Over the past couple of years, there have been many AAA & indie game titles which have truly taken the world by storm, simply because they are either part of a well-established franchise, or they are innovative in their gameplay, graphics, or control scheme(s). Today, however, we’re here to talk about a different kind of game experience: the so-called “empathy game”. These are games which are designed to tell a story about the developer’s life, or give you a window into their psyche. There are three specific games which really stood out when researching this emerging phenomenon, so we’ll touch on each one in turn. This one’s going to be heavy, folks. Hang on for the ride.
That Dragon, Cancer
On January 12, 2016, a game called That Dragon, Cancer was released on Steam. Developed by Numinous Gaming, and headed up by Ryan & Amy Green, the story of this heartbreaking game is told through a first person perspective, as the player experiences a series of vignettes. The point-and-click game tells the 4-year story of the Green family & their experiences with trying to fight for the life of their young son Joel, who has developed cancer.
The highly stylized art style of the game, as well as the featureless faces of the characters, really bring players into the world of the Greens, and make the experience that much more immersive. The way in which the story is told truly forces players to not only interact, but feel & comprehend what the Greens had gone through in their struggles for Joel’s life. That Dragon, Cancer was praised by critics upon its release, and was also nominated for an Excellence in Audio & Narrative award at the 2016 Independent Games Festival. That Dragon, Cancer is available for around $15 on Steam.
Late in 2015, Steam Greenlight and developer Alessandro Salvati brought forth a game known simply as Anxiety Attacks. This short & simple game was designed to simulate (as closely as possible) the effects of an actual anxiety or panic attack on the human psyche. Set in a lush forest, the player must control the rhythm of their breathing & find “Safe Zones” so that they can stave off impending anxiety attacks. However, as the game progresses, the anxiety becomes more pervasive, and begins to cloud the player’s vision with intrusive thoughts & encroaching darkness. The breathing meter also becomes shorter, in order to simulate the shortness of breath that many people have reported experiencing with attacks of this nature. The ambient sound of rustling leaves is then replaced by ragged breathing & disturbing, ethereal sounds.
With its morphing visuals and innovative sound, Anxiety Attacks is an intense experience. It is not recommended for those with a history of photosensitive epilepsy, anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. The developer (Alessandro Salvati) has also warned people to “play at their own risk”. The game has been greenlighted on Steam, but currently, players can download it from Game Jolt.
For this last one, we jump back to September of 2014. Developed by Infinitap Games, and billed as a survival horror game, Neverending Nightmares is an experience unlike many other games out there. This 2D side-scroller draws on its lead designer (Matt Gilgenbach)’s experiences with lifelong depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The player takes the role of Thomas Smith – a deeply troubled young man, who seemingly wakes from one nightmare into another. These nightmares get worse & worse throughout the game and use horrifying monsters to depict different obstacles in Thomas’s path. The game is designed using an unsettling black & white hand-drawn art style (based on the works of Edward Gorey) to convey the bleak state of Thomas’s psyche. Throughout the game, Thomas will come across causes of severe depression, or commit acts of self-harm. These function like save points, in which Thomas will wake up, and either be in the same nightmare, or progress to another one.
Released to mixed reviews, but garnering nominations as one of the best-looking games and one of the best horror games of 2014, Neverending Nightmares also contains a total of three different endings, all based on the choices of the player throughout the game. It is available on Steam for around $15.00.
So what have we seen here? Simple: these developers are not only creating innovative & fresh types of gaming experiences, but some could argue that they’ve successfully used the medium of video games as a tool for coping with the harsh realities of life. In my opinion, this is one of the penultimate goals of artists: creating something beautiful out of something terrible or terrifying.
As always, please let us know of you’ve played these games (or any like them), and what your experience was like.