By Cassie Z.
*Note: I highly recommend for people who are interested in the inspiration and developmental process of the game – how they approached writing the story, designing the characters, what kind of feedback the development team used while designing the game, the concerns they had, etc.– to take a look at the documentary on Bury Me, My Love produced by Split/Screen documentary on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSP2BUu9C0w
I think it’s important for me to include a personal confession that I suspected many others had even before opening the game: prior to playing the game, I was worried about how using the format of a game to approach and encapsulate a political and humanitarian crisis, namely the perilous migration of Syrian refugees out of a war zone in search of a better life, can go wrong in so many ways. Games are traditionally associated with entertainment and leisure, so many people may get the sense that, even before playing, that choosing such a medium to approach such a topic might be in bad taste or even disrespectful towards the plight and suffering of Syrians.
However, the Bury Me, My Love development team is acutely aware of these perceptions. As members of the team have expressed in an interview with Split/Screen documentaries about the developmental process and release of the project. The founder of Pixel Hunt, the developer of BMML recouts (17:00):
“I prepared a huge list of arguments to tell Dana (whose story inspired the game) that I didn’t want to trivialize the intensity of what she went through.”
“But actually, we talked five minutes and she told me it was great, every project that wanted to share her story were a good idea, and that she loved the fact that we used video games as a media, to make people live a little bit of what she lived”.
Even Lucie Soullier, the journalist whose article, “The Journey of a Syrian Migrant, as Told by her WhatsAppMessages” inspired the project, recounts her initial petrification to Florent Maurin’s proposal. She was eventually convinced by the Maurin’s dedication to research and respect for the topic through her introduction to two games: Lifeline (2015) and Papers, Please (2013), which convinced her that games were not just for “nerdy teenagers” and that there was a potential for games to be informative, educational, and enact societal and political change, which was the founding purpose of Pixel Hunt.
The exchange between Maurin and Soullier made me realize the societal preconceptions associated with gaming and how such preconceptions are limiting in what games, as a medium with undeniable influence among children and adults, have the potential for. Especially since Bury Me, My Love is primarily a mobile game in addition to having other ports on Switch and Steam. The Pew Research Center states that 85% of Americans now own a smartphone of some kind, allowing mobile games to have a wide reach among users.
Gameplay: Character Design
Bury Me, My Love is a text-messaging based interactive fiction game that tells the story of Nour, a Syrian migrant trying to find her way to Europe. Her husband, Majd, stays behind to take care of his parents and communicates with her via a messaging app modeled after Whatsapp. Along the way, Nour is met with strangers—some friendly and some not, rumors of political unrest, smugglers— and other decisions that she will need Majd (player’s) help on. The story has 19 endings and yes, Nour can die on the way.
Upon opening the game, there is a statement (or disclaimer) that appears on the screen stating that the game is reality-inspired and that real-time notifications can be enabled. I thought it was interesting that such a game, which is based upon Dana’s communications and journey in many ways (audio clips, pictures, emojis, conversations) makes it a point to distance themself from being identified as a singular individual’s narrative. This distancing is also evident in how the team decided to go for an artistic rendering of the characters and scenes, and their decision to hire a French-Australian voice actress to voice Nour, instead of hiring Syrian actors to represent Nour and Majd.
The team wanted Nour and Majd to go beyond being associated with particular individuals, rather they wanted Nour and Majd to represent the millions of Syrian women and men who are implicated in the Syrian Civil War— whether it be undertaking the journey, staying home out of necessity to take care of family and friends, or being caught on the frontlines.
The sort of distancing is also evident in the gameplay, particularly the characters of Nour and Majd. Players will quickly realize that while they are playing as Majd and making choices for how Majd is communicating with Nour, Majd has his own personality and is his own individual. Oftentimes, the player will make a choice for a text based on two options given, and Majd will expand on that and send follow up texts based on the chosen choice. Thus, it feels like the players are influencing Majd, but the preset (and limited) options, Maid’s own biases and prejudices, and how Majd is programmed to send texts without subsequent player input convey that the player is not Majd, but more of a sprite or consciousness that sits on his soldier and angles his decisions. It is important for players to be aware that they are not Majd and to okay with not having full control over Majd as it is not their story to tell and enact (even though the game is primarily released in English and European languages). The team also came under fire for Majd’s character as Majd can make certain racist remarks and is the more religious one (and sometimes the more conservative one) of the relationship, which can prompt Nour to playfully call him a bigot. The team explains that they decided to include these options in order to be faithful to reality as there can be, and often is, a lot of racism on all sides during migration.
The character of Nour is also unique, especially when viewed in combination with the real-time notifications setting. As a character, Nour is given a great amount of agency. Players will again quickly realize that Nour also has her own personality and way of doing things. Even when players, through Majd, suggest one route, Nour may have already made up her mind so it was simply a matter of encouraging/supporting her or talking her down, which will affect Majd’s relationship with Nour. (Yes, Nour can break things off with Majd and cut him out of her life). In addition, the conversation is almost always initiated by Nour, which puts the player into a waiting position. This position becomes nerve wracking in combination with the real-time notifications setting, which means that the conversation happens in real time and Nour may be offline for hours while she is dealing with an explosion, talking to smugglers, etc., to give players a sense of what it feels like to be Majd, waiting and worrying for his wife that is undertaking such a perilous journey. Interestingly, Nour’s character has been criticized by Syrian media due to her being an atheist. Though Nour’s character and manner of speech is constructed after Dana, who comes from a wealthier background, these critiques bring to mind questions and issues of representation (how) and reflects certain concerns for games that goes beyond treating such as a game as only a game when international politics and public relations are at stake.
As I’ve talked about how the game creates distance, I now want to further touch on how the game creates immersion. I think the choice of the story being told through a text messaging app is great. Not only is it true to the original story that inspired the project, there is just something about text messaging that is incredibly personal as it feels like the reader is getting a first person account of the journey. If Dana’s story had been retold in a written story format (usually 3rd person), I felt like there would not have been such a high degree of immersion and feeling of one actually being “put in another person’s shoes”.
I also think the decision to include money and time as variables that affect Nour’s journey is a nice touch as it is true to reality. How much money Nour has left impacts her actions and decisions such as what roads she can take and which smugglers she can go with. The emphasis on money is also a core component of the dangers of traveling as all players will experience. The first crucial choice of the game is that Nour is leaving with someone who has agreed to take her to the Beirut airport for a certain sum, but midway the driver states that he has heard that there is gunfire up ahead and takes the chance to charge Nour more for his trouble. The player must then decide whether to convince Nour to take the driver’s offer or to find another way to the airport (and potentially end up elsewhere in the process). In addition, there are other choices such as where to hide the money and what facilities/methods of transportation to take (based on cost). These decisions all require the player to take into careful consideration the financial situation of Nour and recognize how expensive such journeys cost. Migration is not as simple as traveling directly from point A to point B. As the game documents, there are costs for everything: food, water, shelter, buses, smugglers, papers, plane tickets, etc., and dangers at every corner.
To conclude: Bury Me, My Love shows how journalism, storytelling, and gaming can intersect to create games that make one rethink what games are, what games can do, what kind of narratives can be told, and how to tell these narratives “right” through dedication to respect, communication, and research.
“Category: Bury Me, My Love.” The Pixel Hunt, 27 May 2019, https://www.thepixelhunt.com/categorie/bmml.
“Bury Me, My Love – A Story of Love, Hope and Migration.” Bury Me My Love, https://burymemylove.arte.tv/.
Split/Screen Documentaries. Bury Me My Love – A Split/Screen Documentary, Youtube, 10 Sept. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSP2BUu9C0w. Accessed 24 Jan. 2022.