Review: Essays on Empathy (PC)

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Essays on Empathy is so much more than just an anthology of games; it’s a candid reflection on Deconstructeam’s history and creative process.

There’s no other developer quite like Deconstructeam. Even if you only look at their commercial releases, Gods Will Be Watching and The Red Strings Club show a team full of unique ideas, ready to experiment and explore complex ideas in a thoughtful, nuanced way. But those are just two pieces of a much broader history written in game jams, personal projects, and other such works—readily available in places like itch.io, but not really made for a commercial audience. Essays on Empathy is a collection of a few of those games, but more importantly, it’s a reflection on Deconstructeam’s journey to where it is today, and the philosophy that drives the team. It’s a game collection, a documentary, an act of personal introspection, and a baring of souls, all at once, and the result is something truly remarkable.

Essays on Empathy collects ten games, spanning a period from 2015 to today, each one chosen as representative of some part of Deconstructeam’s history and growth. Though you can freely play the games in any order, the journey that playing them in chronological order takes you through is a fascinating one: from Underground Hangovers, a short-form metroidvania that, in the team’s own words, was the end of an era for an older Deconstructeam, to the story-focused, experimental design we know them for today. You can see the formation of what’s become the studio’s trademark art style, the shift towards dynamic music, and the origins of ideas that would feed into The Red Strings Club.

It’s a journey that lets you see how the studio’s game design philosophy has grown and matured over time. Again, the first game in the collection is a metroidvania, one with experimental ideas but still very focused on being “a game” with obstacles, goals, failures, successes. But after that, they started to question the assumption that posing a challenge should be an inherent quality of game design, looking at game mechanics more as a way of interacting with a story and exploring ideas. 

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There’s a puzzle element to Zen and the Art of Transhumanism and Supercontinent Ltd, not necessarily in a way that you can “fail” but that still present obstacles to overcome, but by Behind Every Great One and Engolasters January 2021, the game design turned more towards using the choices you’re forced to make as a way of conveying theme. Eternal Home Floristry does that too, but with the added element of players’ creative expression as a crucial element for its own sake, and The Bookshelf Limbo was built entirely around the subjective perspective that each player brings to the simple yet wildly difficult task of choosing the perfect present for a loved one. Games like 11:45 A Vivid Life and Dear Substance of Kin go in a surreal direction and demonstrate the value of different sources of creative inspiration.

Essays on Empathy also traces the growth in the types of stories Deconstructeam wanted to tell and the themes that they wanted to explore. Identity is a common thread through the whole collection, from queer people fighting for their right to be who they are to the juggling of different personas and questions about which version of “you” is more important. By extension of that comes the question of finding meaning, whether through a newfound appreciation for flower arrangement as you try to leave your past as a hitman behind or through the use of body augmentation to try to give people what they think their life is missing. Depression and anxiety crop up often, too, most notably in Behind Every Great One—a raw, painful look at the difficulties of living in an uneven relationship where you’re treated as a “muse” rather than someone in an equal, loving partnership. It’s a particularly difficult game to play through, not for any mechanical reason but for the confronting subject matter, but an important one.

Each game is powerful and thoughtful on its own, in its own way and with its own ideas to explore, but it’s seeing the growth in how Deconstructeam tackles the themes that it does that’s particularly captivating. With each new game, the writing becomes more nuanced, the music and art better at establishing tone, the questions being asked more thought-provoking. This is a collection of pieces, each game its own thing, but the sum of the parts here is so much more than that: a story of how Deconstructeam’s style of storytelling and game design has grown.

But Essays on Empathy goes even a step further than that, to become a reflection on their creative process. Through documentary videos, the team shares their thoughts about how each game came to be—how these ideas came to be, the work that went into each one, the development hurdles they ran into, and so on. But they’re also a chance for a personal exploration of the realities of creative work: the emotional struggles that come with it, the sacrifices, the ease with which you can become so absorbed in your work that you create your own personal, internal crunch culture. The team opens up about personal struggles that both informed a lot of their creativity and hindered the ability to create, in a way that you don’t often see in game industry behind-the-scenes videos.

Even though it’s presented as a collection of games and a collection of videos, each of which can be played or watched individually and in whatever order you choose, I don’t think it really does Essays on Empathy justice to describe it as some sort of anthology. Each individual entry is a piece of something much bigger, and that bigger picture is the story that this collection is trying to tell.

Which brings us to De Tres al Cuarto, a game made specifically for Essays in Empathy that serves as the culmination of all the growth that the rest of the games demonstrate, and a particularly introspective and ambitious reflection on the nature of the creative process itself. It’s the story of a comedy duo trying to make their break, told through a deck-building card game: each show plays out through the cards you draw and play, which can either set up punchlines, build up to better ones, or cause a joke to fall flat, with the inspiration you earn from a good audience reaction doubling as the currency you use to buy better cards—to get better at your craft.

The catch is that it’s not really something you can master. Earning inspiration is tricky and new cards are expensive—and get progressively more so each time you buy one—so it’s practically impossible to create anything that comes close to a perfect deck. You’ll get a little better, skew the heart of the cards ever so slightly more in your favour, but never enough that your every joke, or even the majority of your jokes, hit their mark.

But that’s the point. These two guys aren’t the best comedians, with their quips ranging from cringeworthy to mildly chuckleworthy at best, and they’re never going to become the next breakout hit that starts selling out stadiums and getting Netflix specials. But the value of creativity isn’t the money or fame you get from it, nice as those things can be as a side-effect; it’s in the act of creation, and that’s what De Tres al Cuarto explores, both through its deck-building game and the quieter narrative interludes between each comedy set.

It’s not a game that says you have to be poor to be a true artist or anything so blunt and narrow-minded. Rather, it’s a game that poses the question of perspective and motivation, about the realities of creativity in a capitalist world, about self-doubt and arbitrary measures of “success”. It’s all the best and the worst of the creative process laid bare, through a riff on deck-building games that’s nothing short of genius and one of the best demonstrations of the game design philosophy that the rest of Essays on Empathy showed Deconstructeam building towards.

De Tres al Cuarto is just the right note to close Essays on Empathy with, because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that the collection aims to achieve. This is so much more than an anthology of games; it’s a journey through Deconstructeam’s history, their game design philosophy, their struggles and motivations. It’s a peek behind the curtain at the groundwork that was laid for The Red Strings Club (and beyond), but more than that, a candid look into the lives, creative process, and growth of a team of developers telling some of the most emotive and thought-provoking stories you’ll find.

Score: 5 stars

Title: Essays on Empathy
Developer: Deconstructeam
Publisher: Devolver Digital

Platforms: PC via Steam (reviewed)
Release date: 18 May 2021

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.