“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”

We say it all the time. In life we all have unique struggles and situations to face. The most evocative movies, books, and music deal with the ups and downs of life. We’re drawn to what’s real and meaningful – something we can relate to or view in a new light. Mostly, we just want to feel understood. 

For decades, games have primarily been a tool for escapism. Plenty of people sit down with a game for a reprieve, a fun diversion. But as the nascent industry evolves, so do the experiences that games can offer. Not every game has to be mindless or take you away from real-life issues. More and more developers are using games to convey their personal stories, tackling heavy issues like depression, alcoholism, and cancer to make players experience what it’s like to be put in an ­unsettling ­situation.

Last year, Depression Quest, I Get This Call Every Day, and Papers, Please took many people by surprise by casting you in a difficult role, earning this emerging genre the moniker “empathy games.” Developers might not love the label, but it says something about their games. They’re meaningful. They introduce an issue or experience players might not otherwise consider, and the trend is speeding up. This War of Mine, Silent Enemy, Gods Will Be Watching, and That Dragon, Cancer are just a few bold games of this ilk on the horizon. 

[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #254]

Challenging The System

Big publishers don’t like to gamble. Armed with market research, they know what makes money, and anything that strays away from their proven formulas is a hard sell. Vander Caballero knows this firsthand. He worked at EA for eight years on franchises like Army of Two and Need for Speed before breaking off to form his own studio. He learned the skills necessary to create games, but he also learned to conform. “I just wasn’t happy because all the different ideas, all the culture…everything has to fit around teenage power fantasies,” Caballero says. “And the moment that you were stepping out of that you were ‘acting weirdly.’”   

Caballero desired fulfillment. He felt blessed to work on video games, but wanted to create something more meaningful and personal, something different, a scary word for any publisher. “Now I don’t feel like I was actually weird, but at the same time, I felt like I was a weirdo,” he says. “I [kept thinking] am I wrong? Is something wrong with me? And [then] I [realized] I’m not wrong. It’s the system ­that’s ­wrong.”

Coming to this realization, Caballero left EA and risked forming his own studio, Minority, in 2010. “I wanted to see if I could make it because I was ready to leave the game industry,” he says. With a low budget and the desire to come out on console, Caballero had to think of what type of story to tell, so he looked back at his life as a gamer. “I went to my childhood and I remember playing Mario for hours and hours and that was my escape, but there was this frustration every time I came back to reality because it wasn’t helping,” he says. “I could defeat all the evil guys in Mario and Zelda, but then when I came back to my reality nothing that I learned or experienced helped me in my life. It was a sad return to life every time. Then I [thought], ‘What if I do a game about how to defeat my alcoholic father, but in a meaningful way? For relief.’ It took me many years to defeat my father and it was not through violence. It just clicked in my head that’s what I’m going to do.”

The idea didn’t end Caballero’s troubles though. As he started pitching the prototype, he felt the familiar resistance he did at EA. “Every game producer that I pitched the idea of Papo & Yo, who saw the prototype, was like, ‘No. No. No. You cannot do that. You have to change this. You have to change that,’” Caballero says. “Again, I started feeling weird. Then I [thought] this is wrong. It should not be that way.”

Caballero eventually got a call from Cath erine Bainbridge, who had a background in documentary and fiction programming and was looking to get involved with video games. 

For the first time, Caballero felt comfortable talking about the game he was making. A partnership was born. Having a collaborator who had a background outside of games and had already tackled complex subjects was an asset for Caballero, who thinks the video game industry still has a lot to figure out. “In the big studios, no one knows how to [tackle difficult subjects],” he says. “We have all archaic processes of creation. No one knows whatsoever what an empathy game is and how to create empathy. [That’s why] we see the empathy happening in the independent movement. We have to rethink all the processes we have of how we create ­video ­games.”

Papo & Yo went on to be a success for Minority. It first launched on the PS3, and the interest level was high enough that Minority released it on Steam about a year later. The experience made Caballero realize he wanted to keep creating games that dealt with complex subject matter. The studio's next game, Silent Enemy, due out next year, confronts bullying. Minority also recently announced a game called Cali, a tragic story about the experience of falling in love with an A.I. avatar.

Up next: Developers take on even more complex subject matter...