Games Comparison: Finding Empathy from the Coping of Trauma

Gone Home and Gris are two games that differ in many ways—like game structure—but share interesting commonalities like their similar interaction with human emotion. Just from the get-go, the player can find a huge visual and play-experience difference in the games. Gris is a fantastical, 2-D platform game. It follows a girl who traverses through disparate dreamlike landscapes. The game’s dimensionality makes the game unfold in a linear pattern. However, the game’s linearity is reciprocated by the game’s dependence on directionality, symbolism and music to produce a profound and interesting play experience. Although Gris’s platform attribute restrains the user to go only move up, down, or sideways, the game uses directionality to depict the progress of the girl’s journey out of her traumatic state. In the beginning, when the girl falls from the sky, the direction of falling parallels to her collapsing emotions. Towards the end of the game, when the girl is barely saved by the pink-shell turtle from the giant eel and is brought out of the ocean abyss, the upward direction depicts her escape from her abysmal emotional condition. Unlike Gone Home where the primary objective is for Katie to solve the mystery of her family’s absence by piecing scattered clues in her house, Gris relies on symbolism to find meaning in the game. This difference is best described in the phrase “show not tell”. Instead of simply finding clues to understand the game, Gris requires the player to perceive the constantly shifting emotions that are shown to them in the game. The most obvious example is the use of color to depict the progression of the game. Gris is divided by different color schemes which symbolize the girl’s 5 stages of grief. The introductory white color scheme conveys the girl’s initial feeling of denial. Her hasty denial state switches to anger when the color scheme turns red. The usage of color is complemented by the original music score in the game and the sound design. When the protagonist is walking through a massive sand dune in the red color scheme, there is a sandstorm that appears that halts her progress, meant to convey her episodes of anger. The tranquil music intensifies during each episode into a discomforting, fast-paced music.

On the contrary, Gone Home is a self-exploration walking simulator that captures its setting in a fictitious but realistic world. The game follows the POV of Katie as she navigates her house, trying to find clues for the mystery of what happened to her family. She can move around the house and interact with the clues that are scattered around the house. The clues are objects, letters, pictures, pop culture references, all of which to provide insight on the mystery. This detective work follows the ‘telling’ portion of “show not tell”. As the player enters certain parts of the house, the game plays a section in Sam’s journal almost to mark it as a checkpoint. These recordings basically inform the player of what’s going on, being upfront of the development of the storyline. There is a lack thereof symbolism in this game. Gone Home differs from Gris in that former follows a pretty constant tone. The outside thunderstorm, the dim lights inside the house, the disorganized and scattered objects around the house, collectively form an ambiance only described as unsettling. I think the most interesting difference between the two games is that the player in Gone Home is informed by how much the player explores the clues. Yes, a player can complete the game by reaching all the general checkpoints, but players can also learn more about the family’s disappearance if they spend more time digging for hints. When I played the game, I didn’t pick up about the storyline of Katie’s parents. My classmates, on the other hand, much more meticulous than I, were able to find out more about the Greenbriar family. The linearity of Gris essentially gives out the same information to the player as to any other person who plays the game, but it is up to the player and how they perceive the allusive things about the game.

Despite the multitude of differences, the games share the same theme: trauma and the overcoming of it. Gris’s entire foundation is based on the girl escaping from her intense grief. When she wakes up in the woman’s cracked palm, she tries to sing but chokes up immediately. When the palm crumbles, the girl falls into utter whiteness. She struggles to get on her two feet. After many strenuous efforts, she is able convert her trudging to a run and ultimately escape her 5 stages of grief. Gone Home also involves the theme of trauma. When Katie arrives to her abandon house, all of the clues of her missing sister points to the conclusion Samantha must have committed suicide after struggling for so long to accept her sexual orientation; of course all of the intentional suspicions laid out by the game developers are broken when the conclusion is actually reached. Cathy Caruth speaks more about trauma in her trauma model. She describes traumatic events as experiences we can never learn to fully understand. Trauma causes a “dissociative break in time” which creates both emotional suffering and the inability to locate the meaning of the event. Trauma over takes its victims and gulfs them in a haze of uncertain futility. This trauma model is reflected in both games—for the protagonist in Gris and Samantha in Gone Home.

Both games, based on their characters coping with trauma, promote empathy despite the different game structures, as Gris captures the trauma of the protagonist and Gone Home of a side character. Ian Bogost in his book How to do things with videogames says that “one of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes”. We empathize for the girl in Gris as we control her arduous journey. We emphasize for Samantha as we guide Katie around the house and slowly learn the social and internal strife Samantha must have gone through as reflected in Samantha’s diary entries. Despite the games showcasing the dealing of trauma and other negative emotions, the games oddly provoke positive emotion. Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World explains that games are opportunities for us to “focus our energy with relentless optimism”…“gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression”. Although the games encompass the theme of trauma, the gameplay still gives us a fuzzy joyous feeling as both characters ultimately trump their enemies of trauma. Although Gris and Gone Home have their unique differences, they both revolve around the characters’ coping with trauma which encourages us, the player, to gain empathy for the characters.

Citations:

  1. Bogost, I. (2011). Empathy. In How to do things with videogames (p. 18). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  2. McGonigal, J. (2012). ‘What Exactly is a Game’. In Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world (p. 28). London: Vintage.
  3. Mambrol, N. (2020, July 15). Trauma Studies. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://literariness.org/2018/12/19/trauma-studies/