Microcosms #6: On Empathy
Microcosms is an essay series that deals with games and art in both the direct and the abstract in 500 words or less.
Finding empathy in grim settings is nothing new for videogames, let alone fiction as a whole. From the much talked about giraffe scene in The Last of Us to the rare moments of calm introspection in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, fiction shows that no matter how grim the apocalypse is, there is always some light to be found. Dying Light is no different in that regard, there are plenty of empathetic moments to be found, but how they are handled is something that I am not used to seeing in games. And I want to see more of it.
Just to get some things out of the way: Dying Light is not a perfect game, it thoroughly fucks up in the representation department, the core narrative is awful, and with all of that said, Dying Light’s writing is not all bad. There are small moments and flourishes of something special. And those moments are what I am concerned with.
Empathy in Dying Light rarely leads to a new mission or loot or experience points. The in-game map is littered with little exclamation points that often lead to potential sidequests, but some of these points just lead to folks sitting around—whether that be in The Tower (the good guys’ survivor hub) or out in the world. And what is there to do with these people who are just sitting or standing around? Do they point you to some sidequest that will get you a better hammer or whatever? No, usually not. They just talk to you. As the player, you can walk away or listen. And if you listen, you won’t get any “game” out of it, and by “game”, I mean that you won’t get any of the usual benefits proffered by NPCs and quest givers in videogames. Their stories are enough. Ranging from simple stories about their last errand beyond the safety of The Tower to stories about yearning for lost family members, these incidental tales just help to add texture to the world. Just listen. That is all. It is a refreshing non-mechanic in a game that is an amalgamation of AAA open-world bloat—from crafting systems to endless skill trees, Dying Light resembles almost every open-world game from 2013 to today. But these small moments of simple conversation exits apart from the usual glut of open-world nonsense. More games should just ask players to listen, to soak in the various stories that make up a world, and nothing else. We do not need to vivisect zombies for fifty hours. Violence does not have to be the only verb in AAA games. We can do better, we can do more. But violent games keep selling and are often marketed to us as prestigious art with something to say, when in fact, there is never all that much time to listen because all we’re doing is killing.
Listening is a verb. Engaging in empathy is a powerful thing. It shows us that we are more than our own experience(s). To understand and feel for someone else is to show that you understand and exist beyond yourself. Just listen.