The Indie Series: short game reviews of the highest rated indie developed games under £10.
Platform: Steam, PC
Reviews: 5,163 reviews with overall rating ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’
Time to complete: No end. I played for an hour.
Kind Words is a culmination of the ‘nice side’ of Reddit, and a pen pal simulator. All you need to do is imagine a comfy room, pen, paper, music, and good vibes.
I first read about this game on its release in 2019, and was drawn in by the art style and originality. It swiftly won the 2020 BAFTA for Games Beyond Entertainment, and although critique reviews are mixed, players have reviewed it as overwhelmingly positive on Steam.
Kind Words has a simple premise. You read letters written by other players (real life people), respond to them, and then they can send you a sticker in return. The interaction on that letter then goes no further.
Alternatively, you can initiate a letter into the community, which will be picked up by other players and a response potentially returned. You are then in power of whether to give them a sticker in return.
Everything is anonymised and you cannot have a ‘conversation’ as it’s a one-letter-done model. The letters are similar to a memo sent to a pen pal, with a word limit to keep them short and sweet.
Naturally you are wondering what people write to each other?
There are the usual messages around issues at home, work, or with friends and loved ones. There are darker messages, with support within the game to report the writer if you believe something is deeply amiss.
The general premise of the game is that it provides an opportunity to vent your feelings, in an environment where the respondents are supportive. Something that is invariably unique given the state of today’s social media platforms.
As a matter of rule, you are encouraged to send positive vibes, or given the freedom to express your anxieties and concerns.
Most people reading this are now thinking .. ‘what about trolling?’. This is, of course, a well-known issue within all games that contain socialising.
The developer Popcannibal (real name Ziba Scott), thought hard about how to tackle trolls, and arguably the secondary purpose of this game is to be an ‘anti-troll’ platform.
In a talk I attended for GDC 2021 he talked about his methodology:
When creating the game, Ziba started with the atmosphere in order to encourage support messages and open speech. He highlights the slow and soothing music (lo-fi chill beats), and the position of the protagonist sat in a comfy room, as ways to exude positivity and warm feelings.
Ziba gives credit to academic studies, which analyse the impact environment can have on a person, as his inspiration in the development in the game.
Inevitably trolls do emerge. At first, they were banned, but Ziba quickly learnt that they would wear their ban as a badge of honor. He adapted the process, carefully moderating ill-written letters (often manually removing them, despite the thousands of users) and sending letters to the trolls encouraging them to, well, share their feelings.
Most trolls ultimately, though, are just simply disinterested. Without the two-way ongoing conversation, or ability to publicly upvote the letters there is not much to latch onto. In the GDC talk Ziba mentioned a particular troll who proudly announced on the Steam Forum that he was going to join the game, troll his way for a couple hours, and leave triumphant. However, he returned soon-after claiming the game was boring and nothing was going on. The reality is there were over 10,000 users that day playing the game, but no one was giving him the attention he was looking for.
There are some drawbacks to the game. Although the developer notes there are around 10,000 active users at any one time, it is a bit slow and sometimes feels like you’ve covered all the content quickly. Some players also write rhetoric on their letters rather than their feelings or specific requests, which can make it seem a bit like a messaging board.
However ultimately this is a game to express yourself how you like, and similar to real letters it can take a while to get a response.
The music is a little repetitive, and not necessarily the highest fidelity. That is ok. It is the environment that matters most, but this may nerve some audiophiles.
The final drawback, and this is definitely an idiosyncratic bug bear, is it is very difficult to exit the game. You have to click ‘More’ then ‘Title’ and then click ‘Quit’.
Perhaps I have read too many economic books on incentives and human behaviour, but I always feel like I’m being overly coerced to continue playing the game when there are this many barriers to exit.
Chill vibes, warm environment, a social game, positive messages, and a sense of relief / excitement writing out a message to the community and waiting for a response to your problem.
This game is positive for mental health, and extremely well timed with a pre-COVID release date. Ziba Scott has employed academic techniques to enhance the game experience (which we like very much indeed), and the community is global. There is always something different to experience when you log in.
Yes, there is repetition with the music, and it can be a slow experience at the best of times. I also disagree with the menu system… however overall for the price and the originality, this deserves the overwhelmingly positive rating it gets on Steam.
Popcannibal was founded by Ziba Scott in the early 2010s. He works alongside Luigi Guatieri who is based in New Zealand, and completes the art on Kind Words. With 11+ awards under hisbelt from 2011 to the present day, Popcannibal is an influential indie game developer.
Ziba did a B.S. in Comp Sci at the University of Chicago and worked as a technical staff in a couple roles before founding Popcannibal. During his time in his last salaried role (Client Programmer Senior at the University of Michigan) he undertook an M.A. in Serious Game Design at Michigan State University (2007 – 2009).
Before you ask – yes, I am also curious as to what makes game design in this course specifically …serious.
One of his earliest games was ‘Girls like Robots’ which was the 13th best reviewed iOS game in 2012. In 2018 Popcannibal released a game called, Make Sail.
Ziba is, of course, best known for Kind Words released in 2019.
As always a video below to see some gameplay. Till next time.