Empathy: Path of Whispers makes its intentions clear before you even start playing. This game revolves around compassion and understanding, but empathy is a difficult response to intentionally elicit from players. In Empathy‘s case, you’re expected to empathize from the beginning, and it’s all thanks to the name. It’s a bit like Babe Ruth calling his shot.
The only problem is we’re not all Babe Ruth.
Empathy focuses on everyone but yourself. Your identity is loosely defined as “a child” by an anonymous narrator in the beginning, and that’s about all you get. You’re a metaphorical blank slate. A voice instructs you in the beginning, leading you to find a scanner that allows you to navigate the past. The narrator guides your way as you travel through environments and memories to physically alter the world around you in order to progress. It’s a beautiful set-up. The voice knows a mysterious amount of information about the characters you meet (via memories; you are completely alone), but there are bigger worries at hand.
So many characters are thrown at you in the beginning, and without visual association, that keeping track of every story demands the majority of your attention. Connecting all the dots will have you staring at text longer than the world around you, and there’s a looming obligation to connect with these people. Every so often you’ll literally jump into the shoes of a character to experience a moment first hand, but it’s only for a few seconds at a time. Sometimes you’re nailing a few boards onto a railroad track. Other times you’re picking up evidence of a crime scene and putting it somewhere specific. Maybe you’ll even take someone’s life. And it all happens in a flash.
Empathy completely relies on its writing to keep you interested, but the world in which these stories exist easily overshadows the entire narrative. It’s the game’s environments that tell engaging tales, not the story itself. Battered army helmets lay upside down in between a pair of benches. Sleeping bags are frozen in the same rustled position left by their previous tenants. Even the placement of half-eaten sandwiches spark a weird surge of intrigue. Evidence of the resident’s immediate dispersal is everywhere, and the world’s surreal mystique overtakes every opportunity to empathize with these characters–especially when most of the items of interest you stumble upon are piles of paper. Posters. Documents of various formats. There’s the occasional doll or crowbar (or some thing) you can pick up, but they only have one use at a single location.
None of these necessary items show up on your scanner’s radar, though. In fact, the radar only shows groups of six (or so) objects at any given time, and these must be found before the scanner will track the next set. Objects that look important lie dormant without any possibility of interaction…until you later discover you need to come back when the game deems it okay to be triggered.
This really deters you from ever straying away from the scanner’s direction. There are extra story beats intentionally hidden around the world, but the storytelling doesn’t warrant the inconvenience of backtracking. It’s a real smack in the face when your scanner picks up the next set of objects and brings you to an ID card you’ve already found, but you assumed it was part of the environment since you couldn’t interact with it. There’s an order to uncovering the truth through discovery, and your only option for advancement is to follow it.
Environmental inconsistencies like this plague Empathy‘s capacity for emotional attachment. Being unable to tell what’s interactive from a distance is frustrating when roaming of your own accord. Some doors open; some don’t do anything. Scanning the items you stumble upon helps break up the once fascinating, now monotonous exploration, and presents a (mini)mini-game as a reward for your discovery. You control one of the two wavelengths that appear on your scanner. Once you match your wavelength’s peaks and valleys with the other, you’ll unlock a bit of story for whoever is associated with that item. Then it’s back to wandering the desolation.
Empathy has a heart of gold. There’s an intended compassion here, it’s just not compelling. Hell, the soundtrack evokes more emotion than any of the dialogue. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the game. Tonal shifts in voice overs eventually tread into a sanguine territory of obligated sympathy, and the narrator is the guiltiest of all. He knows more about these characters than you do, and, around every corner, he projects his perception of their character onto you. But you can’t be told to feel a way and expect to experience authentic emotion.
Either way, Empathy‘s flaws are too distracting for any sense of communion to develop. People or situations don’t have to be inherently interesting for empathy to exist, but they need to be presented in a way that affords attachment.
Empathy, unfortunately, incurs indifference more than anything else.
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Review Statement: The author of this review received a PC code from the publisher for the purpose of this review.