At the beginning of Children, you help a small group of faceless bodies fall into a dark hole. You don't have much to say either: a crowd forms around the edge of the ink-black well and when you touch the screen, they all fall over. In the next scene, those same bodies float helplessly down into seemingly nothing. You can't stop them, but if you hold a finger on a body, it will temporarily slow down before it falls again. I have played this opening several times and I am still not sure what it means. That's kind of the point. "Depending on who plays it, there are quite different reactions," explains Michael Frei, a Swiss filmmaker and artist who co-created Children. "Some see it as something dark, others find it hilarious."
Children is available today on PC, iPhone, and Androidand it may take 30 minutes altogether. The entire game is in black and white and it consists of a series of strange, curiously hypnotic interactive vignettes. Children is an experience about mass & # 39; s people and how they co-exist. In one scene faceless people can argue about the direction in which they should go, while with another scene you help the figures to follow pulsating tubes. You are never told what to do, and in many ways Children looks more like a thought-provoking toy, rather than a traditional game.
If it looks familiar, it could be because Kids is a spiritual successor of sorts. In 2012, Frei released a short film called Plug & Play about two characters that look like electrical plugs and solve problems with the relationship. In 2015 he collaborated with game designer Mario von Rickenbach to make it a little more interactive. After that experience, the couple decided to continue working together, this time from the very beginning focused on interactivity.
"It was hard to find someone who didn't have a fixed bias about what a game is," says Frei about his first search for a game development partner. "I had many people who wanted to turn mine around Plug & Play short film in a point-and-click adventure, and this is not what I was looking for. I tried to stay true to what I had in mind. Mario has a more experimental approach to game design, it's more about trying and testing. Our working methods therefore worked well together. That is also the reason why we decided to make another one. "
Plug & Play was a short film that was turned into a game but with Children, the team went in the opposite direction. They started building a game-like experience and then made a short film using the animations that were made during that first process. Full time development on Children started in 2016, and at the time the couple said they had learned a lot about the differences between film and games.
"In the film it's all about timing, about taking breaks to find the right rhythm," says Frei. "In the game, things on the screen always respond to the player, there must always be something to do. So it's much harder to time." Von Rickenbach adds, "I think working on something that was interactive from the start had a lot of influence on the film, because at the end the film was made of the things we did for the game. ”
They even went one step further: Children is not just a game and a short film. It is also an exhibition. Last February at the Museum of Digital Art (MuDA) in Zurich, an interactive one Children installation included playable versions of the game, in addition to an iteration of the movie that changed slightly depending on how many people were present to watch. There were even disturbing stuffy animal-like versions of the characters in the game, and patrons were encouraged to pick them up and carry them around. The installation has since traveled all over the world and landed everywhere from London to Tokyo.
It doesn't matter which version of Children you experience, the actual message is deliberately kept vague. The developers are clearly dealing with things about society and how people interact in large groups, but in the midst of all strange images, you will not find specific messages. "It is important that it remains open to interpretation," says Frei.