Despite Hollywood’s many efforts, no one has managed to perfectly combine video games with film or television. But for all its flaws Kiss Me First comes pretty close. The Channel 4 drama may not know where it wants to go from an emotional or thematic perspective, but it does one thing incredibly well. Adrian makes for a solidly creepy villain in the digital age.
Set in London, Kiss Me First follows the sad Lelia (Tallulah Haddon), a lonely teenager who doesn’t know what to do with herself after the tragic death of her mother. The only time she feels peace is when she’s in the virtual world of Azana, an open world fighting game. After meeting a mysterious woman named Tess (Simona Brown) she starts to recover, slowly embracing her own humanity thanks to Tess and a secretive organization within Azana. But nothing is as it seems in this show.
Once Tess disappears, Leila becomes obsessed with finding her new friend. Her journey leads her to witness an actual death, explore her dark side, and become a member of a cult led by the shady Adrian. By the series’ end it’s clear that her virtual friends may even have the ability to end her real life.
At its best, Kiss Me First is a heartfelt examination about the escapism of video games and how modern technology both fosters and eliminates our humanity. At its worst, it’s an unfocused drama that follows an inconsistent protagonist. But even though he sometimes falls into the inconsistent beats that plague show, Adrian (Matthew Beard) is such an interesting character it’s tempting to forgive the series for its faults.
Adrian is the leader of the Red Pill group, a collection of Azana players who congregate not to fight but to relax and be emotionally vulnerable with one another. As the series progresses this sweet commune soon transforms into a real life cult complete with matching uniforms and creepy group beverages. This is naturally all orchestrated and led by Adrian.
It would be impossible to create a villain as creepy as Adrian if Kiss Me First was only limited to the world of video games or the world of movies. The most unnerving elements of Kiss Me First happen when the danger Leila faces in Azana bleeds into her real life. Slowly the moments that once seemed charming, like when Tess tracked down Leila in real life, start to feel unnerving. As the series continues, it becomes clear that Adrian is connected to even the most seemingly innocuous instances of these crossovers. Adrian is not just in Azana; he’s in Leila’s phone lines and trapped in her mind.
These creepy connections to reality come to a head when Adrian appears in Leila’s offline life. Rather than appearing as his player or through a proxy, Adrian appears in Leila’s world in the only form she’s ever seen him — as his avatar. Watching heartfelt interactions though virtual avatars can be distancing, but seeing one set in the real world is disturbing.
As Adrian appears to Leila more often and becomes more omnipotent, it becomes less clear what he is. Is he really the son of Azana’s creator as Tess believes? Has he been hacking people somehow to make them join his cult? Is he even a real person or is he just a personality in the game? In its first season, Kiss Me First doesn’t have an answer for these questions, but the fact it can establish these questions is unnerving.
The appeal of virtual reality is that it can almost indistinguishably blur the lines between video games and reality. Through Adrian Kiss Me First examines that optimistic goal and exploits it by asking what if this intersection was used for evil. It’s not a perfect execution, but this virtual cult leader certainly makes video games seem creepier than they already are.