Title: Essays on Empathy
Release Date: May 18, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Essays on Empathy is a collection of short games that Deconstructeam has created over the years. There’s a total of ten games included, each of them exploring different gameplay styles. In many ways, this feels like a celebration of the studio’s history and shows the foundation of the auteur tone they’ve developed along the way.
Most of the games included were created for game jams (more specifically Ludum Dare), with only De Tres al Cuarto as a completely new title. One thing they all have in common is their experimental tone. They’re short experiences to the point that they don’t even include saving systems, but some clever twists are in their designs.
Taking a look at the titles, we have Underground Hangovers, a small Metroidvania about mining for ore and using weird items to explore. However, the cave is smaller than it may seem at first, and the upgrade progress in the game follows a linear formula.
Initially, the player has a double Hookshot to reach higher areas and storage limited to 100 items. Some rooms include teleport points that can get the player back to the surface, where they will have to eventually buy a big sack, a drill, and an item that allows the player to change places with other creatures and activate floating boulders.
They can’t be obtained in any other order, though it’ll also be necessary to spend ores building a rocket and leaving the planet. One impressive aspect of the game is that the amount of ore you’re carrying takes a toll on the player’s movement. Without anything on your bag, you’re extra light and responsive, but it gets progressively tougher to move as you get greedier.
Both Supercontinent Ltd. and Zen and the Art of Transhumanism are minigames that were later reused in Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club. The latter is a pottery game about making human upgrades that can make people more charismatic and attractive or suppress their desires.
You can use rounded, triangle, or rectangle chisels to make those “upgrades.” Though it’s possible to pick any form, only two options are significant for each client: do their biddings or eliminate their wishes. With descriptions on one screen and the actual pottery on another, it isn’t that hard to forget which one affects the process.
On the other hand, Supercontinent Ltd. is about using an old phone landline to uncover a corporate conspiracy. The player can change their voices to match another character and has to look for the correct phone numbers to call, picking talk topics. Though the game has an interesting twist down the line, some typos haven’t been fixed, and there are few interaction options.
Engolasters January 2021 is about a woman whose work is searching for alien life. She finally contacts aliens in Engolaster, but she’s left bleeding. At the same time, her son is trying to leave home. It’s up to the player to manage her family situation, her dwindling health, and the specific resources (gas, phone battery) necessary to go home and/or try to look for the aliens around town.
Behind Every Great One is a game about being a housewife. It’s an adventure game about going through the house doing the chores. However, the stress piles up and, as life brings even worse situations over time, coping with everything becomes consistently harder.
This burden is indicated by camera angles becoming progressively closer and giving a claustrophobic feel to the game. The only big issue with this one is that sometimes it’s hard to interact with items as getting too close to an object may cause the prompt (a black outline) to disappear. Other than that, it presents a strong discussion on a clear social issue.
11.45 A Vivid Life tells the story of a girl who thinks she has the skeleton of another person inside her. To investigate it, she stole an X-ray machine and some tools so she can dig out into her own body. As the player gets small “proofs” inside her body, they interact with the radio and choose wild explanations for them. It’s a weird experience.
Eternal Home Floristry is about an assassin who has lost one of his arms in a big conflict. Being taken by a florist, he now works with the last real flowers in town. With them, he can send powerful messages to people causing big impacts in their lives. Each flower has a meaning, and it’s necessary to pick three of them, which will affect the next outcome in the story.
In Dear Substance of Kin, the player assumes the role of a “coppersmith.” You have the power to alter people’s fates, but it’s necessary to sacrifice one of their family members in the process. With their blood, you can then trace lines on their backs, thus cutting their personality attributes.
Though the game does a good job at creating a dreadful atmosphere, the same can’t be said to understand the impacts of actions and see the consequences. It feels unnecessarily cryptic, and the slow movement that can only be done via mouse is just annoying.
Bookshelf Limbo is about a man looking for a book for his father. You pick the books, read online reviews and back-cover quotes, and try to find the best gift for him. By picking choices for why he’s disregarding them, it’s possible to understand his circumstances and relationship with his dad.
The last title, De Tres al Cuarto, is the only new game in the package and the lengthier titles. A gay couple works as comedians, and you play as one of them, Garza, still inexperienced in the job. However, the comedy is based on making a deck of cards you can use during stand-up.
The system includes four types of cards: blank, poor, build and punch. It’s necessary to pick from a hand of three cards that you’d like to use, changing the performance accordingly. Blanks mean you fail the joke and don’t get points, poor halves your performance’s earnings, build means you get another hand of three cards by giving some retort, and punch is an ideal punchline to end the joke.
After each show, the couple has a conversation, and the game sheds some light on their inner thoughts. These moments can be lighthearted or bittersweet, but they’re very humane no matter the case. Besides the games, the collection offers galleries with concept arts and even design documents. There are also videos discussing the team’s thoughts on each title.
Essays on Empathy is a glance at Deconstructeam’s history. The games are clever and enjoyable, showing the team’s auteur tone as they explore different gameplay styles. People fond of unique, experimental games are likely to enjoy this collection, though some would have benefitted from developing their concepts further.
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