The idea that games can be used to convey a fascinating story as well as simply being fun to play is pretty popular these days. There’s plenty of reasons for this, though today we’re going to focus on one of my favorites: being able to tell a good story isn’t the same thing as being able to make a fun game, so there are certainly some developers who’d like to be able to separate the two and that’s led to the rise of the walking simulator.
Speaking of those, here’s Empathy: Path of Whispers, a walking/oscilloscope simulator that halfheartedly attempts to add gameplay by…making it harder to enjoy the story? Who knows.
The city of Chernosk was a wonder of modern science and engineering…until suddenly, it wasn’t. It now lies abandoned and littered with ruins. You’re placed into this city, paired up with a disembodied voice, and equipped with a sort of spiritual radar that allows you to read the memories of the former inhabitants of Chernosk; it’s your job to try and find out what happened here, as well as how to get out.
That’s a pretty intriguing concept, right? It certainly got my attention; the opening is great and there’s some gorgeous area design on display as everything starts to spin up. The issue lies in how the game actually plays. This is a walking simulator, not a Myst-style adventure game as you might think at first; while there are puzzles they’re uncommon and barely challenging enough to earn the name. The paths that you can follow are clearly defined, and any attempts to go anywhere you weren’t expected to go will result in you being plopped back to safe place. This is particularly aggravating when we’re talking about vertical movement, since any fall greater than three feet or so is enough to trigger an SOS and get you sent back to where you were standing. That’s a pain when it means having to, say, take the long way down a slope instead of just sliding down like you’d expect to be able to do in a video game.
That’s not Empathy’s greatest crime, though. Let me explain: if you’ve ever played the Arkham series of Batman games, you might be familiar with a recurring gadget from those titles called the Cryptographic Sequencer. It’s a little pocket computer that Batman takes out to hack things by matching up wavelength displays. You could call Cryptographic Sequencer segments “puzzles” except they’re not really; they’re non-puzzles or “nuzzles” as I’ve once heard them called, just a matter of twiddling with the controls until you get the code right. I can’t recall a time when Batman is in danger or under a time limit when you need to work on one of these, so you can’t really “fail” them. It’s padding.
The Arkham games are generally pretty good, so a little padding here or there isn’t such a big deal. That doesn’t mean I’d want to play a game made entirely of Cryptographic Sequencer non-puzzles. Someone apparently did, though, because we’ve got it right here! Empathy: Path of Whispers is basically a take on the classic indie first-person looker where you have to solve one of those wavelength twiddlers (using the aforementioned spiritual radar) whenever you want to look at something. As you can imagine, this doesn’t do a lot to make the game more immersive and instead lends a sense of dread to exploration and discovery. Again, you can’t “fail” these, so it’s just there to extend the game length a little each time it comes up.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of walking simulators; I think they’re kind of boring, actually, a means of dodging the hard questions of game design by simply refusing to answer them. I’m willing to be open-minded when one comes along that shakes things up a little, though. Abzu’s swimming physics and gorgeous locales didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out, for instance, and there’s something to be said for The Stanley Parable’s self-aware tone. Empathy, though, puts padding into a genre that, by its very nature, is almost entirely padding as it is. I’m not really sure what the thought process was there, but it doesn’t lead to a very engaging experience.
So without any real gameplay, that leaves us with Empathy’s art and design. Admittedly it isn’t too bad, though even on max settings the textures tend to be a little muddy and it’s clear that most of the team’s attention was on big eye-catching set pieces like the giant statue that’s come to represent the game. There’s a ton of voice acting attached to all those items you’re supposed to look at, as well, which varies wildly in quality; your disembodied guide is pretty good at his job, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. As for the plot itself, it certainly nails the mystery side of things, though other games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture do a better job of keeping the intrigue flowing after initially drawing you in; the fact that you don’t have to fiddle with an oscilloscope every time you find a clue probably helps with that.
To be honest, it’s difficult to recommend Empathy: Path of Whispers in a period filled with so many other games that are a little more respectful of your time. If you want an interesting story filled with twists, turns and mysteries to discover, why not play Nier Automata? If you want to stretch your brain a little, why not give Obduction a shot? If you want to solve wavelength puzzles, why not just suit up and play Batman? Empathy might have stood out back when Dear Esther was released and walking simulators were first starting to take off, but today it can’t compete.