Imagine you are walking on the street and step on dog poop. You then see the owner strolling away with the dog, without a care in the world.
Would you say that the dog owner is a selfish person and what they did is ‘bad’?
Are you able to understand why they decided not to pick the poop after the dog, without any judgment or blame? And would you say that you can have empathy towards this person?
In this blog post, I would like to talk about separating judgment from observation and deconstructing the concept of empathy. Doing so, helped me understand the character behavior in Twelve Minutes, and shape their reactions to express their humanity better, allowing the player to more easily relate to them.
Until recently, I would have been angry at the dog owner and frame their behavior as wrong, labeling them as a person with no respect for others. If confronting them, I would blame them for my frustration and not consider they might believe that what they did is not a problem.
This is how I was taught to react, and how most of us have been raised.
Following this logic, if the dog owner is ‘wrong,’ that means picking the dog poop is the ‘right’ thing to do.
If someone does something ‘bad,’ that usually follows with punishment, in the same way, that if you do something ‘good,’ you’ll be rewarded.
Another example is the academical education system. Good and bad grades, good and bad students. Get an A+, and you are happy to see the teacher being appreciative and glad, get an F, and you feel sad to have disappointed him.
Now let’s simplify this even further and look at a 3-year-old playing with another toddler.
They want the toy the other kid has (because it’s fluffy) and so they take it by force, and the other kid starts to cry.
Would you say that the 3-year-old is ‘bad’?
It’s more difficult to blame a toddler because their ignorance is apparent and their behavior is more primal. So we tend to ‘forgive’ them more easily, which is another form of judgment. Unlike the dog poop example, it should be more evident that the 3-year-old is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they just haven’t learned a different way to get what they want.
So if a parent reacts in an authoritative voice saying “That’s wrong! Give that back!”, they’re not only judging the toddler based on their education of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but it’s a demand that only allows the 3-year-old to submit or rebel.
If someone perceives you as coercive, their capacity to respond compassionately to the request is diminished. The toddler will feel that they are being blamed or punished if they don’t comply.
The most powerful way to communicate that we are making a genuine request is to empathize with people when they don’t agree to their request.
A parent, as the principal advisor to the child, could instead explain to the toddler that their actions, while fulfilling their immediate need for play and control, are also pushing the other kid away. And doing so, the 3-year-old need for participation and trust will no longer be met (e.g.the other kid will no longer want to play with them if they don’t know how to share).
What is empathy?
So why did the toddler take the toy?
Ignorance. Ignorance of how their choices might be negating other people’s needs. It can be:
- Lack of awareness of the consequences of our actions
- Inability to see how our needs may be met without injury to others
- The belief that we have the right to punish or hurt others because they ‘deserve’ it.
- Delusional thinking (e.g. hearing a voice that instructs us to kill someone).
And if we judge/blame them before trying to understand why, they will likely defend themselves.
Empathy requires you to shed your judgment, your moral views, and be able to connect with the person needs, independently from how you were raised to evaluate them. Empathy is when we listen to the others to understand what they are needing.
It is not easy, especially when dealing with people that appear to have more power status or resources (since we are more likely to hear judgments from them), but that allows us to understand the reasoning behind their behavior.
As a side note, I would like to mention that it’s useful to have a definition of what we can and cannot do when living in society. What I’m focusing on is before our ‘automated defense system’ kicks in, to understand where it’s coming from, and that maybe that lesson we learned when we were 3-years-old might be out-of-date.
Also, if you want to learn more about Non-Violent Communication, this video is an excellent starting point.
Empathy in Twelve Minutes
So how are we applying these principles to the project?
Since the puzzle and narrative are locked, the writers are focusing on the emotional branches of the characters and how they interact.
I’m now able to understand when a character is using violent communication (judging/blaming/praising) or if he is listening to your needs. This insight allows us to understand the repercussions of the way they express themselves and be able to change it, to fit with our goals.
In practical terms it means we look at how a character is saying something, and shape it for you to feel more connected or not, independently from the concrete content of the message.
I’ve been doing this with colors, shapes, and forms for over ten years, but having the same clarity for emotions is brand new.
For the player character, we are making sure they can mirror what the user is experiencing in the context of the narrative (e.g., If you have gone through ten consecutive loops trying to solve a specific problem, have the character understand your frustration with the lack of progress).
Also, most player dialog choices are as emotionally neutral as possible, focusing on asking/giving information, to avoid the ‘Why did they phrase it that way.’ scenarios.
And if those answers cannot be neutral (e.g., a heated argument), then we make sure to understand the feelings behind each character reasoning, so the player character might express himself differently from how you would, but you still understand and relate with their point of view.
On top of this, we are looking for opportunities that allow you to express empathy towards your wife (and any other NPC) and vice-versa. There is no ‘kiss wife’ button, but we want to have small organic meaningful actions that allow you to connect emphatically with the wife if you choose to do so.
The final goal is that hopefully you can feel the humanity in these digital actors and be able to care about what happens to them.
It has been six months since the last development update, and after receiving some emails asking if the game is still in development, here is a small update on that front.
Production is going relatively smoothly.
I spent the last months stabilizing/playing the build and taking notes to have a better picture of where the project is. This process helped me figure out what I hope is the last major puzzle, that ties the whole experience together, as well as having a more accurate roadmap of what is left to do (a lot!).
On the audio side, we’ve finally started to implement sounds effects and music. We’ve recorded some more mocap animations (still a lot to go), and on the art side we no longer have any temp assets, but rather iterating on current ones.
I also want to say for the future, that the development is not going to stop anytime soon and if it does, I’ll say something about it.
The primary goal of this blog is to share insights and lessons learned throughout the development that ideally are relevant outside the scope of this project, so if we are in full production, there isn’t much more to say other than that we are all hard at work!