Empathy and Identification in Video Games

What do people mean when they say they “identify” with a character? I argue that most of a time, it’s empathy, and identification comes with customisation, but I may be wrong, hey!

I had this very interesting conversation with a friend over the announcements around Cyberpunk 2077 at E3. CD Project Red (the developer and editor) said that the game will be played in first person because it makes the game more immersive, or personal (1), and also because it was necessary due to the augmentations. So I assume that, like in Deux Ex, visual implants have an impact on how you see the world, and therefore makes it necessary to see through the character’s eyes.

cyberpunk-2077

But in my opinion (2), it is also helps a lot to feel like you’re the character. To identify. I think the word “Identification” have been used for about anything that goes beyond its meaning. When you talk about your identity, it’s something that’s in you, in your own personality, so you can’t identify to everything just because the story is well told or the character is well crafted. That’s where empathy comes in. When your best friend tells you about something very sad that happens to them, and as a result, you feel sad too, it’s because of your empathy for that person. You know them and you understand what they’re going through, so you end up feeling the same way as they do. But you don’t suddenly identify to them just because you feel sad when they tell you about their sad story.

And I really think it’s the same thing for any work of fiction. When you watch a film and you feel all that’s happening to a character, you don’t say at the end of a film “Oh my god! I was Tony Stark for 2 hours and a half”. You’ll be more likely to say something along the line of “Wow, Me too I’d feel devastated if I realised I could have stopped Starlord before he did anything stupid” (3). And it’s no different in video games.

Obviously, we’re restricting the topic to games that put you in control of a single character that is identified and has a background. In this kind of games, most of the time you follow a character that has a pre-defined background and you don’t get much freedom to shape the character. Games like Uncharted, The Last of Us or Tomb Raider fall in that category. You can often choose the skills you want to develop, but ultimately, the story goes in one direction, and you have no other choice but to be passive in the light of what happens to the character. It’s a developer’s choice, when they want to tell a story but don’t want you to mess with the storyline while still having fun. And in many of those games, you play in third person. Meaning that the “camera” is positioned behind the character and lets you swing around. It’s usually a good way to see the character and/in the environment, and apparently it’s something that players love, seeing how they disagreed with CD Projekt Red’s decision to have Cyberpunk 2077 played in first person.

rainbow-six-siege-screenshot-6

But it’s not always the case. For example, Deus Ex is played in first person, probably for the reason stated above, but the character is defined by the developer with development limited to skills. And in the other hand, Mass Effect lets you customise your character entirely (which includes the background to some extent), but is played in third person. At the very extreme, every competitive shooter (Overwatch, Rainbow 6: Siege or, my personal favourite, Insurgency) is played in first person and we couldn’t care less about the characters (4).

So, despite what I told my friend this morning, I don’t think the choice of a first or third person depends on the degree of identification. It’s mostly down to what the developer wants to focus on in terms of immersive experience and gameplay or what audience they’re aiming at. I still think that having the camera behind the character puts a barrier, but it’s a very personal feeling. Which is weird, because I never had any problem identifying with the characters I created for Fallout 1 and 2 (pictured below).

fallout 2 chosen one

And that’s were I think the difference lies: in the degree of customisation. A character will be more like you (and therefore identifyable) if you made it like you. Or if you made it like you’d wish to be. With my psychologist in France, we used to talk about how character customisation may help understand how we identified. Specifically, when I talked about video games, I told her that when I was creating a character from scratch, most of the time, the gender I chose didn’t have any consequence in the character arc (5). That’s when she pointed out that if I can craft out my character the way I want, even though there won’t be any consequences (6), then it reinforces the identification with the character, because the character will be even closer to who I am, or who I want to be.  And (in my case at least), it was totally right; I always made a female character because I couldn’t identify with a male character, even before I accepted the fact that I was transgender. If the way you customise your character didn’t matter in the game, why would you do it? In the end, it’s a way to let the player feel more like they’re into the game and identify with the character. But really identify, in the sense that you are the character. How you would react in the same situation, not just experiencing their story?

To conclude, I obviously don’t think people bullshit when they say they identify to a character. I am just saying that what they’re actually experiencing is empathy, but they can truly identify only when they have the opportunity to shape the character the way they want. But of course, when I’m in a conversation, I’ll still talk about identification, because I’m not a pretentious asshole who think she is better than every one else (7).

 

 

(1) “The first-person point of view is there so you can see things happening up close, and so you can really interact with things in a visceral manner. with the game world.” http://ca.ign.com/articles/2018/06/12/e3-2018-cyberpunk-2077-cd-projekt-addresses-first-person-backlash

(2) And I really want to stress that it’s a personal opinion, I am not trying to impose it on anyone, just to have a discussion about it.

(3) It’s not a spoiler, I didn’t say that Spiderman dies.

(4) Overwatch and Rainbow 6: Siege made backgrounds for their characters but even though a player may choose a character considering their background, they only use the character’s skill set in game. The point is to win the game, not chitchat about the character’s narrative.

(5) Except a few cases like the first 2 Fallout, where each gender has some different but symmetrical effect. For example, a woman’s charisma will work better on someone attracted to women.

(6) And even when it does, I usually stick to a character that feels more like me. For example, when the game encourages making a strong fighter, I keep making a clever one and skip the strength attribute, because I prefer getting away with a clever word than a bullet in the face, even though it’s more challenging.

(7) But I am, obviously.

Oxenfree and the power of sound design

I play a lot of video games, and I wish I had the time and energy to review every one of them. But it’s not my job, and honestly, I don’t really want to talk about games that I didn’t like. And most often, I lack the skill to talk effectively about games I like. So what I will try to do, is pick a game that I loved from a previous year and do my best to give it justice, and hopefully, someone will discover something and will want to play it too.

[…]

I play a lot of video games, and I wish I had the time and energy to review every one of them. But it’s not my job, and honestly, I don’t really want to talk about games that I didn’t like. And most often, I lack the skill to talk effectively about games I like. So what I will try to do, is pick a game that I loved from a previous year and do my best to give it justice, and hopefully, someone will discover something and will want to play it too.

So today, I want to talk about Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016). And since it’s just out on the Switch, it’s a pretty good timing.

People who know me, know that what I like in a game (or a book/movie), is a good story and interesting characters. And also a good sound design (not in books obviously). Because you can have an compelling story and deep character arcs, if your sound sucks, it takes you out of a story. Personally, I don’t think the story of Oxenfree is that great. It’s good, and it’s consistent with the atmosphere it’s trying to convey. But it’s mainly a character-driven game. To me at least.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of friends who go to an island for the weekend. There is only one boat trip to go, and the next trip back is the following day, so they have to spend the night on the island. And of course, there is no cellular network. As you might expect, things start to happen, involving radio interference, friends disappearing out of the blue, and a WWII submarine stranded in time (that escalated quickly). And between all that, the characters spend their time talking about their life and Alex’s (you) brother (who died).

As you might expect from this brief synopsis, there is a lot of time-related issues, of the kind that will mess with your head. I am not sure that everything actually works, but who cares, because that’s not what’s important. It’s a game that focuses on grief and gives you the role of the younger sister who has to deal with it, and also with a bunch of friends who all have a different way to dealing with grief, and some will take it on you. And of course, you choose how to handle it.

To do that, it uses a very common system of branching dialogues. You hear someone talking to you and you’re given the choice in your response. It sounds like a pretty boring, overused system. But it’s done the perfect way. First, every dialogue prompt is timed. Not to pressure you (although some are really fast), but because you never have to actually choose anything. You can even play the whole game as a mute if you want, the other players will react in consequence. Also, the game makes trying to optimize your choice of dialogue pointless. Choices that seem good, may have bad consequences. And antagonizing some character may have good effects in the end (for some characters, at least). If I have one advice in playing this game, it’s this one:

PLAY OXENFREE WITH YOUR GUTS!

oxenfree_screen_2

Play the first time like you would be this character, with your own feelings, because that’s how you’re going to have the best experience and immersion. Don’t hesitate the second or third time around (1) to settle for a type of character and play it until the end, to see how it may turn the story, but again, don’t optimize. It kills the experience and there is no right answer anyway.

Now, about what makes this experience possible: sound design.

You’ve all played to games that use choices in dialogues; there is this awkward pause before you choose, and there are always weird transitions between each piece of dialogue, with the wrong tone, or other discrepancy that doesn’t feel right. In Oxenfree, there is nothing of that. Everything plays seemlessly. It’s perfect, and I don’t just say that because I love the game. It’s actually an amazing feature of this game, and that’s what makes it stand out. Every dialogue feels like a real dialogue, that plays along whatever you choose. The character will cut the other character or wait until they finishes, depending on your choice, or the character will talking continue even if you didn’t choose anything. The voice acting is always right, the sound editing is perfect, with no level difference or glitches, and it integrates amazingly with the soundtrack for the best experience possible.

For me it’s way more important to have a good sound experience than amazing graphics. Here, the graphics are good. They’re not extraordinary, but the artistic choice is interesting and it works well with the story, but the focus on sound is really a top-of-the-shelf performance. Something that has to be commended and rewarded. So I hope this review gives it credit, and I wish more people would play it, so Night School Studio, the developer/editor, would make more of that kind of game.

(1) The game is actually different the second time you play, thanks to a feature added later on (for free, which is amazing in the era of game-as-a-service) that uses the choices you make in your first run to change the story on the following runs, which makes for a good re-playability.

Game available on PC (Steam, GOG, Humble Bundle), PS4, Xbox One, Switch.

Editor’s website: http://nightschoolstudio.com/oxenfree/ (where the image is from)