ESSAYS ON EMPATHY REVIEW (PC)
Essays on Empathy is a compilation of 10 short games by Deconstructeam, a Spanish development team whose games have an emphasis on telling great stories through narration instead of bombastic action. If you’re not familiar with Deconstructeam you might have heard of The Red Strings Club – a cyberpunk narrative experience from 2018 – and it’s worth pointing out now that many of the short games in Essays on Empathy feel like prototypes to The Red Strings Club.
All of the games (bar one) are rendered in Deconstructeam’s signature pixel-art style and they’re all beautiful to behold, so if you have an infinity for detailed 2D artwork then Essays on Empathy will certainly turn your head. Due its very nature, it’s easier to critique Essays on Empathy on a game-by-game basis but they also conveniently fall into (but not exclusively to) the following categories: Red Strings Club, Story in Motion and Experimental.
Red Strings Club
Supercontinent Ltd, Eternal Home Floristry and Zen and the Art of Transhumanism perfectly encapsulate Deconstructeam’s spirit and their current mission statement. All three of these short games feel fully fleshed out and stand out from the others, and they incorporate all of the same great ideas you will find in their future games – which is telling deep stories in an interactive way. For the most part, these ‘scenes’ take place in a static location and by interacting with your world you push the story forward. Supercontinent Ltd has you dialling phone numbers and impersonating other people to dig up information about a domestic terror group. Eternal Home Floristry teaches you how to arrange appropriate bouquets for the people who need them, discovering why they need them in the process. Zen and the Art of Transhumanism is a pottery sim where you carve augmentations for your clients to improve their physical or mental health, but what you decide to install them with has beneficial or detrimental results. All 3 of these are fun to play and satisfying to finish.
Story in Motion
Underground Hangovers, Behind Every Great One, Engolasters and Dear Substance of Kin don’t neglect the story-telling aspect but they have a greater emphasis on movement and feel more like traditional games. Underground Hangovers is a physics platformer about mining rock on an alien planet. The weight of your bag limits your mobility and this opens the door for some interesting puzzles that unfortunately are never pushed to their full potential. Behind Every Great One is about a housewife who is mentally (and sometimes sexually) abused by her husband. The gameplay is purposefully monotonous and unfulfilling to represent her struggle to complete all of the jobs that her husband expects of her. Engolasters and Dear Substance of Kin feel incomplete but are likely tech demos for Deconstructeam to start exploring the idea of combining deep, interactive storytelling with open-world exploration. Based on these two examples it’s clear it’s something the Spanish game makers are struggling with but Englolasters and Dear Substance of Kin still offer a peak behind the curtain for what lies in Deconstructeam’s future.
The 3 remaining games from the collection don’t lend themselves to Deconstructeam’s tried-and-true methodology but they still feel like unique experiences that are worthwhile – especially 11:45am A Vivid Life. In this weird little experiment, you examine a girl’s body with an X-ray machine to discover unusual implants, and you’re able to pick from a selection of explanations which eventually culminate to your own conclusion. Essentially, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book. The Bookshelf Limbo is the weakest instalment of Essays on Empathy but that’s because it was created as a birthday gift for a friend. It’s too niche and personal to appeal to everyone. There’s not much to do but it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment. Finally, De Tres al Cuarto was made during the Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s about two stand-up comics perfecting their craft. It features a light deckbuilding mechanic that determines whether or not the jokes hit or miss. The gigs are split up by scenes of the two comedians hanging out afterwards, and one of the most interesting devices in De Tres al Cuarto is how every conversation includes a running script of what the characters are actually thinking. For example, if one of them says, “I believe in you” the script on the sidebar might say, “he doesn’t mean it but he knows it’ll boost his confidence”.
If you’re a die-hard fan of The Red Strings Club or Deconstructeam then Essays on Empathy will provide you with plenty of insight on how they make their games and hopefully what to expect from their next slew of narrative experiences. Each game comes with a short video featurette that lets you take a peek behind the curtain, so even though most of these games are already free to download it’s definitely worth considering purchasing to dig into the exclusive content.
Should you play it? Maybe…
Why… Most of the games are fun to play and the variety on show means it never gets stale. Essays on Empathy is like watching a hatchling grow into a bird; it allows you to track (or at least follow in shadow of) Deconstructeam’s trajectory.
But… If you’re expecting 10 complete games this isn’t what Essays on Empathy is. It’s not an arcade bundle – it’s an interactive documentary.
Reviewed on PC
Playable on: PC
Released: 18th May, 2021