Sympathy vs. Empathy: Walking In Another Person’s Shoes

What do mob bosses, British nobility, and cold-blooded corporate suits all have in common? They are all beloved characters in some of modern television’s most critically acclaimed television shows. In the “New Golden Age” of television, viewers were treated to profound, enthralling stories, tugging at audience’s emotional heartstrings by inspiring empathy for even the most despicable characters. For most of these stories, writers capture viewer’s attention by making relatable and complex characters that their audience grows attached to, from the family-man turned mad scientist of Walter White in Breaking Bad or the morally chaotic “Hood Boogeyman” who robs drug dealers, Omar, in HBO’s The Wire. The writing for these amazing works of art really sells its characters’ depth as real human beings with real emotions, rather than being larger-than-life hero types that viewers often find little in common with. Every heartbreak, every tragedy was shared with the audience, allowing viewers to see the many emotions that these complicated characters were going through.

Still, these creators were limited by their medium; no matter how much detail they wanted to add to their stories, the limits of network television constrained them to a third person perspective where the bulk of the emotional weight passed on to an audience was through the actor’s embodiment of the script given to them.

To experience genuine empathy for someone, the age-old saying “you will never understand another person’s story until you walk a mile in their shoes” asks one to consider the perspective of others before passing judgement. Of course, this famous proverb is metaphorical, no one is really expected to stroll around in another person’s shoes, right? While traditional forms of film are not interactive, when developers choose to use a game to frame their stories, it really is possible to walk miles in a character’s shoes, experiencing events as a part of the plot, rather than just watching as a story progresses. In the walking simulator games Firewatch and Gone Home, you take over the role of main characters, allowing you to feel the story firsthand, and really experience the emotions the writers want to elicit out of you.

Both games have the same fundamental structure of gameplay, with the main objective being to progress the story by exploring the expansive yet contained environment to find clues and more information. Neither game is very gameplay focused, rather using the many possibilities of an open, explorable environment as a tool to deliver the narrative that serves as the meat and potatoes of the game. Each game’s approach to narrative perspective is quite different, though. Firewatch has the player function as an actor, controlling the main character to make decisions that have direct impacts on their own story experience. Gone Home elects to have the player function as a detective, trying to figure out what happened to their character’s sister. This key difference is the one that makes its game unique from the other.

Firewatch is a beautiful game, with both stunning visuals and a surprisingly hard-hitting emotional story. The game places the player in the body of Henry – henceforth you, the player – starting off by meeting and falling for his wife, Julia. Although this prologue is short, the player builds a relationship with Julia that builds the foundation for the emotional knockout that precipitates the rest of the game, when Julia gets dementia and Henry is unable to take care of her. This curveball right at the beginning is reminiscent of Pixar’s Up, another work in which the main character loses his significant other. The most important distinction, though, is that Firewatch places you into the relationship, rather than watching a montage of the couple’s good times or reading diary entries about their love for one another. You feel the Henry’s heartbreak because Firewatch intends for you to become Henry and live his story, not watch it. The game truly ‘begins’ after you become a fire lookout at Two Forks, the setting for the rest of the game. This opening thrusts you into the belly of Firewatch’s most important character dynamic: you feel the helplessness of Henry’s character, and you empathize with Henry taking his chance to escape. This hurt that is opened from the beginning and the initial escape are themes that will be repeated and amplified as the story progresses.

Gone Home is markedly different from Firewatch in the sense that there is no profound opening sequence, just a phone call and a note from the player’s character’s parents telling them to make themselves feel at home after returning from a trip abroad. Arriving in the dark during a thunderstorm sets an uneasy tone that seems to foreshadow more sinister things waiting inside the empty home. The ‘detective’ aspect of the game makes itself apparent when the introduction and tutorial relays nothing of value other than: “Explore!” The game seemingly has no goal as the player is forced to look for any indications of what to do now that they are in the house. This uncertainty with the ominous setting of a dark mansion during a thunderstorm can initially mislead players that the game may have horror aspects – but the main plot couldn’t be further from that! Once the player realizes there probably is no plot development that stems from flushing the toilet over and over, they stumble onto a diary entry of Sam’s: the sister of the character the player is in. Continuing to explore, the player finds more and more of these entries and begins to realize the story that Gone Home is trying to tell, one of high school romance and drama. These diary entries comprise of the main theme of Gone Home: the emotional effect forbidden love has on a high school girl. As the player follows the sister’s journey of joy and depression, the game begs the player to relate to Sam’s feelings, and find relatability. The game was revolutionary for exposing the gaming community to a story vastly different from the shooters and fantasy games that were commonly found. In fact, it faced controversy from some critics for misrepresenting itself as a thriller and was promoting a “gay agenda” when it was really a love story between two young girls in love.

While Gone Home and Firewatch have the same skeleton structure of gameplay, they frame their narratives fundamentally different, with Firewatch placing the player as the main character of its story, while Gone Home allows the player to uncover the story it tries to tell. Both games ask the player to consider a character’s story by making them literally walk in a character’s shoes. They tell compelling stories about characters using nothing but pathos to inspire emotion in the player, with Firewatch bringing the player to empathize with Henry’s plight, and Gone Home showing the player a sister’s story, raising sympathy and nostalgic hope for the misunderstood teen. Ultimately, the true impact of these stories are dependent on each player’s reactions to the themes of the story, and whether or not the emotions the games wanted to pass on were relatable or not.

Works Cited

Firewatch. Windows PC Version, Campo Santo, 2016

Gambini, Bert. “Why ‘Walking a Mile in Someone’s Shoes’ Is Actually Terrible Advice.” World Economic Forum, 2016, http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/why-walking-a-mile-in-someones-shoes-is-actually-terrible-advice/.

Gone Home. Windows PC Version, The Fullbright Company, 2013

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