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Premature Evaluation: Kim

Novel in many ways

Every Monday, and this Tuesday, Rob Zacny settles down with his game library in search of the next great Early Access game. This week, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Kim.

An adventure game based on Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim [official site] is almost as strange and difficult to assess as the book itself. Like its source material, it's full of contradiction and complication, a work at once in conflict with its goals and yet more enticing because of it. It shouldn't work, and in some ways it very much doesn't… but then you get caught up in it and those objections are forgotten. At least for a time.

I only read Kim a few years ago, expecting to find a rolicking adventure alongside a full-throated celebration of the British Raj. Such is Kipling's reputation as a 19th century imperialist who used his literary gifts to burnish his empire's self-image. He loved empire so much that he gifted to America the poem "The White Man's Burden", just to encourage a traditionally isolationist and racist state to take that racism on a world tour.

But Kim caught me by surprise as it catches so many who have read it in the post-colonial era. It's charming and warm, open-minded even as it betrays a mind shaped by casual, offhanded racism. Kim is an affectionate, magical (and yes, Orientalist) coming-of-age "road trip" story set in the liminal spaces between Europe, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Kim is a story that fundamentally likes the people it attempts to portray, whoever they are and wherever they come from. As such, it's easy to enjoy and difficult to interpret as a pure colonial fantasy.

Nevertheless, it's a strange book for The Secret Games Company to adapt as an adventure game, given how loaded the subject matter has become. Yet it's also impressive how well SGC have found the game inside the story.

As the eponymous hero, Kim, you play the part of a street-wise orphan in Lahore in the closing years of the 19th century. The action begins as Kim encounters a wandering Buddhist priest, Teshoo Lama, whose Mister Magoo-like pilgrimage has brought him to the city. Kim is sympathetic to the sweet-natured, clueless priest and takes him under his wing by volunteering to be his guide on his quest.

Where this becomes a game is that Kim is foremost a survivor. Food, shelter, equipment… Kim needs all of it and doesn't have ready access to any of it. So you explore the Indian countryside and cities, doing odd jobs, having chance encounters with characters from the novel, and perhaps doing a little thieving or confidence-scheming to get by. The game ends after four years (time passes quickly in this game, especially when you're traveling) when Kim grows up and puts his vagabond days behind him.

The catch is that in addition to maintaining Kim's health, you also have to maintain his spirits. What Kim lives for is meeting people and going on adventures. The closest thing he has to a parent, a horse-trader in Lahore named Mahbub Ali, calls Kim "Friend of All the World" and that's a pretty apt description of the character you are role-playing. One of the things that this game does so well is channel the laughter and delight of Kipling's original into every interaction.

Kim meets British fops and savvy frontier intelligence agents, wandering beggars and prosperous shopkeepers, and with each interaction Kim seeks to understand the people he meets and figure out how to place them within his understanding of the world. If you're not making new friends and learning new things, Kim gets depressed and starts taking penalties.

There is something of an overarching plot to Kim. First, there is the saga of your adopted lama and his quest to find a sacred river. Second, there's The Great Game: the cold-war intrigue between Imperial Russia and the British Empire, fought in the Indian backcountry and the Afghan frontier. Throughout the story, Kim will encounter people who speak in code to each other, and who take great interest in Kim's chameleon-like ability to ingratiate himself in almost any setting. While Kim never fully becomes a game about espionage adventures, they are one of the threads that runs through the story.

You'll do just about everything from a top-down perspective looking at beautiful, painterly maps of Kim's India. Kim moves with great loping strides while his lama follow along at a more leisurely pace in his orange robes. A pair of shoe-tips sticking out from beneath a turban indicates a patrolling Sikh guard, while a black robe and straw hat might be the regimental chaplain of the local British regiment. Most people have something to tell Kim, and quite a few will have some kind of quest for him to fulfill if he has the time.

Of course, Kim can also be a little more underhanded. You can go into stealth mode, at which point the map darkens and the vision cones of local guards are illuminated while you try and break into houses and shops to look for goodies. Or you can equip a weapon and start fights, though Kim can make himself persona non grata in different regions if he gets caught doing bad things.

The big problem I have with Kim right now is that none of these systems feels entirely at home with all the rest. It feels jarring to just click a button and Kim goes from being Friend of All the World to some kind of second-story man or back-alley assassin. It doesn't help that resources are so scarce that it can be near impossible for afford any of the gear that makes stealth and violence viable, to say nothing of the fact that I'm not sure that's anything that Kim would really want to be a part of. When you're just running around chatting to people and doing favors, the game feels much like the novel. When you enter combat or stealth modes, it feels like, "Kim: The Videogame" rather than an organic adaptation… and not a particularly good game, either.

On the other hand, as an experience, Kim does channel much of the appeal of the novel. This might actually make it somewhat unapproachable: Kim features some dense language, since it borrows heavily from Kipling's rendering of Indian conversational tics and social niceties. When characters talk to each other in Kim, they don't speak in the clear, concise modern English favored by your typical quest writer. They speak in allusions and asides, make offhand observations, and couch their requests in intimation and obligation. There were a few times where I had a conversation that resulted in a new quest and I had literally no idea what the hell I had just agreed to do, even if Kim did.

That's true of the novel as well, however. When there's a choice to be made, The Secret Games Company opts for authenticity of tone over clarity, and if that puts them at odds with user-friendly game design, it's probably a fair trade for the kind of people who are interested in seeing Kim brought to life on PC in all its complicated charm.

Kim is available on Steam for £16.99 / $24.99. My impressions are based on build 1097429 on 2 May 2016.

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