A game about radical vulnerability
Sometimes, you need a little reassurance. But not all reassurance is equal. A parent cheering you on would feel very different from an ex telling you to follow your dreams. Sometimes, you just want to be recognized for you, independent of your attachments to other people.
But how do you find anonymous support in this cruel, cruel world? Should you go screaming into the void, and hope it’ll say something nice back? Believe it or not, this method sometimes works.
Hey you, Castro here. Welcome to my very first video essay in a series I’m calling Cichlibrary.
I’m a writer who’s worked as a journalist and art critic for the better part of a decade, and now I’m bringing all that knowledge to some of my favorite topics in art, media, video games and other likable stuff.
Today we’re going to be talking about a very likable game by Bawston-based developer PopCannibal. It’s called Kind Words, and it’s a game about writing letters.
Except it’s not a game, if you consider goals, quests or achievements as essential. The only goal here is to offer the best advice you possibly can. Kind Words is sort of the equivalent of an advice column, with you in the role of Ann Landers.
Or maybe you’re the person writing in with a silly pseudonym. Maybe you have a problem in your life. Maybe you have an intrusive thought that you feel uncomfortable sharing with your loved ones. This game is the antithesis of that old parental advice: “don’t talk to strangers.” Here, you can share some of your deepest and most private thoughts with strangers.
If that sounds weird at first, you can rest assured knowing that your letters are anonymous, marked only by a single initial. You probably won’t want to waste any space on revealing irrelevant personal info either. You’re limited to seven lines when writing a request for advice. You get 14 lines when you’re writing back to people.
Multiple people can reply to your request. But people can only respond to your letter once, and you can’t reply back to any letters you’ve received. So you can’t really have a conversation. Even if someone gives you the most amazing advice, you can’t write back and say thank you. You can, however, send a sticker in return.
As a writer, I adore these limitations because they push you to write with intention. You’re responding to real people’s concerns and worries, so you can’t waste space on meandering or indulgent thoughts. Sometimes I’ve even found myself getting rid of greetings in a letter because they consume too much precious space.
On the flip side, writing requests for letters requires you to be just as, if not more, exacting. You’re writing about problems important to you, and you only have seven lines to do it.
Maybe this all sounds emotionally taxing. Thankfully, Kind Words is a literal embodiment of a safe space. The game takes place entirely in a cute bedroom you can customize. The room customization is also the only ‘’acquisitive’ element in this game, as the room decorations correspond to the stickers you’ve collected.
Furthering this environment of chill, epistolary, niceness is the soundtrack by Clark Aboud. It really gets you into the mood of writing and contemplating. That’s by design, as the game’s subtitle makes clear. “Lo fi chill beats to write to.” That’s a reference to an infamous youtube radio stream: chilledcow’s “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” which has accompanied many a homework assignment since 2015.
The Kind Words soundtrack has a similar vibe and function, displaying a lightly bittersweet, sad undertone. It’s calming, but not so calming as to be anesthetic. The soundtrack’s hypnotic sad edge prevents us from being apathetic or unserious when responding to people’s letters.
When I first played this game, I was hammering away on my keyboard for seven or eight hours straight, just becoming really absorbed in other people’s problems, and my ability to hopefully offer comfort or insight.
But Kind Words never feels like a messianic project. You don’t play a savior, but another human. And what makes a human “human” but their squishiness, their vulnerability? Their capacity to be hurt? These are uneasy things to talk about in real life.
Vulnerability can be a very hard thing to achieve or, rather, admit. Not everyone can express it in a healthy or direct manner. Personally, I’m someone who does find it hard to be vulnerable. For better or for worse, I’m not always comfortable opening up to people. There are admittedly lots of ways in which the process of opening up can go wrong. People can be cruel, which is why a game like Kind Words exists in the first place. Sometimes you don’t want to take your most private concerns and worries to anyone you know.
Kind Words is radical in its display of vulnerability, as I can’t think of any other game that opens up a similar space. Even social media, Discord, Reddit, forums, whatever, usually require us to build a profile, and use that ‘self’ to interact with other people. We have to air our grievances and complaints with a name attached, even if it’s not our real name.
Kind Words discards that formula. We may pour the deepest parts of ourselves into our requests or responses. But the fact that we can’t carry on a conversation makes our interactions in this game transitory. Sharing letters and thoughts here is very unlikely lead to a substantial friendship, so the only motivation that guides our writing is usually the desire to help someone else. Or, conversely, to find some solace for our own pain.
Kind Words came out in 2019, but it’s the quintessential Covid-era game, in my opinion, that it helps us to connect regardless of where we are in the world. And you can see this in letters themselves, as people often write in with their worries about love, friendship and careers after lockdown.
My one criticism isn’t exactly about the game itself. It has more to do with our own emotional limits as, well, humans. It can be exhausting if you’re aren’t feeling up to the task of processing other people’s problems. Sometimes the letters can be disturbing or intense.
Or they might be too relevant to my own life. I can use hindsight and my own life experience to reply to letters from younger people. But I might not have the same insight when writing to people I suspect are closer to my own age. I might be experiencing some of the same problems they are, and I don’t have the answers myself yet.
Sometimes I open the game and I can’t find any letters I want to reply to. It’s not from a lack of empathy. It’s more about feeling unequipped to offer useful or actionable words. The old advice that we can’t solve everyone’s problems applies here. We won’t always be the best candidate for every problem.
And that’s OK. The power of Kind Words is in making an effort to help someone in their time of need. The power of Kind Words is in paying attention.
The philosopher Simone Weil wrote in a 1942 letter that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Weil was a famously severe thinker, but her writing soars to amazing heights on the strength of its convictions. And one thing she felt strongly about was attention.
Weil offered that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”
But just as you shouldn’t “expect” results from praying, Weil didn’t see attention as a means of problem-solving. She wrote:
“The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself.”
This is a philosophy of compassion without the restraint of prior knowledge, and it’s very similar the foundation of Kind Words. The player in this game is alone, adrift in a tiny square room floating through space. This is a space of solitude. And Weil says solitude is where we find a “greater possibility of attention.”
All of us have found ourselves separated from others during quarantine. But physical distance doesn’t stop us from fulfilling our obligations to even the most distant strangers. Ultimately, our kind words may not be helpful to their recipient. But this game encourages us to try anyway. Like Weil suggested, we need to know someone else’s pain is as real as our own. We may not have the answers to other people’s problems, but we can let them know they’re not alone.
As we respond to all this anonymous pain and suffering, we work toward helping someone without the usual markers we have for understanding them. We may even be responding to people we would find unlikable, perhaps even reprehensible, in real life. But absent that information, we can only respond with the generosity and empathy we would want in our moments of need.
That’s what make this game a radical one. It’s powered by an empathy unconnected to any religion, philosophy, ideology, therapy or even the want for friendship. It’s not a game about connecting, necessarily. It’s a way to validate others when they need it most. Sometimes, we just need to be seen and heard, and recognized.
That wraps up my thoughts on Kind Words, and, if you enjoyed this video, I would greatly appreciate if you give it a thumbs up below. I also encourage you to subscribe if you liked my perspective and commentary, as I’ll be uploading more videos soon.
These are some of the topics I’m hoping to cover in the next few months. I realize it’a diverse mix and obviously it’s very subject to change, especially as I get a better understanding of what kind of content people like.
I’m calling this series a “library,” because I’m hoping to catalog insights, themes and trends across all kinds of art and media. These things connect in all kinds of unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s just fun to learn things or notice things that you hadn’t before. So thanks for visiting, and remember, if you’re feeling down, don’t be afraid to reach out to that void for a few kind words.