Empathologic

I have a confession to make: I never finished Shadow of the Colossus.

[Take a few moments to catch your breath, bring your blood pressure back down to normal, and snag some smelling salts to revive any of those nearby with delicate constitutions.]

In fact, I never made it past the fifth Colossus. It wasn't because the game was bad or horribly broken in some way. I had my issues with it, but if I'm honest with myself the reason I chucked it to the back of the game drawer was because I saw what was coming, and I didn't want to have any part in it. It was clear from the beginning that Wander was planning Bad Things, and that the voice instructing him was a Bad Person, and the thought of pushing through two more handfuls of giant hairy beasts only to accomplish something with which I didn't agree simply wasn't going to happen.

So why is it, then, that I so gleefully danced through Xseed's Pandora's Tower?

It is a (very) minor spoiler to mention this, but since 95% of you will likely never play Pandora's Tower, I don't feel too bad. As the game progresses, you feel a similar sense of foreboding that your actions in the game are leading to some very disturbing if not outright terrible outcomes. In many ways the game presents the same sense of stride-halting dread that Shadow of the Colossus does once you piece together a few facts. With both games you (as always) have the choice to continue playing or foist the disk off on some unsuspecting passer-by. Although there are some interesting mechanical tricks that Pandora's Tower employed to string me along, if I had to pinpoint one reason it had me so engrossed while Shadow of the Colossus had me so repulsed, it would be this: empathy.

For those not in the know — and I realize that is likely the aforementioned 95% of those reading this — Pandora's Tower is a small and quirky Japanese mashup that falls somewhere between Castlevania and Zelda in its gameplay. The really fascinating thing, though, is that there are only three people in the entire game. You (as Aeron) are the first; another (Mavda) acts as little more than a storefront — Well, a very old, creepy, grandmotherly storefront bowed over by the weight of a giant urn on her back which contains a bony demon who likes to mutter and wave his sinewy metatarsals in your direction.

One of those games.

Anyway, the third, Elena, is about the only person you have any interaction with at all. For the entirety of the 20+ hours of play time, you are interacting with one. single. character. And interact you must, as a Beast Timer will compel you to return to homebase many times throughout your adventure. See, a curse has overtaken Elena, gradually transforming her flesh into that of a hideous monster. The only thing that can temporarily reverse said curse is the raw flesh of certain beasts who inhabit the towers you just happened to wander into (thanks, Mavda!). As the resident Stack o' Muscle in our tale, it naturally falls upon you to retrieve the flesh. But you have to achieve your objective before the curse turns her more, or Bad Things happen.

So you see, Elena is a person with whom you will become very familiar. She is trapped in a little tower in the ass-end of nowhere, and she requires constant doses of still-beating beast hearts (and poor you with no Beast 'n' Out Burger nearby). Each time you return to feed her more, she naturally strikes up a conversation. You can't blame her, really; the only thing she has to talk to otherwise is a houseplant. At any rate, you converse often. And this is key.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the person you were potentially damning the world to save didn't really do much. I mean, she was kinda, y'know … dead. There's no backstory — no empathy to drag you along to see the potentially terrible conclusion. For me, personally, it created a very strong dissonance (which we talked about a bit earlier), because the mechanics of the game wanted me to move forward, but I as the player felt no reason to sacrifice myslf and everyone else to save this person. So I took the only choice of agency the game offered me, which was simply to turn it off.

Pandora's Tower, in contrast, very carefully and craftily builds a relationship with Elena. The game tries so very hard to make the player empathize with her on a human level. She's been cursed, and had to flee from her family and everyone she's ever known and loved; that much is easy. But it's in the small little interactions and animations that the concept really shines.

Every hour she'll be in a different location in the Observatory: cooking lunch, sweeping the upstairs, translating texts you may have brought her, staring balefully into a waterfall. She has a (considering the circumstances) normal daily routine. If you stop her and speak to her each hour, she'll make varied small talk depending on the activity, location, time of day, and story.

Additionally, you are encouraged to bring her gifts, such as flowers, tea, fabric with which to make new sheets, jewelry, etc. The game leads you down this path by giving you some of these items for free in dungeon exploration (there's nothing else you can do with them), and by loading you up with money, the only real use of which is to buy more presents. It's not kitschy, but every time you do so she'll have some specific way to express gratitude.

More importantly, the game carries these gifts forward in an impressive way. If you load her up, you can catch her leaning over and talking to her plants. She will periodically change the tablecloth, the sheets, her dress, and any other things you've given her fabric for. She'll periodically thank you for rings and tea and the like. And there are certain gifts, obtainable if you bring home a LOT of flesh in one trip, that give you a special scene with her as she and Aeron interact with them together — a mirror, a music box, a dress which holds special significance to her people, etc.

In other words, she's living her life, making the most of a pretty horrible situation as best she can. Seeing her go about her day in a believable manner, along with other well-animated affectations, gives the player a lot of empathy toward her.

Partway through the game, it dawns on you that if you continue, Bad Things may happen. In many ways, it brings up the same dilemma that Shadow of the Colossus did — except different in the very crucial aspect of empathy. Despite becoming a little repulsed and ever-so-slightly fearful of what would happen next, I pressed on. I pressed on because I felt pity for Elena. I pressed on because I couldn't justify leaving another human (so to speak) to suffer. I pressed on because, more than anything else, our bond gave me hope that somehow, some way, things would turn out all right.

In fact, the player's "bond" with Elena is exactly what could make things turn out all right. There are six endings in Pandora's Tower, ranging from cataclysmically bad to Super Mega Happy Ending good. Unlike most other games in which your ending is determined by your battle performance or how many tchotchkes you managed to snag, here only one thing matters: your bond with Elena. The stronger it is, the better your ending.

The bond is a simple thing to grow; I've already enumerated the ways in which to do it. Talk to her. Give her gifts. Talk to her about those gifts. Bring her flesh. Don't ever let her start to "turn", because that hurts the bond. Do this enough and you'll send the bond meter sky high, which determines the final boss you'll face (stronger bond, stronger boss, oddly enough) and the ending you see.

I love this. I think it's brilliant. See, even though there's plenty of enjoyable tower-delving gameplay, at the end of the day the only thing that matters is how well you got along with this one singular human being. The ending shuffle effectively says it's the only thing that matters, and that's reflected in all of your interactions.

So when tough decisions finally arrive — when the feeling of impending doom creeps in, and you'd rather just turn the game off than perpetuate destruction — you have a reason to push through and see how things turn out. All it takes is a little empathy.

Comments

Nice. Makes total sense to me. I had the same issues with SotC in that I didn't connect to my character at all, but pushed through because I enjoyed the gameplay and atmosphere.

A more recent example of the "empathy" issue for me is Bioshock infinite. At the start of the game, Booker is a cipher and so is the girl you're trying to save, so I felt particularly unmotivated to start mass-murdering citizens of Columbia because I had no empathy for Booker or what he was trying to accomplish. As the game progressed, I developed a stronger connection to the characters as they were fleshed out which made me more interested in engaging with the gameplay.

I understand why this kind of slow reveal is done to further the plot, but I think it actively hurts the empathy that you're talking about - game writers should keep that in mind.

I felt particularly unmotivated to start mass-murdering citizens of Columbia

I felt that was by far the weakest part of the game.

Don't worry, I just traded in the Ico/Colossus collection because I just have no interest in the first game and while I liked the first Colossus fight, I had no interest in spending time wandering a big empty wilderness looking for lizards and trying to find the next monster. I'll go back eventually, maybe, but right now, I don't want to force myself on a game.

So that effectively makes me a more shameful gamer.

As for the topic, I find it interesting that we have so many games with NPC companions that somehow fail to make us empathize with them effectively. It could just be bad, hackneyed writing (Aliens: Colonial Marines), but when you have entire levels where the NPCs could be making comments or discussing things that could make them feel more real, there's no excuse when that character dies and I'm left thinking "Alright, enough of that, pop the achievement and let's move on" (Aliens: Colonial Marines).

I think this is why Sarge was turned into a permanent character from Halo 2 onward. In the first game he was just like anyone else, but the dialogue (and excellent voice acting) just made him memorable. He was funny, people liked him, and for my brother and me, "God's own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine" became a permanent fixture in our lexicon.

If only character that we're supposed to care about could make such an impact.

Personally, I didn't find any issue with SotC. That is, I simply assumed the role of Wander, getting into the role and extrapolating emotionally from what was given to me as a premise in the game's introduction. The girl is his betrothed or the equivalent thereof, the love interest. He forsakes all to bring her back to life. It's simple, really.

I can understand why some people might have quite citing lack of empathetic connection with the main character and his cause, but I'm not so sure it is badly done by way of game design, inherently. Certainly, SotC's approach is far more minimalistic and therein may lie the disconnect, in a way. The game is certainly more mournful in feel, darker, heavier.

Pandora's Tower, from what I've seen, is not quite as dark and heavy, it it doesn't seem to convey a feeling of desolate isolation quite like SotC does.

I don't have a problem with abstract games. Just like they discussed on Wednesday's podcast, there are plenty of games that offer little to no story and say "off you go". But in the case of SotC, you are prodded to do something that seems destructive at best. This is an odd situation. To me, it seems that you have to separate the character from the gamer for a minute and see if you've given the gamer enough incentive to pursue a damaging series of events, regardless of what the character's motivations may be. SotC definitely did no such thing. I didn't even know who the girl was; there's just an assumption that she's very important to him and have fun storming the colossus.

I am quite honestly a bit insulted by that philosophy. "You don't need to know any motivation or anything about these characters, because this is a game. And because it's a game you're just going to want to see the end, because you people are OCD that way. We didn't really even bother making the gameplay particularly fun! Ha ha suckers!"

It's one thing to say "go save the princess" and then have a manically enjoyable romp through hundreds of tiny gravity-independent planets. It's another to say "go save this random girl" and then expect the player to plod through an uninspired world to achieve a goal that may be actively distasteful to the player. If I wanted to wander aimlessly through a game, I'd choose something like Uru that is stunningly beautiful. If you want me to poop on the earth, you better give me a good reason why.

Pandora's Tower does.

brokenclavicle wrote:

Pandora's Tower, from what I've seen, is not quite as dark and heavy, it it doesn't seem to convey a feeling of desolate isolation quite like SotC does.

I would say it's actually darker, although you wouldn't know that until some way through the game. You are of course correct on the desolate isolation part; human interaction does tend to lessen that.

Minarchist, you missed out on some of gaming's best music by not completing Colossus! Listen to the ending here:

You can also buy the soundtrack, and it's one of my most played albums.

Might be better to hot link that just in case anyone is still sensitive to spoilers (I'm not, but I know some people freak the f*ck out over that stuff)

Minarchist wrote:

It's one thing to say "go save the princess" and then have a manically enjoyable romp through hundreds of tiny gravity-independent planets. It's another to say "go save this random girl" and then expect the player to plod through an uninspired world to achieve a goal that may be actively distasteful to the player. If I wanted to wander aimlessly through a game, I'd choose something like Uru that is stunningly beautiful. If you want me to poop on the earth, you better give me a good reason why.

I think it's just a taste thing then. SotC isn't stunningly beautiful, but there's a mood to the game that I think brokenclavicle is getting at that is entrancing. I know I found the world incredibly inspired, and I'd say people who are fans of the game have as well.

Obviously that didn't grab you, but don't assume the people who enjoy the game finished it just because it's a game and they wanted to see the ending.

It is of course telegraphed to the player in Shadow Of the Colossus that your character loves this girl he's saving beyond all reason, and the backstory (only in the manual) emphasizes this by telling you how awful and forbidden it was for him to have his sword and have gone after these guardians at all. But I agree, it would be a far more effective emotional payload if there were some interactions... or maybe some flashbacks... or SOMETHING.

At the time it first came out, it was easier to overlook because of the many things the game does right. It was a pre-Bioshock game that raised questions about agency; it was a technical miracle on PS2 hardware; it was from a company still riding on the cult success of Ico. It's still fairly unique in structure.

But I'm happy that your article shows how the art is advancing. Creators are learning more about how to write an effective interactive story (an effective story period); more and more players are demanding something better than "kill the baddie, get the girl."

ccesarano wrote:

Might be better to hot link that just in case anyone is still sensitive to spoilers (I'm not, but I know some people freak the f*ck out over that stuff)

I indicate that the video is of the ending. Maybe it would be better for the original article to have a big spoiler-warning tag.

Keithustus wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Might be better to hot link that just in case anyone is still sensitive to spoilers (I'm not, but I know some people freak the f*ck out over that stuff)

I indicate that the video is of the ending. Maybe it would be better for the original article to have a big spoiler-warning tag.

This is true. Though the article merely states "bad things are happening as a result", while the video has a thumbnail that is...awfully suggestive of how things might be turning out.

I'm just suggesting, though. Until someone actually comes in bitching it's no problem.

I only got halfway through SotC too.

Got it when the Ico/SotC collection released, and beat Ico either that first or second night. Loved it. Then started SotC... and slowly lost interest through the weekend, and never went back.

Yeah it was interesting fighting the colossi. But there was that feeling of dread that no matter what I did things were not going to work out ok...

ccesarano wrote:

...while the video has a thumbnail that is...awfully suggestive of how things might be turning out.

Ah, that's what you meant, gotcha now. I actually can't tell at all anything from that image what's going on; looks like he's gotten old, sick, and fallen and broken his hip, so that could be anything to do with aging in Japan. However, I tried just now putting spoiler tags around the link but they don't do anything for video thumbnails.

Stephen Crane wrote:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

I haven't played Pandora's Tower, but I actually kinda liked the lack of detail in the backstory of SOTC. Ordinarily I can't tolerate doing the "bad-guy" things in games, but the simplicity of the imagery of Wander with his dead loved one made it easier for me to accept his role in the game. I knew what Wander was doing was wrong, but the loneliness of the game -- which for me is furthered by the lack of concrete details -- made his desperation more palpable and made me understand more clearly how he could do these horrible things. I didn't try to play the game as me, but as him, and for me that's a change. I think having more details to the story would ironically have made it harder for me to put myself in his shoes.

I think a very well done background story could give me more empathy for a protagonist, but games rarely do that convincingly. I'm interested in Pandora's Tower, but I'm unsure because I have a history of not feeling connected to the stories in JRPGs.

I have never played Shadow of the Collossus or ICO. Thankfully both of them are on PS Plus in June! Now to finish The Cave, LOTR: War in the North, Okami HD so I have some space on my hard drive...

Tanglebones wrote:
Stephen Crane wrote:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Crane can be about as subtle as getting slapped with a tuna, but I still love him sometimes.