Bury me, my Love: Using video games to push back far-right rhetoric
Developer Florent Maurin on how we perceive refugees and the role of games in the debate
Beaten, penniless, and stranded in a Bulgarian refugee camp, unwanted by the authorities but also completely unable to leave - this is how the tale of Nour ended for me in Bury me, my Love.
I was disappointed because that's not how things were supposed to go, and so rarely do games give you anything other than the "best" ending. Or at least a variation of it. But Bury me, my Love is unlike most other mobile games.
Co-produced by The Pixel Hunt, Figs, and ARTE France, it was inspired by an article in Le Monde, The journey of a Syrian migrant through her WhatsApp thread.
Based on true stories, Bury me, my Love sees you playing as Majd who has remained in Syria with his family. Meanwhile your wife Nour, desperate to escape the conflict, has left to seek asylum in Europe and your only means of communications is a messaging app on your smartphone. It's a faithful recreation of the experiences of millions of refugees since the outbreak of the crisis in 2015.
You have relatively little control over the situation, only able to make suggestions and provide moral support. It plays out in pseudo-realtime, leaving you waiting for hours, or sometimes days, for word of your partner's fate.
It's a beautifully told narrative experience with a simple message.
"I am completely positive that our game is political, but the statement we are trying to make in the game is that migrants are humans," designer Florent Maurin tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Which should not be considered as a political statement, it should be considered as a human being statement."
Bury me, my Love was developed with a very particular goal in mind; to push back against the dehumanising rhetoric towards refugees from the far-right.
Maurin says that he wasn't invulnerable to the pernicious portrayal of refugees that consumes discourse in the West. Though as a former journalist, he is also quick not to blame the media entirely, conceding that it's a difficult topic to cover. Even so, the fearmongering surrounding the refugee crisis began to have an effect on him.
"[Bury me, My Love] is more of a reaction to the fact that I myself, who has never voted for the right, was not immune to this way of seeing the world," he says. "It's there in the media, even in moderate media, it's there... That has an action on your subconscious and it changes you and the way you view human beings. So I just felt that we could do something, tell a story that is coming from somewhere real, that could shine a light on this other way to show reality."
Reading the article was a slap across the face for Maurin. It's a human story, a completely un-sanitised version of events, told in their own words, just a simple conversation between loved ones. They shared pictures of their journey, the messages are peppered with emojis and casual conversation, but also fraught with stress as they try and overcome the seemingly impossible task ahead of them. It's touching to watch the story of these real people unfold in a way that is so intimate. The WhatsApp conversation almost feels like the last remaining vestiges of their the normal life before it was torn asunder by war.
It was this revelation, seeing the human story free from editorialised headlines or opinion pieces - even sympathetic ones - that struck Maurin the most.
"I'm a guy who is fairly well educated and I read the news and I try to be as human as possible, but in the course of the last few years, I tend to have forgotten that migrants are individual human beings because all of the images you see on TV they are often depicted as a horde, as a lump of people with no faces and they come to our border and that's kind of scary," he says.
"I think that there has been a rise in hostility towards migrants over the last few years in Europe. But that's only a fraction of reality, the reality is that each and every person you see when you see a group of migrants, is someone with a family, with friends, with people who care about them and love them and worry about them.
"To remind people of this simple fact that each and every migrant is an individual with people who care about them. It might sound trivial, but it's important to be reminded of."
"[Bury me, My Love] is more of a reaction to the fact that I myself, who has never voted for the right, was not immune to this way of seeing the world"
Bury me, my Love doesn't shy away from its subject material and Maurin doesn't think that games should avoid politics, but rather sees them as the perfect tool for engaging in the debate.
There is a deliberate sense of helplessness in Bury me, my Love. It's not a "worried relative simulator" says Maurin, but "a fiction that you can feel and live and that's something only video games can do."
"We tried to make a game where we took a lot of control away from you as the player," he says. "Because very often you have to make a decision and very often you don't know why you're making one decision over another, and what the consequences are, and that is completely on purpose.
"When we interviewed migrants, we realised that one of the hard things is that they would often feel helpless. And helplessness is not a theme that is explored by video games and I think that might be because game designers treat the players as very entitled beings."
Of course, such an approach can be divisive among consumers, especially in the AAA space and even more so with something that inspires as much vitriol as the refugee crisis.
Additionally, while Maurin recognises the power of games to engage in political discourse, he's acutely aware that people aren't necessarily willing to accept games as being capable of breaching these topics.
Following the release of Bury me, my Love, he found that the majority of abuse came from pro-refugee campaigners who felt that The Pixel Hunt was somehow trivialising the issue by depicting it in a video game.
Maurin and his team were careful when developing Bury me, my Love to offer a sensitive and accurate portrayal of refugees fleeing Syria, but not everybody was willing to accept that games could handle such heavy subject material.
"They were still opposed to the very idea of making a game about this topic because, as in the '50s or '60s when comic books were considered something childish and not important, games are still considered that way. We still don't have our Art Spiegelman," he says referring to Maus, a graphic novel about holocaust survivors.
"When we interviewed migrants, we realised that one of the hard things is that they would often feel helpless. And helplessness is not a theme that is explored by video games"
"Almost nobody today would say that you can't do a comic book about a very serious topic. And I think that is still the case with games because more often than not video games are a caricature. They don't take themselves seriously - sometimes it's like a blood race about which game can be the goriest or most violent or have the most explosions. And that's bit of a cliche, and they tend to participate in fueling this cliche.
"I understand why they do it. I enjoy those games as a player. But there is a problem with representation because those kind of games, by being extreme and by being that cliche, they focus all the media attention.
"There is an indie scene with incredible diversity and everyone could be playing those games right now, but most people are not aware that those games exist because journalists are talking about something like how disrespectful the new GTA is. But these games are fun and it's fun to do things that you cannot do in real life, and I have no problem with that. But that's the only attention video games get and that's bit of problem."
Maurin understands that not every game can be as overtly political as Bury me, my Love, nor does he want it to be. But that an important part of diverse games, which tackle a range of difficult topics, is ensuring that there are experiences which are accessible to a wide spectrum of people.
"We wanted a game that would be so simple that anybody, and almost literally anybody, could pick up a phone and start playing," he says. "You just have to click to send messages. And I think that's important. My mum is able to play my game and that is one of the very few games I can think of that she is able to play."