Kind Words, A Pandemic Darling, Gets Sequel In Very Different Times
"Everyone's still stressed as hell. They still need a place to go"
10:00 AM EST on December 13, 2023
Kind Words, a game about sending sincere, heartfelt messages to anonymous strangers, was a beneficiary of some good – though absolutely unintentional – timing. The game came out on PC near the end of 2019, and it began with a simple prompt: write a short letter about something that’s worrying you. Other players would read and respond to your letter as best as they could. Then 2020 rolled around, giving players a lot more to worry about.
Throughout the year, headlines called Kind Words “a tiny glimmer of hope in an increasingly harsh pandemic,” “the uplifting game we all need right now,” and “the perfect lockdown game.” But it garnered plenty of attention before lockdown via word of mouth and Twitch streamers, and its community has continued to send and reply to vulnerable queries for years after. Now it’s getting a sequel, Kind Words 2.
"I got asked this a lot: 'Is Kind Words just [people talking about] the pandemic?'” designer and studio founder Ziba Scott told Aftermath during Double Fine’s Day of the Devs event in LA last week. “So I put together a fancy word cloud and counted how many times people said this and that; I never released it, just kept it for myself. [Players’ concerns] were all love, family, work, school. Covid was barely on there. I mean, covid exacerbated those problems, and now they remain exacerbated, and everyone's still stressed as hell. They still need a place to go."
The pandemic, unfortunately, never went away, but now we’re all just expected to live with the looming threat of severe long-term illness while going about our daily lives – which is just super fun. Kind Words 2 will contain the entirety of Kind Words 1, including the game’s preexisting player base, but, as in real life, you can now go outside. The world beyond your character’s cozy bedroom consists of a small Animal Crossing-esque village where you can take part in asynchronous conversations with whomever you might encounter, as well as directed activities like writing and listening to poetry at a coffee shop.
As in Kind Words 1, all of this is completely anonymized. Scott wants players to feel free to go out on a limb. But he also wants them to remain focused on the task at hand.
"People like to go off topic,” said Scott. “Kind Words asks what you're worried about, but people also want to talk about 'What's your favorite anime?' or less serious stuff. Or they just want to write little poems and send them out. Some people were like, 'Whoa, these poems are awesome.' But then I'd get reports that were like, 'Get these poems out of here.' ... So after watching that for all these years, we've been noting that down and trying to make [alternative player behaviors] into first-class citizens. Now there are places to do these things that didn't fit. There's a place for your poetry, there's a place for life tips – plus some other weird stuff that we just wanted to throw in there."
During my demo session, I went up to the top of a mountain and was able to wish on the stars. I could also read other players’ wishes, which included entreaties for peace and love, as well as – memorably – somebody humbly requesting that the heavenly bodies deliver unto them some chicken nuggets. (I, not wanting to be a copycat, wished for chicken tenders.) In other locations, like a town square and a park near some woods, paper airplanes drifted in. These contained anonymous messages I was able to read.
There were also characters wandering around who functioned more or less like NPCs, but their dialogue was supplied by actual players. So if I tried to talk to one, my reply would go to a real person, who could then reply back next time they logged on. Scott described it as akin to texting. If two NPCs were talking, I could also listen in on conversations between real people that had already occurred. The goal is for these interactions to be short but sweet.
"They're limited to six total lines – three couplets in an exchange,” said Scott. “And then it's gone, and you'll never know if you're talking to the same person again."
Kind Words 2, which is set to release in 2024, descends, paper airplane-like, into a cultural context that might be more physically united than before, but which could not be more fragmented from a digital standpoint. Since the original game took off, Facebook and Instagram have transformed (to an even greater degree) into algorithmic sludge, and Twitter has been hacked to pieces by a manbaby who spent months letting somebody called Catturd Ratatouille him. YouTube, meanwhile, is ever shifting, and Discord is a labyrinth of niche-driven gated communities. TikTok, almost by default, is the new town square, but that’s been a mixed bag at best. Social media as we know it is crumbling. It is unclear what, if anything, will take its place.
Scott has no pretensions of positioning Kind Words 2 to do so, but he recognizes that now more than ever, people want a place where they can communicate in a chill and decent fashion.
"There's this huge unsatisfied and maybe unsatisfiable desire in humanity to talk to others and talk about oneself – to be heard by other people and also to be a listening ear,” said Scott. “A lot of people who play Kind Words 1 are there not for themselves; they like to help other people, and that's what they're getting. And helping other people is often helping yourself. Listening to other people's problems on your own terms, at your own pace is the value we get out of it. Social media isn't headed that way. I don't know where it's going, but it's not going somewhere nicer or less stressful."
"Kind Words,” he added, “is not gonna fill that void. We already have this weird conflation of promotion and capitalism and human conversation mixing together on Instagram and Twitter – and now entering a fiery hell spiral. This is just one small corner of what I think human communication on the net can be. I can do that one nicely, and someone else can figure out how to promote healthy everything else."
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