Video games remain one of the most unique opportunities to tell a story, in ways that no other medium can. Playing in an interactive world has so many chances to connect to the player in front of the screen and developers all over the world have been experimenting to find new ways to share their ideas. Empathy is one of these attempts, a first-person narrative about solving the mysteries of once flourishing society that now rests empty. The voices of the past will create whispers, eager to share their tale.
I was recently offered to check out an early preview of Empathy: Path of Whsipers on Steam. Iceberg Interactive has made some interesting games in the past and I was pretty intrigued about their Lovecraft-inspired Conarium when I saw it at PAX East in March. So, I accepted, eager to experience something unique from a studio that has shown a lot of promise here of late. Both games have that first-person story delivery, but while Conarium focuses on more of the horrible things conjured by the mind, Empathy: Path of Whispers deals in challenges of morality.
Players will be using a strange device that lets them hear echoes of the past. To do this, one must find an object that’s been sort of imprinted with a conversation or dialogue and then tune into it by adjusting the wavelengths on the device. This fairly simple act is achieved by scrolling the mouse wheel and flipping between three channels, which is the perfect way to convey this action using something just about every PC utilizes.
Aside from tuning in and listening to stories, players will also have to solve item puzzles. This is a more traditional approach to adventure game design and the instances in which I had to use an item were pretty straight forward. Use the crowbar on the covered manhole to get to the sewers, that kind of action. Pulling up the inventory is as simple as holding tab, scrolling to the item, and clicking on the object. This makes it easy to try many items quickly, without fumbling through screens.
While solving some simple puzzles and tracking down items are the bulk of the game, at least in the preview, a lot of the experience of Empathy comes in taking in the world and listening to the main character react and reveal more to the narrative. The world is a surreal approach, with floating platforms, dark skies, and structures dotting the horizon. Yet, the bulk of the areas I visited felt more lived in and possible, like a utopia in the clouds that was abandoned. Early on, I found a huge statue of Atlus holding a small town atop his shoulders. Immediately, I was reminded on that early descent into Rapture from Bioshock, which had me pretty excited. In fact, tracking down these story snippets feels a lot like finding the audio logs in the Bioshock series.
It’s kind of hard to even talk about what the story is about, as it is delivered in these smaller bites. To be honest, I’m not sure of the main storyline and I can’t remember any of the characters or exchanges. What ran through all of these audio clips though was moral dilemmas. Violence, regret, confusion, all of these emotions stemmed from decisions based on different morality stances. This fits into the title of the game, Empathy, making me believe there will be some greater tragedies at work.
Uncovering the mystery of this world is the main appeal of the game. It reminds me of games like Firewatch, focusing entirely on the story, with minimal input by the player. At the most complex moments, I was scanning areas for clues on how to progress or navigating a simple steam puzzle. Truly this is a game about exploring.
Unfortunately, there were a few moments in my time with the game that I am not as excited about. Tuning in with the device can sometimes be an exercise in frustration, with some taking me several minutes just to unlock the dialogue. I also found tracking down items with the device awkward. Players can do this by holding a button, showing an outline in the world that they slowly make their way towards. This doesn’t work as an overlay though, like say the Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed, one has to actually point the port of the device in that direction, putting the screen at an unnatural angle.
I also found myself running back and forth to the same areas. Some moments felt like busy work, just to get the next piece, only to run all the way back where I was prior to hit something that decided to unlock. The way Empathy treats navigation as a whole is rather lacking, but since this is a preview build, that could change. I would have loved some sort of map or a more clear way to understand that I had to go underground to get to the next tower. There were also moments of finding objects and the audio not playing, a bug surely, but once again, early builds will have that.
Narrative based games have went through a resurgence after the success of Telltale’s games and indie darlings like Night in the Woods or Firewatch. The indie space isn’t afraid to take risks on their stories and I feel like Empathy: Path of Whispers has something worth experiencing. It won’t be long till the game is available fully, so we shall see how the story develops throughout to be able to provide a more accurate criticism.
Empathy: Path of Whispers is coming to Steam on May 16th, 2017.
For more about Iceberg Interactive, check out their website.