by Ciaran Daly
"Every refugee is a human being, and it’s terrible that we live in a situation right now where it’s necessary to remind people of this very straightforward fact."
For years now, we’ve been fed a narrative about a refugee ‘crisis’. A crisis for whom?
It appears the lived crises of refugees - the very real and terrifying circumstances that sends people fleeing for their lives - have been transfigured, by some sort of magic, into a political 'identity crisis’ for a supposedly-liberal Fortress Europe and its far-right outriders in our newspapers and on our screens.
Hardwired into this vision of the Syrian diaspora are cold, hard numbers and figures, injecting emotional distance between the Western political imagination and the phantom which haunts it. Meanwhile, communities at Europe’s southern frontier, namely Greece, Italy, and Turkey, bear the brunt of ‘caring’ for the six million Syrian refugees, often with fences, tear gas, and brutality. Beyond the borders and the barbed wire all the while are children, running from one nightmare to another. Activists, journalists, and community organisers have made strides to humanise the struggle of some of the world’s most vulnerable people - the necessity of which is itself a tragic indictment of European morality.
First released in 2017 but now enjoying a second life on mobile gaming platforms, ‘Bury Me, My Love’ (named after a Syrian farewell saying) is a text-based adventure game co-created with Syrian refugees to tell the story of Noor, a young woman who makes the perilous journey on foot from Syria to Germany. Players wear the shoes of Majd, Noor’s husband, who communicates with Noor via WhatsApp and helps to guide her through her journey. What unfolds is an intimate story reflecting the lived experiences of thousands of refugees - and aims to put the humans forgotten in this crisis back at the forefront.
We caught up with Florent Maurin, the founder of The Pixel Hunt, the Paris-based developer which brought Noor's story to life. We discussed the ethics and challenges of Westerners making a game about refugees, as well as its political potential.
What inspired you to create 'Bury Me, My Love'?
“In 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, I encountered an article in Le Monde, telling the story of a Syrian migrant through her WhatsApp conversations. As a journalist, even though I was paying attention to news about the situation, I realised I had unknowingly built a very alien representation of what a refugee was. They were supposed to be different from who I was.”
“Looking through actual WhatsApp conversations, I realised they weren’t. They were cracking jokes and sending each other emojis, just as I would with my friends over WhatsApp. The only difference - and it’s an important one - is that three texts later, they’d be discussing life and death situations.”
“I thought, if I can be mistaken about this representation I have about young Syrian migrants, there are probably lots of other people who are mistaken too. If we, as Europeans, want to make the right decisions regarding immigration in the EU, we can’t leave the human factor out of the equation. I wanted to make a game about this human factor because of how important it is.”
How did you start developing the game?
“I contacted a French journalist, Lucie Silvere, who put me in touch with Dana - the girl from the Le Monde article. I told Dana I had to make a game about her story - not just her story, but about the thousands of different people trying to make it to Europe. She agreed to work with me and help me write the game to be as believable as possible with regards to her life experience. As soon as she was onboard, I knew we had someone with us who could make this very interesting.”
Why did you choose a WhatsApp interface to frame the game’s key mechanics?
“The first reason is the actual material we were initially inspired by. When you see the screencaps from the [Le Monde] article, you’ll see we did not invent much - if anything at all. I wanted the authenticity of the actual experience, and to convey that, respecting the tools that those people are actually able to use was, I thought, probably a good idea.”
“I really didn’t want to put players in refugees’ shoes. I thought it would be disrespectful to have them actually command an avatar and tell them to jump by pressing a button. It felt wrong to me. It felt more appropriate to put players in the position of someone who is not actually a migrant; someone who is not on the ground living through the situation."
So you chose Majd, Noor's husband, as the player character?
“We wanted to strip you of some responsibility, and more importantly, we wanted to strip you of some agency and sense of control. What we learned when we spoke to refugees and the people who assist them and follow their progress through social media is that it’s both a blessing and a curse."
"It’s a blessing because you’re able to connect with them almost any time, so if you want to know how they’re going you can actually connect on WhatsApp and ask for news. But it’s also a curse because you’re not on the ground. If there's a problem, you’re not physically able to do anything, and if you don't have any news for 30 minutes you immediately start to worry. That’s something we thought was really interesting to explore. We wanted to create a game that would make players understand you are not in control in those situations.”
How do you remove ‘control’ from players?
“BMML is a very unfair game and some terrible things happen to the characters, even if you feel like you made all the right decisions. But it’s designed to be unfair because it reflects a situation which is actually unfair in real life. We tried to reflect on the situation gameplay-wise."
"Firstly, we are putting you in a situation where you’re not actually in control, which is almost never the case in video games. We’re putting you through struggles that are unfair: you’re not aware you are making a wrong decision when you make a wrong decision. That’s definitely something migrants have to face on a day-to-day basis.”
Who is this game for?
“We didn’t make a game for Syrian people or Lebanese people or Turkish people. We didn’t make a game for people who already know the situation. We had some very negative feedback from some people connected to the situation because they said the story was not harsh enough; that there was not enough depiction of the utter despair that migrants face in those situations."
"We also faced criticism about who Noor is as a character because she is a character who doesn't believe in God and doesn’t wear the hijab and some people told us, you’re showing us someone who is not actually a typical Syrian woman. It was problematic to them because that’s not how they wanted to see young Syrian migrants.”
So how do you justify your choice of character?
“I completely understand that criticism, but the thing is our main character is almost a carbon copy of who Dana is in real life. Dana is a fairly liberal young Syrian woman - she doesn’t believe in God, she drinks, she doesn’t wear a hijab, and she’s probably not like 99 percent of young women in Syria. But it was a deliberate choice from us to go with this story because Dana exists: we felt there is no such thing as a stereotypical representation of who a migrant is, of who a young Syrian woman is, and it’s really important to realise that.”
What lesson should people take away from Bury Me, My Love?
“I’m not here to give anyone a lesson. I’m not an activist. My first intent was to tell a story and through this story tell thousands, if not tens of thousands of stories. Ultimately, the main message of BMML, if there is one, is that every refugee is a human being and it’s terrible that we live in a situation right now where it’s necessary to remind people of this very straightforward fact."
“Every person they see on TV or in the streets of Paris, every single one of them is a human being with their own individuality and people who love and care for them. It’s something we tend to forget, and I understand why - it’s a way to cope with the situation - but it’s a luxury they don’t have. The moment you decide you want to put people in categories, you dehumanise them, and you can justify public policies that are really problematic.”
Bury Me, My Love is available on almost all devices. Get it here
Ciarán Daly is the Co-Editor of The Radical Art Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org