To those in-the-know about director Michael Frei’s work, it is an upcoming animated short film. To a group of Swiss children who attended a temporary art exhibit last winter, “Kids” is a room of toys and wall projections at the Museum of Digital Arts in Zurich. And for Twitch viewers last week who first heard about the project during Day One of E3, “Kids” is an upcoming experimental game published and showcased by Double Fine.
“Kids” will be the second game developed by Frei and Playables co-founder and game designer Mario von Rickenbach. The short game is projected to release at the end of the calendar year for PC, iOS and Android devices and will include a number of playable vignettes centered around the theme of groupthink and the characteristics of crowds and groups.
“It has a very striking style,” said Double Fine’s Greg Rice, as he played the game’s demo during a live “E3 on Twitch” segment last Monday.
The “Kids” demo opens upon a large dark hole at the center of an empty white room. Dozens of black and white figures rush from elsewhere to surround the circle, huddling close together before Rice nudged a few gathering who fall into the inky void. As Rice knocked the rest of the crowd into the hole, a children’s choir can be heard in the distance.
“The game speaks for itself, its rather hard to describe,” Frei said. “‘Kids’ is an unconventional game — it’s narrative, short, it’s black and white. It’s weird, I guess. You’re not really controlling a hero, but rather, you interact with crowds.”
Although “Kids” is the second game created by the duo, it will be their first original collaborative project.
Frei began working with Rickenbach shortly after he released his experimental short film “Plug & Play” in 2012. Although “Plug & Play” was selected by numerous international film festivals and presented with several student film awards, the recent-animation graduate said he wanted to provide something more interactive for his audience.
“Because I worked in animation, I was always kind of unhappy how films are watched online in general because attention-span is very short and the computer is something you could kick around on and be interactive,” Frei said.
Although Frei had no experience in game design, the two quickly clicked thanks to their passion for interactive multimedia. After adapting “Plug & Play” to a mobile game in 2015, the two created and established Playables. Work on “Kids” began shortly after, the duo said.
“The only thing that was clear from the beginning was what [Kids] was going to be about — the same character but multiplied,” Frei said. “What happens when all the characters are exactly the same and have the same characteristics and its all about the dynamics between them.”
Each level in “Kids” offers players different initial factors: talk with this character, answer this question, follow this person, etc. The end result, however, is always the same, as the characters in each level meet their end as they run towards and fall into a large dark hole.
“Crowds and Powers” by Elias Canetti, a 1960 academic text on crowd dynamics largely influenced and informed “Kids,” Frei said, as the game touches upon ideas such as open and closed crowds from the book. According to Canetti, an open crowd can move and grow with little to no communication towards an unknown goal.
“Most of them do not know what has happened and if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are,” Canetti wrote. “They have a goal which is there before they can find words for it. This goal is the blackest spot where most people are gathered.”
Museum visitors played an early build of “Kids” in February at the Museum of Digital Arts in Zurich. Christian Etter, co-director of the museum, said the four-week temporary exhibit featured four distinct spaces that touched upon the project’s themes. One space featured 100 identical puppets, crafted after the game’s protagonists; another space featured a behind-the-scenes short film. One room featured a three-wall projection that included “Kids” characters that would interact with attendees via a Microsoft Kinect-based interactive installation.
“For example, one person would come in and you would see all of a sudden all these little guys running towards you and then making space for this one person to go through the crowd,” Etter said. “When you have more people, [the projected characters] would start to clap and create, you know how in a stadium you have ‘football waves’ and try to animate the group to become part of that.”
In a separate space, a vinyl black hole was placed near the center of the room, where benches were placed nearby for attendees to sit and play “Kids.”
“It’s quite a strange project, in the end, but it seems to appeal to a very big audience,” Etter said, saying the exhibit was frequently visited by museum-goers young and old.
Early reactions to the game have been strong, Rickenbach said.
“It’s good that people feel something…we like five-star ratings as much as one-star ratings,” Rickenbach said. “That is the thing that games are often supposed to be, long, like you play for hours. We prefer if you play for 20 to 30 minutes but then it stays with you for some time after you’ve played.”