Empathy and Sympathy In Game Design

I've been thinking a lot recently about the rise of the silent protagonist (especially in terms of games like Oblivion or DA:O, not to mention FPSes), and I'm going to try my hand at redefining some issues.

For a hell of a long time here, we've been returning to the perennial "are Western or Japanese games/aesthetics/narratives better" issue. We've debated it from every angle, with the former usually coming down to "I like to control my character more directly, and feel like I have an impact on the story" and the latter being roughly "I like the deeper storytelling and independent characters/arcs". The battle rages for times, then dies down, then a new game comes out, and it starts back up.

I'd like to get rid of that distinction, to try to replace it with another one; a new distinction I feel might shed some light on these problems. I'd like to start distinguishing games not between "west" and "east" but between their attempted emotional resonance with the player: whether they're sympathetic games, or empathetic games.

See, "empathy" is characterized by emotional resonance based on feeling a similar emotion to the being in question: you feel sad because your friend is sad. Sympathy is (or at least can be viewed as) more remote. With empathy you feel with a person, with sympathy you feel for a person. The difference is not just semantic. Consider two major games: Halo, and Persona 3.

Halo achieves whatever emotional component it has through having the player experience the same joys and fears and frustrations as Master Chief/The Rookie (in ODST) "should" under those circumstances. More generally, it's attempting to create a reaction in the player by simply making the player feel something. It can startle you, scare you, unnerve you. Even in a game like Silent Hill, the main emotional component is largely evoked through creating the same tension and fear that the character would experience in the player.

Persona 3 doesn't do that. Its emotional component is not hinged on whether or not you the player feels the individual emotion, but rather whether you care about the character feeling that emotion. When something is tense for the characters, it's tense for the player not because of any game mechanic, but because the player cares about what happens to the characters. The distinguishing feature is that playing Persona 3, I never felt personally startled, or scared, or sad. I felt those things because of what happened to the characters.

There's something to be said about setting mood either through mis-en-scene (the actually cinematographic choices) versus narrative, and that's a component, but a bit far afield.

The point is that there are games on both sides from both categories. Japanese developers have made plenty of games where the actual emotional reaction is on the side of the player, rather than the characters. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem screwed with players hugely because it directly messed with them. It was intended to give the same "WTF, am I losing my mind" feeling to the player as it was demonstrating was happening to the character. Heavy Rain created characters for whom the player was meant to feel, and experience emotions through them (a moment when a character has to dress like a tart and do a striptease is disconcerting because (a) the player is "forcing" her to, and (b) because the player considers her an independent entity). Think about the last book you read; you felt emotions because you cared what happened to the characters.

There's also significant overlap. When Aeris died in FFVII (the ur-creating-emotional-resonance-in-games), the player felt an emotion concurrent with what the character(s) felt (which would normally fall into empathy), but it was based on a shared connection to another character. Basically, you felt sad alongside Cloud because you cared about Aeris (which is sympathy). But, Halo invoked that too with some of the Cortana stuff; clearly there's room for both. The distinction is mostly about which the game focuses on.

I'll stir the pot a bit more and say that I believe the two types are good for different things. Empathy can force/allow the player to feel an emotion more personally and more deeply. Fear for myself (even just that I'll fail a part of a game) is a more significant fear than fear for a character. The downside is twofold: empathy cannot express the same range of emotion all at once. In order to make a lovestory work with empathy, you'd have to make the player fall in love, which either becomes a big element of the game, or falls on its face (for evidence of that, play ME2). The second downside of empathy is that it usually requires the player help set the mood to work really well.

Imagine playing Eternal Darkness locked inside your room, no one in the house, with the windows drawn, blinds closed, and lights off. It'd be an intense, scary, experience. Now, imagine playing it in a room with fifteen people, in the middle of the day, with lots of light. It loses its intensity because the game can't function as well to affect you personally. It's like horror movies: they only work when they can get you in the right context.

The power of sympathy is in the range of emotion. If it can get you to bite on the basic premise (I care about these people), then it can (if done well) bring you through a whirlwind of different emotions. But, it trades that for depth of feeling. It can't make me feel as scared, because I'm only scared for the characters. And some emotions it can't do at all: suspense is difficult, surprise (of the "jump out, boo" variety, rather than the "oh, shit, I didn't see that twist coming) is largely impossible. It doesn't require mood, but does require the basic ability to buy into the characters being "people" who you care about.

Sympathy games are like romantic comedies: they can make you feel joy and sadness and heartache... But only if you care about the "people" in them. Otherwise, they're just a bunch of people you don't give a damn about doing stuff.

There are other issues about gameplay/story segregation, but that's less "West vs. Japan" and more "some games vs. others", though I suspect that empathetic games are more likely to have integrated gameplay and story, while in sympathetic games it's less relevant.

What are your guy's thoughts? Can we stop discussing whether Oblivion is better than Kingdom Hearts?

Interesting point. But folks will always prefer one playing style, genre, or narrative type over another. Unfortunately, it'll still essentially boil down to West vs. Japan because when people think of each, at least with RPGs (which is where I usually hear this argument), they still will align empathy with one and sympathy with the other.

Personally, I like both. Empathy is great in RPGs and atmospheric games, but I have no problem basically guiding the plot forward in a sympathetic game. So long as the sympathetic one has a decent story/characters.

The WRPG and JRPG, like the ARPG, RPS and SRPG can, and should be categorized by gameplay mechanics alone.

You'll get nowhere if you try to figure in highly subjective stuff like empathy or sympathy for the characters. This will change from person to person, though I cannot imagine anyone liking Tidus.

Agreed, interesting point. I unfortunately haven't played half of the games you're referring to, but I get the point even without the examples.

For me the two terms exemplify themselves in two closely related games (due to having the same developer, and being the same main genre): DA:O and Mass Effect. I felt empathy in DA:O (oh boy, did I badly), but (mostly) sympathy in Mass Effect. For me it boiled down to a simple technical aspect. In DA:O, your character is a silent ghost of pixels, where in Mass Effect, Commander Shepard is a living, breathing (okay, not literally breathing), talking (!) character. In DA:O I was my character (empathy), where in Mass Effect I watched the character (sympathy).

There was of course more to it than just the talking vs. not talking, but to me that played a big (if simple) part of it.

I have to disagree with the falling in love in Mass Effect 2 though. Thane had me squealing - though, admittedly, not as much as Alistair ever would.

As for the whole discussion going on, no, it will never stop. People will always compare apples to pears, because in their head, they're both just fruits. People will always bicker, comparisons will always be made regardless of relevance and saying what you don't like will always be an easier way of saying what you do like.

(I hope all that makes a semblance of sense. I just woke up.)

Some very well made points there. Generally I prefer the Empathy approach, but games like Metal Gear Solid have really gotten me to feel for the characters too.

I think the Empathy approach can work a lot quicker or earlier in the game; it takes time to get to know characters well enough to care about what happens to them. The whole metal gear arc did it pretty well I feel, by mixing the two. In the first game snake is definitely a character in his own right, but he's mainly tied to the player. You get jerked around by everyone as he does, you feel betrayed and confused with everything happening. The second game takes some distance so we can see him in a whole other light, which gives context as to what drives him. Fially in the last game they mix the two, having the players go through all the twists and turns with him and empathise, but also being able to sympathise with all the rapid aging and the consequences of becoming a biological weapon.

'What are your guy's thoughts? Can we stop discussing whether Oblivion is better than Kingdom Hearts?'

Not if you bring it up.

This is the first I have ever heard those two games mentioned in the same sentence. But as far as why do people like one thing vs another, er, uhm, seriously? You don't understand why people like one thing as opposed to something else?

'There are other issues about gameplay/story segregation, but that's less "West vs. Japan" and more "some games vs. others", though I suspect that empathetic games are more likely to have integrated gameplay and story, while in sympathetic games it's less relevant.'

Yeah, games are different, I probably sound like some stupid child right now, but.... what are you talking about?

What is the point, and what is the discussion you want to have? Can you sum it up in less than 20 words please?

' I'd like to start distinguishing games not between "west" and "east" but between their attempted emotional resonance with the player: whether they're sympathetic games, or empathetic games.'

Why can't I say a Western game has a good story, and an Eastern game has a good story? We kinda label things in the first place to get an idea of what is in front us. They all aren't great nor bad, each is judged on it's own merit I think. I am not so advanced as I can think of an empathetic game vs a sympathetic game. Please explain that more.

There is no 'this game is empathic, and this game is sympathetic'. To say other otherwise doesn't make sense to me. How you feel about a game isn't determined by one of those two words, nor do those words define any game as far as I am concerned.

I think I missed your point entirely, so simple words explaining what you mean are required for me.

Can you show some Empathy and Sympathy for me?


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