Epiphany in empathy

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Empathy games are a relatively new classification that has emerged from the expanding world of indie games. With a strong emphasis on mundane settings, these games are driven by strong core concepts and deal with serious moral, social, or political issues. They pack a powerful emotional punch, leaving the player to meditate on the experience long after the screen goes dark.

Perhaps one of the earliest examples is Cart Life, a simulation that puts the player into the shoes of a single mother trying to get her coffee business up and running. What at first sounds like a slightly more serious version of operating a virtual lemonade stand ends up being a harrowing attempt at providing a stable environment for yourself and your young daughter. You must ensure she gets to school, purchase supplies for your business, and make sure the bills are paid. Every minute action takes a balance of time and money, even the choice of walking or taking a taxi to your daughter’s custody hearing becomes a complication that could see your family torn apart. Cart Life forces the player to live as the character they are playing and dive deep into the day-to-day of a person struggling to free herself from working poverty and make a better life for her child. This is a game that plays hard with players’ emotions and calls into question how we view others.

Papers Please offers another perspective on human hardship. It’s a look into the life of a border official in a fictional eastern-European country. This bleak simulation of nondescript soviet-style life is a balancing act between the responsibility of checking and rechecking official documents, dates, and standards, while trying to get as many people processed in a given day to make enough money to feed a family and keep a roof over their heads. With a variety of foreign countries, standards, and requirements to cross-check, the days can seem tedious, but this touch of reality forces the player more deeply into the role assigned to them. The player feels a constant fear of incurring wage penalties for improperly processing a traveller, and of how that may affect the well-being of their dependents. Despite its tedium, Papers Please is a fantastic exercise in player discipline and an enlightening experiment in social perspective.

Inequality and government control have become strong themes in empathy games, as the emotions involved produce strong connections between the player and the characters they inhabit. These pressure-filled environments can aim to induce empathy, fear, or frustration; Black Bar is the latter. A lesson in censorship and oppressive government bureaucracy, Black Bar is a narrative told through correspondence between the player character and her friend who has recently gone away to work at the Department of Communication. In her first letter, the player’s friend Kenty informs her that some of her writing “may be redacted,” and it is up to the player to fill in the redacted words and phrases. Through this simple mechanic, Black Bar becomes both emotionally and visually striking. A functional narrative keeps players fixated on uncovering the Department’s intentionally complex regulations as well as knowledge of its enemies, the resistance.

With such emphasis on simulating the monotonous reality of everyday life, the style of gameplay in many of these titles could be considered dull. However, with the massive potential for emotional hooks, players feel compelled to continue in an effort to make their character’s digital world just a little bit better. Unfortunately these attempts are often made futile by the games’ own mechanics. When interactive narratives introduce this kind of hopelessness and anxiety, they become tragedies that the player is able to experience in full. This is a refreshing alternative to the routine of inevitably solving every major problem, as with the majority of story-driven games.

Although empathy games are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an immense step in the right direction for games in the search for greater cultural recognition—something that everyone should be checking out.

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