Character Empathy : To care or not to care.A short glimpse at character empathy and how it can change gaming for the better.
whyalwayslee3 min

Whilst playing through the story of any video game, we are supposed to suspend our disbelief and pretend we are the protagonist. We are Gordon Freeman, we are Booker DeWitt, and we are Lee Everett.

Now, I feel I need to state early that this will not apply to everyone. I am fully aware that some gamers become more emotionally invested in characters than others as some gamers play purely for fun or only go through the single player modes when bored or on their way to multiplayer. Also, not every character is relatable therefore we cannot be expected to care about them in the slightest. But this comes largely down to poor storytelling or bad dialogue, which usually shatters the suspension of disbelief so necessary to believing that you and the main character are one person.

But for people like myself, who care about a character's plight as if it were their own, I believe we get the most of story driven video games. Red Dead Redemption is a key example. The final scenes in that game would not be so revered if nobody cared about John Marston. We fought through hell and back as Marston, and (SPOILERS) as he died, a little bit of us died too.

Amateur dramatics aside, two more games that hit me hard as the end credits rolled were The Last of Us and Mass Effect 2. I found myself caring for Ellie as much as Joel did. The game hits some harsh home truths such as loss and knowing when to move on. The story rivals those told in many of the films I have seen in the last year, with the addition of more believable, likable characters, too. The game tells us to care about Ellie, we don't have to, but we do. She's our little sister, our daughter, and whichever you look at it, she's our responsibility, and we feel the need to look after her. 

Anthony Burch of Rev Rants claimed that it is easier to care for certain characters if they are introduced to the player and the protagonist at the same time. This is because we can’t materialise all the memories that the game says they have, it’s possible, just not probable. But by introducing a character to both player and protagonist, it allows the player to decide what they think of this new character as the protagonist does, making it feel like you are one and the same. Joel is introduced to Ellie at the same time we are, an anticipated moment due her inclusion in every trailer and poster, and the relationship only grows from there. 

Mass effect 2 executes this perfectly, too. Shepherd meets a plethora of personalities at the same time as the player during his mission to save the universe from the Reapers. We learn about them from what we tell Shepherd to say and do, and the new characters don't just bond with Shepherd, it's us they are talking to. But what separates Mass Effect from 90% of the games I have played is that every decision I made affected the fate all of the characters Shepherd and I had encountered. This cause and effect style of gameplay leaves the player feeling directly responsible for the safety of everyone who joins Shepherds cause.

What ultimately ties these two games (and games I could talk for weeks about, such as The Walking Dead) together is the fact that if you can pretend that Ellie is your closest friend in the world, or that Marston’s enemies are your enemies, then the games you play can become more than just games. They offer a second life and the greatest sense of escapism since the birth of Hollywood and the film industry.

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