Understanding Empathy

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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.

Non-Violent Communication

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 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.

Development Progress

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!


  • Zkrizt
    June 28, 2018, 11:05 pm

    “There is no ‘kiss wife’ button”

    Well that’s disappointing…

    • Luis Antonio
      June 29, 2018, 11:03 am

      There is something even better 🙂

  • Aceldamia
    June 29, 2018, 6:06 am

    “Would you say that the 3-year-old is ‘bad’?”

    Yes. And they would learn very quickly not to do it again.

    “The toddler will feel that they are being blamed or punished if they don’t comply.”

    Yeah, it’s call parenting. They ARE being blamed and punished if they don’t comply. That’s the whole point.

    “maybe that lesson we learned when we were 3-years-old might be out-of-date.”

    No, they aren’t

    • Luis Antonio
      June 29, 2018, 11:02 am

      Yeah, it’s call parenting. They ARE being blamed and punished if they don’t comply. That’s the whole point.

      Like I mentioned in the post, wouldn’t you agree that if the other person hears a demand from us (rather than a request), they will only have the option to submit or rebel? The person requesting will be perceived as coercive and the listeners capacity to respond compassionately to the request will be diminished.
      As a father of a 4-year-old, I much rather have my daughter change and respond only if she chooses to do so willingly and compassionately, on a relationship based on honesty and empathy.
      When others trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and we expect this process to fulfill everyone’s needs, then they can trust that our requests are true and not camouflaged demands.

      On the other hand, if you assume that people commit offenses because they are bad or evil and to correct the situation they need to be made to repent, your demand just as likely generates resentment and hostility and reinforces resistance to the very behavior you are seeking (for the toddler not to take the toy!).
      Forcing someone to comply with your own set of values, will do nothing but tell them to repent and change until they ‘suffer’ enough to see the error of their ways.

      Until I learned about non-violent communication, I would have done the same. Say ‘no’ to the child, and label their behavior as ‘bad’ according to my views, but what are they learning?
      That you are the boss? That does not sound like the ideal lesson if you want them to grow…
      On the other hand, if you explain to them WHY that behavior will not fulfill their needs, they are more likely to listen to you and actually change because they want to (willingly).

  • Tim Keating
    June 29, 2018, 12:10 pm

    I was thinking about this game recently — weirdly, because I didn’t hear anything about it at E3. Glad progress is still being made! Still looking forward to getting my hands on it.

    • Luis Antonio
      June 29, 2018, 12:20 pm

      Yeah, it’s too early for E3 (even though we have a lot of new content).
      The team size is too small to do an early marketing push and shifting development efforts to create promotional material would delay the release, that content would go to waste (rushing assets for trailers only), and unless we are showing on stage, it would likely be muffled by all the AAA fireworks during the event.

  • Robert Ramirez
    December 2, 2019, 5:06 pm

    Reading this article has only made me more excited for the game release as the approach taken in the game is so cool. The way you described connecting the character to the player in having them mirror each other sounds like a great feature. I also like that you made it so even when they don’t mirror it will still be said in a way we’ll understand. Can’t wait for this game.