Last week I attended an “Acting for Animators” training session from Ed Hooks. Mr. Hooks has been offering this class since around the time PDI was developing the film “Antz”. Ed is an actor by profession and was brought in to PDI to teach their animators acting principles. He’s written two books on the subject and since evolved the class to address animation in video games to a certain extent. This is a very informative class for anyone involved with animation and I think, anyone charged with telling stories. I’m not a Game Designer, but I feel Game Designers would benefit from the course greatly.

Sorry I don’t mean to sound like a commercial for the class, but that’s the background needed for my question.

Ed, like all good actors speaks of empathy a lot. The difference between empathy and sympathy is important to note.

  • Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone.
  • Empathy is when you identify with another person’s feelings.

To feel sympathy or empathy you must observe the actions of another person. You can’t feel sympathy or empathy for yourself. Sure, you can feel sorry for yourself, but that is an emotional reaction to your own situation.

If you’re still with me, let’s apply this to games. The player controls the character in a game, they are making the choices and not observing them. Therefore, the player cannot have empathy towards the character he/she controls.

I think that is a barrier to great storytelling in games. We’ve evolved ways to try and get around this; the escort quest and cutscene cinematics are primary examples. Escort quests can get a little tiresome however, save IMHO, Ico. I really was emotionally engaged with protecting that character for the duration of the game. Cutscenes are, well, cutscenes. They are many pros and cons… too many for one short article.

My (two part) question is this… How much is this barrier blocking immersion, fun and ultimately empathy? Can you point out examples that show how this is overcome?