a joking fashion, Kimmy brings up how much her father drinks. When Anthony and Amber talk about their parents working, she mentions how overworked her mother, a waitress, is. Dana does her best to smooth over these awkward moments but it quickly becomes clear that Kimmy lives a different life from most of the kids in the game, with a troubled family and a sense that she is trapped, and is punished socially for it.
Dana is initially presented as a savior. We’re here to help Kimmy, to save her from this life by teaching her that people are good and that interacting with them is, more often not, a reward. This is perhaps a naïve perspective, but that fits because Dana is a child, not as young as Kimmy, but not hardened by the struggles of adulthood either. How Dana and Kimmy interact with each other – who’s teaching who and what are both of them getting from each other – is probably the game’s most compelling feature.
Freeman says she views her game as a story about the importance of communication and honesty. “Dana is a curious kid, trying to get all the details about what’s happening but is being stopped by adults and having her mother say, ‘Don’t get too involved with other people.’ I find [the communication process] really interesting in a general life sense. How do you communicate about really difficult things with people you want to connect with but are afraid to? I think we’re taught to be afraid to talk about serious stuff with other people, whether it’s family members or friends.”
Life is difficult. We’re born. We die. Things that are equally insignificant happen in between. We often tell ourselves stories, not just to pass the time but to help give order to the chaos of our lives. It’s a normal thing to see ourselves as the protagonist of a story, surrounded by people, each of them taking on their roles: friends, lovers, rivals, foes – so on, so forth. However, Kimmy plays on that idea because, just as is often the case in real life, our stories often don’t go the way we plan or expect them to.
For Kimmy and her own story, Dana is not a conventional heroine. She does not win and save Kimmy from the world of adulthood that’s bearing down on her faster than it is for anyone else in the neighborhood. Legitimately horrifying things happen during the game out of view, and Kimmy has to bear the brunt of those events. However, she finds some measure of comfort in Dana’s company and in that way, Dana, who goes out of her way to get to know Kimmy and is vocally outraged in the upsetting conclusion, is a heroine. Not because she’s invincible but because she cares and is willing to do more than shrug her shoulders when everything falls apart, even if her efforts are fruitless. Sometimes it's enough just to have people there to understand and help us out. For Kimmy, Dana is that person.
Kimmy is a surprisingly dark game, but it’s not relentlessly bleak. This is an interactive story that explores the messiness of living and trying to be there for other people in difficult situations without easy answers or solutions to their problems. However, there will always be someone like Dana, trying to preserve the good in the world, come hell or high water.