clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The strange and surreal Kids is part game, part short film


At the very beginning of Kids, you help a small group of faceless bodies fall into a dark hole. You don’t have much say in the matter, either: a crowd forms around the rim of the inky pit, and as you touch the screen, they all topple over. In the next scene, those same bodies helplessly float downward into seeming nothingness. You can’t stop them, but if you hold a finger on a body, it will temporarily slow down before falling again. I’ve played through this opening multiple times, and I’m still not sure what it means. That’s kind of the point. “Depending on who is playing it, there are quite different reactions,” explains Michael Frei, a Swiss filmmaker and artist who co-created Kids. “Some see it as something dark, some find it hilarious.”

Kids is available today on PC, iPhone, and Android, and it lasts maybe 30 minutes altogether. The entire game is in black and white, and it consists of a series of strange, curiously hypnotic interactive vignettes. Kids is an experience about crowds of people and how they coexist. One scene might have the faceless humans arguing about which direction to go, while another has you helping the figures navigate pulsating tubes. You’re never told what to do, and, in many ways, Kids is more like a thought-provoking toy, rather than a traditional game.

If it looks familiar, that may be because Kids is a spiritual successor of sorts. In 2012, Frei released a short film called Plug & Play, about two characters that look like electrical plugs, navigating relationship issues. Then, in 2015, he partnered with game designer Mario von Rickenbach to turn it into something more interactive. After that experience, the pair decided to keep working together, this time focusing on interactivity from the very beginning.

“It was hard to find someone who didn’t have fixed preconceptions about what a game is,” Frei says of his initial search for a game development partner. “I had a lot of people who wanted to turn my Plug & Play short film into a point-and-click adventure, and this is not what I was looking for. I tried to stay true to what envisioned in the first place. Mario had a more experimental approach to game design, it’s more about trying out and testing. So our work methods worked well together. That’s also why we decided to make another one.”


Plug & Play was a short film that was turned into a game, but with Kids, the team went in the opposite direction. They started out building a game-like experience and then created a short film using the animations built during that initial process. Full-time development on Kids began in 2016, and over that time, the pair say they learned a lot about the differences between film and games.

“In the film, it’s a lot about timing, about taking pauses to find the right rhythm,” says Frei. “In the game, the things on the screen always give a response to the player, there always has to be something to do. So it’s much harder to time something.” von Rickenbach adds, “I think working on something interactive from the beginning had a lot of influence on the film because the film was made at the end, out of the things we did for the game.”

A Kids installation at the MuDA in Zurich.
Photo: Playables

They even went a step further: Kids isn’t only a game and a short film. It’s also an exhibition. Last February at the Museum of Digital Arts (MuDA) in Zurich, an interactive Kids installation included playable versions of the game, alongside an iteration of the film that changed slightly depending on how many people were present watching. There were even disturbing stuffed animal-like versions of the in-game characters, and patrons were encouraged to pick them up and carry them around. The installation has since traveled around the world, landing everywhere from London to Tokyo.

No matter which version of Kids you’re experiencing, the actual message is kept purposefully vague. The developers clearly have things to say about society and how people interact in large groups, but amid all of the strange imagery, you won’t find any specific messages. “It’s important that it stays open to interpretation,” says Frei.