Star Maid Games’ Kimmy is, on the surface, a visual novel about babysitting in the 1960s. Spend some time with it, however, and you’ll find that it’s about much more than babysitting, with lots more modern relevancy than its setting would have you believe.
Star Maid Games
April 18, 2017
You play as Dana, a girl who begins babysitting her young neighbor, Kimmy. Kimmy, a shy, sweet girl, comes from a strange home. When you meet her, she’s escaped from her harness on the porch, where she normally plays alone. Her mother is harried, her father is largely absent, and she’s so painfully shy that it quite quickly becomes clear that something about her family life is off.
As her babysitter, you take her around the neighborhood to play games with other kids. In terms of mechanics, that means a short trivia series about each one–games like jacks, marbles, or horseshoes–and how its rules work. Answering the question wrong leads to some confusion on the part of the neighborhood kids and requires you to start again. These game quizzes are the least interesting part, but fold nicely into the game’s thematic interests, particularly that the conversation, especially the words that aren’t said, are more important than the games.
There’s a lot in Kimmy that isn’t said, and that’s where the game really shines. In playing Dana, you’re not playing some kind of Encyclopedia Brown wunderkind. You’re playing a child whose empathy and curiosity drive the story, but she is still a kid. The adults hide their problems from her, believing she’s too young to understand, and other kids hint at problems in their lives, but don’t have the concrete knowledge or language to really talk about them. It’s obvious that almost every character has something going on in their life, but, as a child, there’s nothing Dana can do to help other than forge friendships and distract them with playing games.
The 1960s setting is not inconsequential. Dana and her friends deal with issues from that era exactly as children would. Things often aren’t spoken of outright, and, as a player, you’re often piecing together the conversations you hear with what you know of the era to form a complete narrative. It’s an artful use of dissonance, as you, the player, can understand things that your character, Dana, can’t. The result is a heavy, complex narrative brightened by Dana and the other children’s connections, no matter how strained or tense those relationships might be.
Each conversation is accompanied by Laura Knetzger’s adorable artwork. It feels very much like a storybook. The art isn’t aiming for absolute realism, and the game is stronger for it. Rather than being a grittily realistic look at life, it’s filtered through a child’s vision. In this case, that vision is bright and cheerful with expressive faces and simple animations that recall animated children’s books.
From another perspective, we’d expect a darker, less colorful vision of the world; instead, Kimmy always looks cheerful. The story is weighty enough that desaturation and hyperrealism aren’t necessary to convey the point. Instead, Knetzger’s artwork does the legwork of conveying a story from a child’s pastel worldview rather than an adult’s more realistic take.
Though Kimmy and Star Maid Games’ other title, Cibele, are quite different from one another, you can still see the stylistic connection between the two. Each game explores the boundaries of game storytelling in its own unique way, playing with gaming as a concept and as a meta-narrative within the confines of the story. Kimmy, like Cibele, asks us to consider games as a tool and a means of connection; while the story could ostensibly function without the game elements, it wouldn’t be half as interesting.
Kimmy is an excellent encapsulation of what storytelling in visual novels can do. The connections you forge throughout are just as important as the mystery of Kimmy’s home life. The time you spend getting to know each character makes the world richer, never feeling like a chore or a collectible quest. Even when the story drags as you struggle to remember the real rules of Hopscotch, it’s done with purpose, a reminder that play is important and that life is more than just conflict or fear, but rather a mixture of complicated, conflicting, challenging emotions, arbitrary rules, and human connection.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.