Life is hard, few people would argue that point, though what makes it hard is always a topic for discussion. Stress, work, the whole “hell is other people” thing, it all feeds into the need to occasionally just take a break and escape from it all. I’ve told some of my students that the way that I deal with them after a long day of teaching college freshmen is to go home, turn on my Xbox, and play Payday 2.
That’s the reason we play these kinds of games, why we hop onto various and sundry online games and blow each other away and perform acts that would likely get us imprisoned, or at the very least deported. But that’s obviously not what games are for. It’s been suggested that games are becoming the new literature, a form of storytelling that demands interactivity, yet at the same time follows the same paths to the same expected point. While the Limbos and Braids and Bastions and Journeys of the gaming world have been tugging at our heartstrings and also making us believe that we were lucky to not be eviscerated by spiders during our childhood, another new genre has been creeping out of the indie market in the last few years: the so-called “empathy game”.
Empathy is present in a lot of modern games, though it’s often used to hold up a mirror and make the player face their own reflection, whether it’s reenacting Heart of Darkness with a third-person shooter or famously forcing pirates to live through the fate they’re inflicting on indie game developers. The most successful story-based games are often the one where you feel a personal connection to the character, though it could be argued that that’s sympathy, not empathy.
The point of the empathy game is to make the player feel exactly what the genre’s about: empathy for someone they normally wouldn’t consider. The more known examples of the empathy game usually revolve around a member of the working poor, highlighting the hard choices that must be made to ensure one’s survival. One of the common traits of the empathy game is then in its difficulty: tutorials are rare, the speed is high, and the punishment for mistakes often has dire consequences, often taken on on the player-character’s family or other loved ones. The protagonist is often unnamed to encourage self-insertion, to give the player the sense this is all happening to them, or, better said, could happen to them. That being said, empathy are supposed to be difficult to “win”, i.e. get the happy ending, because like the title of the blog entry says: life is hard, and empathy games strive to remind us of that.
Granted, they don’t always succeed. Cart Life bucks a few trends of the empathy genre off the bat. Though the creator has himself labeled it as a “retail simulator”, critics have lumped it in with the empathy genre simply because of the subject matter: you choose a down-on-their-luck person with limited funds and limited time to make the rent to start a food or coffee cart to make ends meet. The difficulty is ramped from the get-go, with an unhelpful file and no advice on how or where to find a cart, where to get supplies, where to set up, how to serve customers, which leads the player to going by trial-and-error, which is likely where the empathy angle comes in, since this is often how things go in life. It’s possible to be beaten, mugged, arrested, and heavily fined in this game simply for setting up shop in the wrong areas that you had no idea you weren’t supposed to be in. Essentially, it smacks of The Witcher, punishing you for failing at things you had no idea how to do that it refuses to teach you, except that it offers a restart option (which you don’t get in real life). While it tugs the heartstrings through financial hardship (especially with the single mother character), some of the hardships feel too exaggerated to elicit much empathy. One fine for selling without a permit can ruin your chances of making rent, one mistake making change leaves you without money for the rest of the day, permits are exorbitantly expensive and usually require bribes to obtain, and there’s always the possibility that before the day is out you’ll be beaten half to death by a kebab vendor or mugged on the way back to your crash space. Cart Life wears its anti-authoritarian colors proudly, but at the end of the day, maybe it’s just what the creator calls it, a “retail simulator”. For a real taste of bureaucracy though, one look no further than Papers, Please.
Described as a “dystopian document thriller”, Papers, Please contains all of the menial labor of Cart Life, but instead puts it in its proper frustrating context. Set in a country that’s an obvious stand-in for Eastern Europe just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the game puts the player in a tiny windowed office to deal with a never-ending line of people at a border checkpoint. Plenty has already been written about the game itself, but what about the “empathy” angle? Considering that’s it’s based in a Cold War era country that likely wouldn’t exist today if it ever did exist, and that it involves stamping visas yes or no, what’s the point? The premise is simple: you’re picked and thrown into a job that you have no idea how to do other than simple instructions that grow more complicated with each passing day to support your starving family. One could easily ask if these are the sorts of things our own customs and immigration officials have to deal with on a daily basis, and the dozens people and hundreds of documents they have to look over and verify. It’s also in Papers, Please that the player must make the sorts of hard choices that have no real right answer, offering the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” mindset that’s often required to survive, rather than thrive in the settings an empathy game. Do you become a rubber-stamp guy, since you get paid by the approval and your kid is sick, or do you hope he’ll get better so you don’t risk getting fired? It’s games like Papers, Please that confront players with these sorts of moral quandaries that they won’t find in a AAA title, often because it’s those kind of decisions we play games to escape making just for a little while. But still, when it comes to an empathy game that forces hard choices, even Papers, Please must stand in awe of Spent.
Originally conceived by a partnership between an ad agency and the Urban Ministries of Durham, Spent brings back the chilling belief of the 1980s that “any family is one missed paycheck away from homelessness”. Probably one of the original and most jarring of empathy games, Spent creates no unknown country, no job you’d likely not take, it simply puts you in the shoes of a single parent in the working poor and challenges you to make it to the end of the month. You start by finding a place to live and balancing commute time vs. rent price (and likely end up living up to 50 miles away), then finding one of the few jobs open to, well, anyone, and making a go of it. The terrifying thing is that the stumbling blocks to survival are so… ordinary. Bad colds, public transportation being late or just missing the bus by a couple minutes, having to buy school clothes for your kid and the cheapest quasi-nutritional food possible… All of it serves as reminders to anyone who’s been on that side of the line, and that all it takes is one bad month to put you out on the street. With Spent, there are no mini-games for your job, it’s simply expected you’ll know what you’re doing (though temps have to pass a typing exam). Instead, everything rides on the cost decisions you have to make, the game often following with sobering statistics to remind you that yes, cost is one of the big reasons the working poor don’t have health insurance. Empathy is one of the traits that the internet both cultivates and obliterates, depending on whether you’re the sort of person who reads the comments section. One of the reasons that Spent elicited so much attention is that it didn’t hide behind a fantasy, and that most of the people who played it were people who were already living the situation they were playing, and a lot of the detractors failed to get the point.
Empathy games are tricky because they elicit one of three emotions, generally: empathy, apathy, or arrogance. For every person taking the time to stop and think about the message of Papers, Please, there’s a person saying “meh” or a person rolling their eyes and declaring they’d never be stupid enough to be in that situation. For every person who cringes at every decision of Spent, there’s a guy posting screenshots of his final “score” and betting his friends can’t beat it, and another guy firing off a trollish anti-poor rant in a comments section somewhere. This is likely why empathy games will be forever confined to the indie stable, because there’s not a lot of money in a game you can’t “win”, and let’s face it, a lot of us would like to believe that there’s a way to “win” at life, and being shown reminders that that’s unlikely is hardly a tempting proposition.