The world has gone crazy. Wars and riots are everywhere. Billions are now dead. You are a child whose family has apparently disappeared, victims of the widespread violence. You are asked to go on a quest by a gentle-voiced stranger who says that, together, you might be able to set things right. You then find yourself in a laboratory. Picking up a scanning device, you look down at a console and are told to push a button. Really? That’s all it takes to save humanity? Alarms go off, your companion says “no, no, no!” and a white mist forms before your eyes. It seems that saving the world is going to be a wee bit more complicated than pushing a button after all. In the eerie dystopia of Empathy: Path of Whispers, you will need to explore and re-examine shadowy rooms and tunnels, locate objects that replay other people’s memories, start machinery and access secrets in a complex, exasperating yet ultimately rewarding quest to right mankind’s latest wrongs.
Your journey begins in Chernosk, an abandoned wreck of a city with crumbling apartments tottering on stilts. Your first goal: getting into Atlas Park, a leafy sanctuary perched atop the shoulders of an immense statue. By the time the game’s fifth act ends, you will have visited a cavernous train station, a pagoda-inspired cliffside village, and a high-tech science institute. The environments are naturalistic but surreal and include jaw-dropping 3D landscapes. Though close-up textures can be pixelated and the foliage rather abstract, this dovetails with the overall dream-like atmosphere. There’s a flashlight feature that allows you extra light, and later landscapes are shown during bright daytime hours, but the interiors and underground areas (which make up the bulk of exploration) and Atlas Park itself (which is a nighttime setting) are relentlessly gloomy.
Though each location has a different architectural emphasis, the interiors within each act are much alike. The same elements recur, though arranged slightly differently, comprising the likes of identical doors, balconies, stairs, lockers, windows, and sinks. Signs of wreckage are everywhere: discarded garbage and papers, broken furniture, mold, dirt, and tarnished metal. There’s also a scattering of individualized objects. It’s surprising how just a toothbrush, for instance, can evoke a sense of civilization. Still, in each location, the interiors are mazelike simply because they are so repetitive.
Exteriors contain some animation, from swirling bugs and wafted leaves to drifting mist, and Empathy’s creepy atmosphere is enhanced by bells chiming in the distance, eerie orchestral tones and odd reverberations. The soundtrack features whisper-soft piano melodies, ominous strings, and mournful, wordless vocals.
But what really bring these ghostly places to life are the objects that spark memories from a large cast of notable characters. Mementos that are currently interactive shimmer to attract your attention. Some are easily found; others require searching corners or shrubbery, climbing staircases and ladders, and figuring out how to open locked doors. Locating and clicking on items to hear the former residents talk to one another (or think to themselves) takes up the vast portion of gameplay. Piecing the plot together is the game’s greatest challenge.
At first, the memories seemed almost random to me. For a while I despaired of ever being able to figure out what had happened in Chernosk and beyond. (It’s helpful to enable subtitles so the characters are identified, which makes the task significantly easier). By the time I made it out of Atlas Park, however, I was truly caught up in Empathy’s story and eager to know more about each person’s past and ultimate fate.
The writing and excellent multi-accented voice-overs combine to give a wonderful sense of the main characters’ motivations and personalities – which is important, as you never see their faces. Grigori, for instance, is gruff and mentions facts, not feelings, never hesitating to take responsibility for devastating decisions. Chana has a flair for the dramatic and steeps herself in outrage. She aims for perfection – or, at least, what seems perfectly fair to her. Mrs. Savinsek plays the long game cleverly and ruthlessly. Andropov asks lots of questions and re-examines his assumptions. He sees human failings, but that doesn’t discourage him. He wouldn’t describe himself as a hero, but he is one.
Although the narrator is never identified by name, it becomes clear that he has visited many of these places before and very little of what happens seems to surprise him. His comments help provide context for people’s actions, and he frequently uses lively analogies. His comments range from wry and chuckle-worthy to heartfelt and sad. “Welcome to Depression Scenic Tours. If you look to your right, you can see the end of society. On your left, more of the same. Please keep your belongings close and try not to get murdered. If you see something, say something.”
As the intricate, ambitious tale unfolds, you’ll encounter evidence of innocence, cruelty, and ambiguity, as well as how cooperation (or lack of it) both succeeded and failed in the face of adversity. Questions are raised that seldom trouble the shallow surface of the typical video game. What does it mean to be human? To be humane? What is the “greater good” and who decides it? Is courage admirable only when it succeeds? Is the willingness to manipulate others for the sake of power sometimes excusable?Continued on the next page...