In the Ukraine, nearly half the population endures domestic abuse at some time in their lives; it is the women and children who suffer from this physical and emotional tumult most often. Masha is one of those women and, tonight, she has finally hit her tipping point. After a violent fight with her husband, Masha's son has gone missing along with The Kite which he loves so much.
In this provocatively portrayed adventure game from Anate Studio, help Masha in her harrowing night by pointing and clicking through the somber environment to gather the tools and courage needed to reach her son. With the exception of [P] to pause and access the menu, all controls are confined to the mouse, with different functions for the right and left buttons, and a drop-down inventory keeps items handy. The changing cursor mechanism works well to indicate interactivity with people and objects or where a scene can be exited; explore each scene by moving your cursor over everything. Gameplay resembles an escape-the-room game: solve a few puzzles, determine how to get past obstacles, and just get out of there to find the missing boy.
The puzzles and situational riddles are truly enjoyable yet can be tinged with annoyance in a couple instances, a couple quirks in the interface or design accounting for part of the challenge. In one case, the click points for closing a drawer and for taking an object out of it are too close, which is misleading. Later on, the particular order of operations in another puzzle might leave you baffled. During dialogue, a clock with spinning hands marks your wait; this might pique your impatience yet it also sets the pace to one that matches Masha's persistent hardship. Topping off its affecting visuals, the game's soundtrack—all Beethoven—sets the tone and adds a poetic element to the overall mood of the experience. The Kite is short, about an hour for the average player, yet its impact is much longer lasting.
Analysis: Game designer Anatoliy Koval and artist Tanya Medvid effectively employ Naturalism in their art and story; this results in a quiet beauty that softens the edges of melodrama, keeping it from being an eye-rolling soap opera. Just as you're perhaps looking sideways at Masha, wondering how she can stand upright with such a weak spine, you're compelled to keep playing, to see more, to spectate, and to wish for a happy solution to the problem. Soon it becomes clear: people in abusive domestic situations are clouded by their circumstances and do not have the perspective of a better situated outsider who can come along and see so clearly what they ought to do. Lack of education, financial dependence, psychological exhaustion, knowing only this way of life, and an apathetic society trap them in a cycle of abuse. Masha doesn't comment on that, though. She knows one thing: find her son.
There is something about art that defies description, that makes it all come together and, simply, work. For The Kite, it is its heart. Nothing is crassly or gratuitously added merely to appease players; Koval and Medvid clearly love their game, value their work and care about its design. This investment in the game and empathy for their characters transmits to us, the players. It's not just about the message or the gameplay, the story or the art. While The Kite has a fair amount of shortcomings, its merits make it engaging and enjoyable, contrarily, considering the subject matter. The few flaws in the diamond don't stop it from being a gem even if they do distract from its luster.
Although it's very stark and sordid, The Kite succeeds in being also beautiful, headily atmospheric and moving. Stunning, even. If Thomas Hardy was around today as an Indie game designer, I don't doubt this is the kind of game he'd make. Whether Masha faces a better fate than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, I'll leave to your own discovery.
UPDATE: The latest build of The Kite, version 1.2e is now available on Desura (look under "releases" in the right hand column). Version 1.2e fixes a hotspot issue, described in the review, and has a much improved English translation.
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