Though summer vacation may seem to stretch on in a forever haze, Nina Freeman’s Kimmy is a bittersweet reminder that every childhood must come to an end. It’s a visual novel about the complex society of children, governed by their own rules and rituals as they try to parse the adult world.
You roam the streets as 10-year-old Dana Navarro. Dana takes her responsibility as kindergartener Kimmy Munro’s babysitter very seriously, and she does her best to protect Kimmy and coax her out of her shell. Your time in their world is brief — a hot August in 1968 — and is by turns idyllic and foreboding. You decide which friends Kimmy will make and what games she’ll learn. But even as the children play hopscotch and jump rope, their world is overshadowed by little heartaches and grownup problems.
If you befriend loner Jimmy, he’ll tell you about how he’s frequently bullied at school. He and Kimmy agree that it’s better to not tell anyone, and that getting bulled is “just the way it is.” Dana’s neighbor Harold wants to learn how to sew, but his father thinks that clothes are for girls and he should be playing sports. And as the story progresses, you learn more about Kimmy’s home problems: the lack of money, the mysterious crying sound, possible alcohol abuse, and her father’s constant absence.
“There’s an instinctual desire to protect the kids you meet from these trials they’re enduring, but Dana is only a child herself.”
There’s an instinctual desire to protect the kids you meet from these trials they’re enduring, but Dana is only a child herself — a fact that her peers remind her of time and again. She repeats pearls of wisdom from her mother, but she’s frustrated by the secrecy from adults in her life. Even though she might not understand everything that’s happening, she becomes increasingly aware of her own helplessness. At its core, the game is a coming-of-age story about interstitial time in Dana’s life between the innocence of childhood and the complexities of adulthood.
Kimmy hits close to home because, playing the game as an adult, you can clearly see the signs of toxic situations as well as understand the rationale of the parents when they attempt to shield their children. The art style of the game is reminiscent of children’s books — hand drawn portraits and pastels — creating a kind of brightly colored varnish for underlying anxieties.
A large part of your interactions with other characters is to learn and play games. You recite the rules to marbles or a game of catch, creating a kind of universal framework through which the children interact. It’s an interesting way of contextualizing the way kids view the world: this is how you win, this is how you lose. It’s a stark comparison to the gray areas the adults inhabit.
“Is it normal for boys and girls to be friends? Is it normal to eat your eggs with hot sauce? Is it normal to leave a baby alone, unattended?”
There are rules here, as well, for how the children try to understand what’s going on. They hold counsel with each other, comparing notes on what’s “normal.”
“I heard adults don’t get summer vacation,” one child says to another. The other child replies, “That sounds fake.” There are little moments like this as the children exchange half-complete ideas and attempt to get a sense of the world around them. They ask each other: Is it normal for boys and girls to be friends? Is it normal to eat your eggs with hot sauce? Is it normal to leave a baby alone, unattended?
It’s through this gradual awareness of how different other families are that Dana begins to grow up. Her world, originally delineated by clear rules, eventually expands until there’s enough room for something very adult: a white lie.
Throughout the game, there’s talk of honesty. Harold and Donna’s parents told them to always be honest, even if it hurts the other person. Dana tries desperately to be Kimmy’s friend and protector. When Kimmy moves far away, though, all she can do is promise that she’ll find some way to visit her and they’ll get a chance to play together again. It’s an empty promise, one that Dana knows she can’t fulfill, but there’s nothing else she can say or do.
After getting to know Kimmy, Dana’s world is both larger and smaller than ever. She learns that things are complicated and friendship can’t conquer everything. And she’s also reminded, somewhat grimly, that as a child, adults have all the power. They keep secrets, they escape consequences, and they make all the decisions.
There’s a kind of generational difference between the kids in Kimmy — the older ones taking care of the younger ones — and a kind of play-acting at being an adult. At the start, Dana says that she’s too old for games now. She doesn’t play at recess; she has extracurriculars to worry about, and she has to learn how to be responsible. By the end, when the neighborhood children ask her to come play, she joins them, embracing what remains of her childhood while she still can.