Essays on Empathy Review (PC)

A development story in 10 emotional parts

essays on empathy
Stories in all mediums are often the best chance we’ll get to see what life is like in someone else’s shoes. Some tales are fantastical, while others depict every day scenarios for any given person. Through these stories, we have the opportunity to weigh the lives of those we’ve learned about against our own. And while it’s easy for us to wish we could be a hero or heroine in a faraway land, there are some stories that make us feel grateful for what we have or allow us to ruminate about our lot in life. Through these stories, we learn about ourselves and others — their dreams, their fears, their emotions, their hearts. Through these stories, we connect with them and their creators; through these stories, we gain empathy, and our world becomes a little bigger.

Such is the premise of Essays on Empathy, a unique collection of game vignettes developed by Deconstructeam and published by Devolver Digital. Described on its Steam page as “a curated compilation of Deconstructeam’s best efforts in seeking new narrative experiences in games,” Essays on Empathy includes 10 different games created over the past decade. From Ludum Dare experiments to standalone titles, Essays on Empathy weaves a one-of-a-kind development journey that fans of the Red Strings Club, pixel art enthusiasts, or just people who love a good story won’t want to miss.

Essays on Empathy

Essays on Empathy isn’t a traditional game, rather a collection of short interactive experiences Deconstructeam has released from 2015 to 2021. Each game is accompanied by an art gallery and mini documentary, wherein the dev team offers a short post mortem on the game’s inception, development, and reception. Some games will seem incredibly familiar to fans of the studio, as two of them feature either characters or direct gameplay included in the critically acclaimed Red Strings Club. Others are standalone experiences that range from exploring gender roles in heteronormative relationships to two comedians just trying to get by on jokes alone. All these games have a few things in common, such as length and art style, but, most importantly, they give us a chance to explore the depths of another’s soul.

Since all the vignettes are rather short, I don’t want to spoil much, but one that really stuck with me was Behind Every Great One, a story centered around a normal housewife. Married to a successful artist, Victorine has no need to find a job outside of the home, and since she doesn’t seem to have any passions, she spends most of her day tending home and hearth… that is, she tries to. There never seems to be enough hours in the day to thanklessly get everything done. She’ll spend her days scrubbing toilets, ironing clothing, and cooking delicious meals only for someone to complain that she didn’t water the plants or sweep the floors. Soon, it becomes clear that in addition to daily chores, she’ll also need to find an empty room to duck into at a moment’s notice for a small but intense cry before going about as usual. Of course, she must keep quiet when someone criticizes her cooking or weight, and there are… other wifely duties… to attend to. Because in Victorine’s world, she merely supports someone else — she has no life of her own.

And that was really fucking devastating to play.

Essays in Empathy

After completing each individual game, I felt compelled to immediately click on the accompanying mini-documentary and listen to how each experience came to be. Some games were critical to setting the tone of other stories from then on out, such as Zen and the Art of Transhumanism, while others were more light-hearted affairs created in a single day as a birthday present, such as The Bookshelf Limbo. If played in chronological order, you can hear how the team smartly weaves a story of not only their studio, but of the development process as a whole. For gamers and game devs alike, it’s a truly insightful experience presented in a beautifully deigned manner.

While I’ve seen some criticism of Essays on Empathy discussing how plenty of these titles are free as standalone games on other platforms or are extremely small Ludum Dare experiences and not full games, I would argue that playing these individually misses what the dev team is trying to explore. The dev team is asking players to take these titles one at a time — chronologically — and put themselves in the character’s shoes while feeling their way through each game. Coupled with the mini-docs at the end, there’s a wealth of educational material here, both emotionally and applicable to game design, that $12.99 is a genuine bargain for what’s included. With that in mind, it’s clear that Essays on Empathy isn’t an easy sell for everyone, but those who do give it a real chance will surely feel enriched from the experience.

As a game developer, I find Essays on Empathy to be a rare, insightful look on the evolution of an indie game studio — from finding its voice to offering a helping hand to others still cultivating their own. As a gamer, I genuinely felt hit by a train when it came to some of the incredibly powerful and even relatable emotions encapsulated in such short experiences. Deconstructeam achieved their goals and did so in such a unique way that I feel better off for having played Essays on Empathy; most importantly, however, I simply feel, and although that’s the point of this collection, understanding exactly what I feel will take some unpacking. There isn’t another game like Essays on Empathy, but I genuinely hope these post mortem vignettes become a trend. Game developers, take note!

Final Verdict: 4/5

Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Decontructeam; Players: 1; Released: May 18, 2021; MSRP: $12.99

Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Essays on Empathy provided by the developer.

Heather Johnson Yu
Born at a very young age; self-made thousandaire. Recommended by 4 out of 5 people that recommend things. Covered in cat hair. Probably the best sleeper in the world. Still haven't completed the civil war quest in Skyrim but I'm kind of okay with that. Too rad to be sad.

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