Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to), from developer Popcannibal, feels so perfectly tailored to our current existence that it feels like an impossible feat of prophecy. As we’re all trapped in our homes, seperated from our friends and families, looking ahead to an anxious and uncertain future, the game has become a vital coping mechanism for many.
Kind Words is a game where the sole goals are self-reflection and kindness to others. In some ways it’s more a very jazzy support group than it is a ‘game’ in the typical sense. The player character, much like many of us right now, is alone in his room, sending supportive messages to players from around the world.
Those struggling with a particular issue can post up a request for help, or those looking to help others can go down the list of requests to offer anonymous advice and consolation. It’s an entirely anonymous system that allows for frank, emotional discussions that some might find difficult to have with friends and family, particularly at a distance.
It’s hard to think of any game that’s easier to recommend right now. Of course, as developer Ziba Scott explains, the game was developed long before this unprecedented situation was even speculated.
“I mean, it’s a game about a character stuck in their room. He’s only stuck in that room because the scope of the game wouldn’t reach beyond that, but it’s way too on the nose now. Here’s this character who’s at home, just trying to connect with people over the internet as best they can. If we released this game now, everyone would assume it was about the quarantine.”
Of course, Scott isn’t a modern-day Nostradamus, the game was inspired by a crisis of another kind – the Trump administration.
“It was partly inspired by American politics, which are just a nightmare of cruelty and a lack of empathy” notes Scott. “Trump and the GOP are insane, and wildly cruel. I needed to spend my time in some way pushing against the disregard for humanity that is sweeping the world, at least on the political stage.
“I don’t truly believe that is what’s happening in the majority of people’s hearts, that this is how the majority of how people want to treat each other. I believe that if we gave people a chance to be better than that, they would.”
Kind Words certainly gives them that chance. The only motivation and reward in the game are the stickers you receive from those you help – if they appreciate your response. It’s a game that encourages kindness over cruelty, though it is also moderated to prevent trolling.
This kindness is encouraged by the game’s art (by Luigi Guatieri) and music (by Clark Aboud), which are both clearly inspired by the lo-fi YouTube scene (check out ChilledCow or ChillHop Music for examples) – as can also be seen in the game’s full title, of course.
“There’s a lot of calm aesthetics” notes Scott. “Chill characters in safe, cosy places. It’s not saccharine and sugary where everything’s great with the world. It’s a more realistic, attainable, inner peace type of situation. I’m in my somewhat humble home. Maybe it’s cluttered, but it’s just stuff I love, and it’s a quiet moment for myself.
“And that’s also just what we wanted to experience for ourselves. Luigi and I, we’re lucky enough to have some real choice of how we spend our time. And of all the projects we have laid out, this one felt right to be working on. It felt helpful to our mental states, while still not sticking our head in the sand and ignoring the world around us. It was calming to make the game, in the same way we hoped it would be for others to play.”
Going by the overwhelmingly positive reception to the game, Scott and Guatieri weren’t wrong about the game’s therapeutic qualities. Even without the current context of the coronavirus crisis, the game has become a destination for peaceful self-reflection and help for many.
“I see Kind Words fitting in differently to the cosy, wholesome or meaningful gaming ecosystem. Unlike some of those other games, it’s less about escapism and more about self reflection. A lot of players see it as volunteering; it’s giving their time to others. And that’s where I think it slots in differently than the likes of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley – which are great, calming exercises that you do have some time to do reflection in, but they’re more about being elsewhere in a fictional space.”
This emphasis on self-reflection has opened up the game’s audience to a wide variety of people. While unquestionably and absurdly popular, Animal Crossing’s a long-term commitment with a focus largely on creation and acquisition. Meanwhile, the personal nature of Kind Words feels far more personal and emotional.
“There’s a huge range of different experiences and emotions present, at least to me” notes Scott. “When you play, you only see a small slice, it’s like watching a stream or a river for a player. You come in, and you see bits of people’s thoughts and feelings floating by, and when you come back a few minutes later then they’ll be related, but they’re going to be different people with different experiences.
“So for myself, having a higher view of it all, it’s pretty clear that there’s a really wide batch of humanity. I try to record as few analytics and as few demographics as possible, so I can’t for certain say that we’ve hit every country and every age group. I don’t know that, but it seems that way.”
With such a wide audience, it’s lucky that the game’s back-end is able to support it all. While the game on some level seems deceptively simple, the confidential nature of the notes shared and their responses meant that Scott was unable to properly test the title before release.
“We hardly tested it at all,” reveals Scott. “Usually when I’m designing a game, I grab everybody I can and have them play early and often.
“But with so few people potentially playing, I couldn’t just give it to people because I would almost certainly know who they were. I’d be hearing all my friends’
This led to the game essentially being tested out in the wild, following its original release on the Humble Store. Kind Words saw two big steps that brought more attention to the game – the first being unexpectedly included in a Humble Bundle, and the second coming when Kind Words was nominated for the Games for Impact award at the 2019 Game Awards. (and a third now, given their recent BAFTA win in the Game Beyond Entertainment category).
And behind each increase in the game’s audience, was Scott frantically working on the game’s back-end as Kind Words rapidly outgrew its original scope. Scott’s original expectations for the game fell far short of the BAFTA-winning heights it would eventually hit. As Scott reveals when we ask if he was at all concerned about trolls playing his game:
“Oh, we were never concerned that anyone would play our game! It was a tiny little art game. I’ve been making indie games for 10 years. And the safe bet is nobody’s gonna play your game.
“My wildest expectation was that about 20,000 messages would ever be written. And so I did speed testing on the database performance testing, with a faked up 20,000 messages to see like, ‘yeah, it gets pretty slow around then but it’ll survive.’
“Now we’re at about 1.6 million messages. So I spend a lot of the time working on that back end. Every day, I’m wrestling the back end to make sure that the front end just keeps running.”
Of course, testing the game in the wild has its benefits. Scott has been able to fine-tune the experience with additional features, coming up with a creative solution to off-topic discussions that were hampering Kind Words.
“There were some important front end fixes that we were able to do somewhat gracefully because we had the Humble launch” says Scott.
Scott points to the introduction of airplanes to the game – short, off-topic comments from other users that occasionally fly over the player’s head inside paper planes.
“One of the main moderation challenges in Kind Words isn’t so much trolling, but off-topic conversations. Well intended off-topic stuff, people are just excited and they’re happy to write.
“So where they’re supposed to be sharing requests that people can reply to, they’re just sharing their favourite quotes or song lyrics and things like that. We created airplanes as a place to invite people to make statements that they just wanted other people to hear, but not respond to.
“Primarily, we did that as a way to get rid of that kind of chatter from requests that was holding it back. And it wasn’t until after I’d actually launched the feature that we really got a sense of how sort of valuable it was, and how pleasant it would be as something to go to when the requests get a little too real, a little too heavy, and you want to have an option to just click on bright happy candy. Airplanes have been really useful for that.”
These bright happy candies – along with the emotional catharsis at the heart of the game’s experience, has built an unusually positive and patient fanbase, as Scott explains:
“There’s a constant stream of requests from fans – but if we’ve cultivated anything in the game, it’s to get people to communicate nicely.
“I have another game in early access that I haven’t been able to update nearly as much because I’ve been focused on Kind Words, and the tone around that gets a lot more impatient, a lot more demanding. Whereas the tone around Kind Words is very kind, very grateful to have the game. and it’s more ‘oh, wouldn’t it also be awesome if…? What if we could have this? More stickers, please!’ And I certainly want to give people all these things. We’re working on more stickers!”
It’s a real affirmation of humanity, given the ‘nightmare of cruelty’ that inspired Kind Words’ creation.
“One of the most encouraging things from Kind Words” says Scott, “is that even though it’s carefully structured to make things work the way they do, the real truth behind why the game works is because of the goodwill of the people playing it, who are pouring themselves into it.
“97 per cent of messages are truly helpful. It’s this collective effort for people to make each other feel better. And that alone makes me feel better, that people will put their time and effort into this communal help session.
“People are still doubting that Kind Words will hold together, and not fall apart into a regular internet bar-room fight. And it’s still possible, but I don’t think so. From what I’m seeing, people are making it the nice place they want it to be.”
Above all else, the game’s success – from its sales, to the BAFTA-win, to the kind and supportive player base, is the perfect response to the first ever request posted to the game, from Ziba Scott himself.
‘I made a game and I’m worried no one will like it.’