The Kids We Were was a hard game for me to get through. Not because of any tricky puzzles or skill demands—it’s a “walking sim”, at heart—but because of something far more challenging: its raw, unflinching honesty. It’s a game that deals with some heavy themes, handled with care but also with a certain, refreshing bluntness. I had to play in short bursts, stopping frequently to step away, to process, to ground myself. There were times when it was too much, when I found it too painful to keep going.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Spoiler warning: minor spoilers for The Kids We Were follow, in order to talk about the themes it explores and do them justice.
To put it plainly—and to give something of a content warning, both for the game and for this review—The Kids We Were is about domestic violence. It’s about a lot of other things, too, but the thread that runs through everything is the impact of abuse, particularly on children, and on how it can cyclically perpetuate from generation to generation. It’s treated with sensitivity: not graphic or even overly descriptive, seen through the eyes of children and the abstracting lens of dreamlike nostalgia. But it’s exactly that innocent perspective that makes it so impactful, without ever needing to fall back on shock value. Sometimes, the simple, painfully blunt words of a child can leave the strongest impression.
“I miss when my mom was nice.”
As a reflection on some of the worst that people are capable of, The Kids We Were is haunting, heartbreaking. But it’s also hopeful—ultimately, it’s about how those cycles of abuse, inevitable as they might seem, can be broken.
While searching for his estranged father, an unusual encounter sees 11-year-old Minato sent 33 years into the past, to 1987. A notebook full of a small town’s local legends and the advice to “find Nozomi” are the only clues he has to go on for the urgent task of fixing the future—though what exactly needs to be fixed, and how, is far from clear. Crossing paths with a group of kids united in their distrust of adults sets the wheels in motion, for both an adventure-filled summer holiday and more sombre questions about life and family.
Related: Resette’s Prescription review: Wrapped within a simple, short point-and-click adventure game is a haunting and powerful tale of abuse, trauma, and one child’s struggle to move on.
It’s the way it so effortlessly weaves these things together that makes The Kids We Were really stand out. Despite the heaviness of its central themes, there’s a lighthearted air to most of the game. Minato and the rest of his ragtag crew are energetic, playful kids who mostly just want to (and do) have fun. The friendships that form through trying to get an eccentric old tsuchinoko hunter to teach you his tricks, or daring one another to board a supposedly haunted train, or laughing about pubes when you go to a public bath together—those are for life.
The time travel framing and the ‘80s setting create a decidedly nostalgic mood, as you explore a little, sort-of rural town full of late Showa-era charm, with lots of little details to take in and a gallery of collectibles to find. And even though it very specifically channels ‘80s Japan in a way that means a lot of players who didn’t grow up there won’t have any particular connection to the specifics, the nostalgic mood—bolstered by the adorable voxel aesthetic and warm, hazy filters—is undeniable and infectious. Kagami village is the warm comfort of revisiting childhood, even if it may not be your own.
And against that backdrop, The Kids We Were organically, carefully lets its darker themes unfold, and gives them weight and meaning. Each of these kids is defined by their trauma, to some extent—how could they not be?—but they also get to be lively, happy, whole people beyond that. The depth of characterisation, aided by an especially well-written English translation, makes each one of these kids feel real and relatable, and that’s crucial groundwork for the direction that the game goes.
Nostalgia is more than just a mood, and time travel is more than just a narrative pretext—these are the things that bring the core ideas of The Kids We Were home. They both feed the question of how past defines future: to what extent do our experiences as kids determine the kinds of adults we turn out to be? What role do our choices play? If you could go back and change the past, to fix things, would you?
These are familiar ideas in time travel stories, but they take on a different meaning in The Kids We Were because of the domestic violence theme. In that context, such tropes become much more grounded in the grim reality of cycles of abuse, and how to break them. Again, it’s ultimately a hopeful message, and without wanting to give too much away, the way a riff on Back to the Future turns into a tale about choosing a different path is nothing short of beautiful.
This is what made The Kids We Were such a tough game to get through. Despite the apparent frivolity of its setup, it’s an honest, heartbreaking story about an extremely difficult subject, approached with utmost care and all the more confronting for it. But it’s a painful journey that needs to be taken, with a hopeful message at the end of it, and the warm embrace of close friends and treasured childhood memories to carry you there.
The Kids We Were
Developer: Gagex Co Ltd
Publisher: Gagex Co Ltd
Genre: Adventure game, walking simulator, narrative adventure
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Release date: 2 December 2021 (Switch), 13 January 2022 (PC)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.