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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Review: Essays on Empathy (PC)


Review by Harvard L.

I’m going to be honest, Essays on Empathy is precisely the kind of game which I would purchase, and then inevitably let languish in my Steam library because I’m never “in the mood”. Such has been my tendency of late when it comes to art games; there are dozens which I’ve paid money for which I love the idea of, but don’t have the mental real estate to engage with. I reason that if I’m supporting the developers, it’s fine. But there’s another side of that dynamic – the art-as-commerce assumption – which Essays on Empathy really opened my eyes to. If a game puts forward an artistic vision, but is not played; if it is bought, but left untouched – does it have value? I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love collections of small games, and I hope that this and titles like Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide can serve as a proof of concept for further studios. Essays on Empathy is a collection of ten small games by Spanish studio Deconstructeam. I’m a huge fan of the team's 2018 cyberpunk title The Red Strings Club, so I was excited to see what they could pull off with a smaller scope and more space to experiment. And for the most part, the collection delivers. There are mechanics-based games like Underground Hangovers - an unconventional Metroidvania – and Engolasters, January 2021 – a wandering exploration game. There are also smaller curiosities: a son tries to connect with his father via graphic novel in The Bookshelf Limbo, a hitman learns the art of flower arrangement in Eternal Home Floristry. I love the collection for its diversity in theme and style.

But what’s more interesting to me is the way the collection itself shines a light on craft and deepens the connection between player and developer. Each game comes with design notes and a short interview with the developers where they reflect on the process of designing the game. These conversations are put into the context of where the team was at the time, and what creative vision they were aiming to execute on. Taken together in chronological order, it represents the team honing their skills, developing their preferences, and working towards a recognisable “house style”. It’s a humbling experience – all ten of the games are filled with thematic depth, but the interviews suggest even more insight that couldn’t fit into each title’s limitations.


Across the games, there’s a recurring thread of a “coping” narrative – the story that things might not be perfect, but they’re not awful the way they currently are. It’s a mood I recognise from the stories of Lorrie Moore, or the films of Taika Waititi – that energy of sometimes-humorous-sometimes-sad limbo that arcs towards poignancy. It’s a fitting theme for what these games are; they’re complete, but also not-so, and many games’ design notes show signs of a potentially incredible experience if more work was put into it. In many cases, the games are presented exactly as they were at the end of their respective Game Jams, with UI quirks and typos left in. But it’s not always possible to put more work in until something reaches that arbitrary threshold of “incredible”, and it’s not like the vignettes in Essays on Empathy are less valuable because they haven’t reached the ambitious plans from their initial conception. Whether intentional or not, that’s the overarching theme I got from these games, and I’m all the happier for it.

These ideas are most evident in the last title in this collection, “De Tres al Cuarto” (literally “Three for a Quarter”; “Practically Worthless”), where a pair of stand-up comedians in a same-sex relationship need to hone their act through a simplified deckbuilding mechanic. This game presents a simple gameplay loop – play cards associated with a buildup, a punchline, or a whiff, and get paid based on how well your joke landed. Take some time to debrief with your comedy-slash-life partner at your choice of the bar, the beach or the hotel room, and then hone your set for the next night.

I particularly love the way deckbuilding is used to communicate aspiration rather than strategy. Players are teased with the option to buy powerful cards to establish big combos, but as the game develops, it becomes more evident that regardless of a conservative or a risky playstyle, the big combos might never actually happen. You’ll never afford the best cards without a tremendous stroke of luck. But it’s just at this realisation that the game’s narrative shifts to match, asking questions of value and self-worth. If the reality we currently experience isn’t unbearably bad, are we still justified to be indignant if our dreams don’t come true, if we don’t get that perfect Hollywood ending?


This is precisely the kind of small, warm story that is fundamentally impossible in our bombastic, capitalist conception of the games industry. If all we celebrate are the big games, the ones that leave us feeling like we got our money’s worth, the ones which have us posting screenshots on Twitter and the ones which blow up on Twitch – if this is the zeitgeist of our medium’s discourse, then what place could there be for the ordinary, the mediocre, the quintessentially human? I don’t know if Essays on Empathy will find an audience. If anything, it incorporates numerous design decisions which seem to impede its ability to find an audience. But it is a game which I, personally, am thankful for, and will be for a long time to come.



- Harvard L. 
Contributor

Review: Essays on Empathy (PC)
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