It started with a question on Twitter.
That’s Minority Media, the developers behind Papo & Yo and the upcoming Silent Enemy. Over the last couple years, I’ve become a big fan of them as people and as game producers. I even talked about their games in my article about empathy games.
The tweet was referencing an article about the appeal of failure in video games. And the question, of how this could be placed into the framework of an empathy game, was one that managed to give me pause. It’s an interesting question: what role COULD failure play in an empathy game?
My initial thought was the belief that we can “fail” at difficult decisions in our lives. We’ve all had those moments of retrospective “well, I could have handled that better” hindsight. This is an obvious area of empathy and understanding that is near universal among us. They responded with another interesting question.
As my mind continued to twist itself around the idea, I started thinking about the concept of “learning” from “mistakes”. I put them in quotations there because I think they’re limiting terms, but they give the general sense of what I mean.
We don’t have a reset button. A save state from a previous point, prior to difficult decisions or tough moments in life. We have to live with our choices and hopefully develop from them. And this is where I think there is design potential.
Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead push living with your mistakes as a narrative device. No matter what choices you make, the story continues. Let’s try applying this mindset to decision making in empathy games.
Let’s picture a game where your character is faced with a difficult life decision. You’re given multiple ways to rectify the situation, and regardless of the outcome, you continue. Depending on how you handle it, you learn new “skills”. This can differ depending on your choices in these situations. A life-skills RPG skill tree of sorts. If we wanted to take it a step further, these moments could even shape the personality of your character. If they handle the situation with aggression, maybe the start to have moments of anger and frustration more easily.
We’ve all had those moments where a particularly stressful day has made us snappy or unintentionally mean. Perhaps later in the game, the character’s current mood can cause us to lose the ability to communicate clearly to NPCs. The gameplay comes from us trying to overcome the stress and hurt and work through it to develop relationships and solve future conflicts. It’s something that, if done right, I think could easily be understood by anyone that’s been there in their real life.
To answer their question, on how we can make it understandable and relatable, we have to make the character’s reaction to failure shape them as individuals. Every failure and success in our own lives shape us, so we must reflect that in characters in situations that reflect real-life situations.
Going back to the article they posted, about the appeal of failure, we can look at why we like that in games. The satisfaction of overcoming a difficult trial. I think that’s where we ultimately find how to design that into an empathy game. The satisfaction that your character can strive on the other side of a difficult life decision, a blockade overcome. That they continue on, as we can. We have to allow the player a way to “heal”. Instead of HP or hearts, we have them heal their emotional state. Perhaps they can, after a trying experience, access something they enjoy. A game, a book, etc. and this “heals” their mind by giving them ease of mind. The more we make the gameplay mechanics reflect how we react to difficult situations in real life, the more we can make it resonate. And the more we can make “failure” into something more accessible and less fatalistic.
These are just general thoughts on how this could be approached, avenues this could open. I think it’s a really fascinating concept that could lead to amazing games.