Gameplay Cree: Minority Media raises the stake for “empathy games”

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silent rezBack in 2012, Montreal-based game studio Minority Media sent shivers of excitement up the neck of the city’s gaming industry with a provocative new gaming genre in an award-winning debut release, Papo & Yo. Creator Vander Caballero coined the term “empathy game” to highlight the game’s relationship that it established with the player.

It wasn’t light-hearted, either. The lead character was forced to deal with the challenges child faced from an abusive parent suffering from alcoholism.

One of the core requirements for categorizing a game as an “empathy game” is that it identifies and explores themes and issues that are easily felt, but problematic and uncomfortable for the parties involved to speak out about because of social stigmas. The idea to combine fantasy gameplay and storytelling techniques to illuminate a difficult social reality struck a chord in the gaming community and helped create a new industry niche.

Now Minority Media is upping its empathy quotient. In early October, Minority released Spirits of Spring for the iPhone and iPad, available online for $4.99. Following in Papo & Yo’s footsteps, Spirits of Spring creates a reward system for the player that hinges on a heightened level of emotional investment.

Spirits of Spring invites players to step into the snowshoes of Chiwatin. He’s a young Cree boy, who, along with his animal friends, Rabbit and Bear, is on a mission to rescue spring from a land of endless winter. The game-world is modeled on the wilderness of James Bay in northern Quebec.

Chiwatin and friends use their natural and spiritual powers to dispel the snow and return life to the world. They are physically and verbally tormented by bullies in the form of crows, who do what they can to hurt or hinder them and prolong winter. Using this setting as a metaphor, Spirits of Spring explores the emotional constructs and processes behind bullying from the standpoints of both the victim and the bully. It also challenges the morally ambiguous role of bystanders in between the two.

An example of a subtle device that Minority employs to engage player empathy is the fact that Chiwatin’s character stumbles and falls during the game through no fault of the player. This goes against the values of traditional gameplay, which accents ease and efficiency of character control as a top priority. The decision to break with gaming convention manipulates the player’s emotions to mimic a real bullying situation.

Vander Caballero, Minority Media Founder

Vander Caballero, Minority Media Founder

Initially, the player becomes frustrated with Chiwatin’s tripping, and starts to resent him. Then the crows swoop in to gang up on Chiwatin, taunting him and making fun of his clumsiness with harmful words like “stupid” and “loser.” The effect is to put the player in a bully’s role, which allows them to see the harm of their abuse. The player experiences unexpected guilt and stirs empathy for Chiwatin’s plight.

Minority’s creative directors Ernest Webb and Ruben Farrus took the time to talk about empathy, indie games and the creative forces behind the company’s latest offering.

The Nation (TN): Is it fair to say that Spirits of Spring is a spiritual sequel to Papo & Yo?

Ruben Farrus (RF): We could say that Spirits of Spring and Papo & Yo have similar goals, in terms of telling a human story. Usually videogames are power-up fantasies where you just get stronger and stronger, and face stronger and stronger enemies, but that’s not how life really works; highs can be very high and lows an be very low. So in terms of the story development that is what we try to demonstrate.

TN: What is it about the playing experience that sets “empathy games” apart from the hundreds of others flooding the mobile gaming market?

RF: We call them “empathy games” because they tell very human stories.

Ernest Webb (EW): It’s a new genre. Instead of hiding in a game, instead of hiding yourself and escaping in a game, you have to deal with stuff. You have to deal with emotion.

Ruben Farrus, Creative Director

Ruben Farrus, Creative Director

RF: Usually what happens with stories in games is that managers come to you and say, “OK, we need to make this game, it has to have driving and shooting; give me a story.” Then someone will come out with a story that plays like a movie and they sort of plug it together through chopping the story into parts and then putting cut-scenes here and there. What we do is the opposite. When we started, we had the story and the gameplay set at the same value. They have to work together. We did not create this game to say here’s the story, now go and collect coins.

Instead, this character goes through all these phases: first he finds out that he’s being bullied, then he tries to find a solution, then that solution doesn’t work, what does he do when that solution that was promised to him doesn’t work out? All these feelings have to be experienced through gameplay. That’s the power of videogames. Otherwise, if you don’t experience it through gameplay, if you don’t empathize with the main character and the other characters through gameplay, it doesn’t work. What you want is to play the story, that’s very important to us.

TN: What was the rationale behind the decision to develop a game for the iPhone and iPad as opposed to other gaming platforms?

RF: The story, the main theme behind the game, is about bullying and we feel its very universal and we know everyone has an iPod or an iPhone so we wanted to reach as many people as possible. We made the first game (Papo & Yo) as a downloadable game for the PlayStation 3 and PC, but not everyone has a PlayStation 3 hooked up to the internet where you can download downloadable games, and what we wanted to do with Spirits of Spring was reach as many people as possible.

TN: What aspects of Cree and other First Nations cultures inspired this game? And what measures did you take to ensure the game stayed true to the source culture?

RF: What we found in the Cree setting was that it was the perfect place to talk about something difficult. All the relationships between people and animals, and the relationship with weather was the perfect way to take people to a magical place and then talk about something difficult. One of the beautiful things about this game is the story. Good stories work because they take audiences to a magical place they want to explore. It’s the sort of feeling that comes when people talk about what’s close to their hearts. Bullying in this case, is a universal story, which touches everyone.

EW: It’s loosely based on a Cree legend from James Bay, called the “Quest For Summer.” There’s a land where there’s constant winter and this quest to go searching for summer. Ruben and I took a trip to James Bay for him to get a feel of the land and the people. The collaboration was pretty successful, we were able to capture the landscape and make sure the story, the universe and the characters all made sense in the Cree setting and that they were faithful to the Cree culture.

RF: The overall look of the game and the art design was strongly influenced by the work of Norval Morrisseau.

EW: Chiwatin the main character himself is Cree. In the artwork we incorporated the beading on mittens and gloves and the slippers, plus Morrisseau’s style of painting.

TN: Norval Morrisseau has been harshly criticized by some First Nations for revealing too much of their culture in his art. Did you run into any ethical problems with the Cree community in terms of excessive cultural appropriation?

EW: There have been no problems using the art for content so far, but it would have been difficult from a moral standpoint to do this game if none of us were Cree. The sacred ceremonies, we’re not going to put them in a videogame. It was discussed, there were some discussions pertaining to that, but we are sensitive to that kind of stuff. It was a self-imposed wall; it’s something that I’m sensitive to as well.

Spirits of Spring_Avatar_02R: Which demographic(s) is this game aimed toward?

RF: What we found out when we pitched this game to different members of the school communities in James Bay was that bullying is still a big problem in elementary and secondary schools, and bullying is still a taboo; people don’t want to talk about it. So this game could work as a tool, a sort of common ground where parents, students and teachers can work together.

TN: Are there other indie games on the market, which you feel influenced by, or that you feel are breaking new ground in the “empathy game” genre?

RF: I think we have our own style and it’s very unique. If you play Papo & Yo and Spirits of Spring, you can see it’s unique because both gameplay and story are very fused together. Recently I played Papers Please and Gone Home; both are small downloadable indie games for the PC, and do a great job of communicating emotions through gameplay.

EW: In terms of influences, World of Warcraft was a big one for me. There were so many times when they came out with a new version or a new update that I thought to myself, “If only I could have been there at those artistic meetings.” I saw the possibilities of bringing [First Nations’] culture into the videogame world, and we’ve now just scratched the surface, so there’s this whole world that’s opening up.

TN: How do you feel about the current status of indie games in today’s gaming industry? Where do you see the most potential for growth and innovation?

RF: Innovation is coming from independent game-makers.

EW: The ones who can take a chance, who are not bound to a corporate agenda to sell millions.

RF: It’s a risky endeavour. It’s like a good indie movie. This is the equivalent in terms of videogames.

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