Commissioned for Refugee Week 2020 as part of the PopChange Library of New Narratives — a curated collection from popular culture offering new perspectives on migration and displacement.
Florent Maurin, game designer of Bury Me, My Love, share with us some of his recommendations for games that are great to play, and also help to understand refugee experiences.
I’m almost 40, and for three decades now I’ve been playing video games. It started as a great way to have fun and escape my boring – and sometimes frightening! — everyday reality. As I grew older, however, I became more and more interested in the polar opposite. Now, I’m a big supporter of game as a medium to talk about the world we live in, share experiences and tell untold stories. That’s exactly what the games we make at The Pixel Hunt try to do.
When you make a game about migration, I believe it’s important to be careful in your approach. You don’t want to be insensitive and tone-deaf by trying to design an experience that’s supposed to “make you live the life of…” In my experience, it’s better to try and focus on having players intensely experience a specific emotion, and the following titles do that well.
One of the first gaming situations that made me ponder what it means to be a refugee was when I first played Civilization 3 back in 2001. In this strategy game, you are the omnipotent leader of an imaginary nation-state. When you conquer an enemy metropolis and raze it to the ground, its inhabitants appear as units you have control over and can use to conduct public works or populate your own cities with. I remember feeling really bad at the idea of using actual living beings as disposable commodities.
Civilization 3 won numerous awards for Best Strategy Game. Released 2001 by Firaxis Games, available for PC
Not every game that evokes the plight of being a refugee does so in a direct fashion. The puzzle-platformer Inside (2016) doesn’t explicitly frame itself as a game about politics. The character you play, however, is a young boy who tries to penetrate deeper and deeper into a science facility where he’s definitely not welcome. Armed guards, drones and attack dogs are constantly tracking you and the slightest misstep will lead to certain death, a parallel with the situation faced by many refugees attempting to cross borders.
Inside has won numerous awards for its visual art and narrative, including 4 BAFTAs. Released 2016 by Playdead, available on most platforms.
Another uncomfortable situation is the one you find yourself when playing the award-winning Papers, Please (2013). In this puzzle simulation game by Lucas Pope, you play the role of a border guard whose role is to check whether the people who wish to enter your country are legally entitled to do so. The official guidelines quickly conflict with your counterparts’ motives and desires, and you forced to make difficult choices: will you enforce the law, or will you make exceptions, close your eyes and risk to be punished for doing so?
Papers, Please has been recognized for its innovation and game design. Released 2013 by Lucas Pope, available for PC/Mac/iOS/Playstation Vita.
The Night Fisherman
And what will happen if you decide to break the law? It’s the central question tackled in the very short (it runs 10 minutes) and beautiful The Night Fisherman (2020). Described as a visual novel, the game asks you to decide the fate of your character — an old fisherman whose frail boat hides a migrant trying to cross the English Channel. The game starts as you’ve been stopped by a UK coast guard who’s notorious for being as inflexible as he is cruel. The tension is palatable, and you know that things will not end well…
Released this year in 2020 from Far Few Giants, available for PC/Mac (currently free until July 1st)
In Path Out (2017), however, things do not even start well: as you try to cross the border between Syria and Turkey, you end up… getting killed. It’s not that gloom, though, as it’s just an excuse for you to meet Abdullah Karam, the game’s creator. Karam explains to you in a video that you’ll be playing this narrative adventure game as him and that he didn’t actually die while fleeing the civil war in his country. It is then up to you to try and achieve the same feat. Now living in Austria, Karam made this game to share his own life experience in the form of a game – a very compelling one indeed.
Path Out has been widely recognised for its story experience. Released 2017 from Causa Creations, available by donation for PC/Mac.
Bury Me, My Love
POPCHANGE recommends the intimate and creative Bury Me, My Love developed by Florent Maurin. A visual narrative played on mobile phone entirely via text messages (you can also get it on Nintendo Switch and PC but the experience is best on the phone), you (as Majd) follow your wife, Nour, as she flees Syria and tries to get to Europe. Along the way, you advise her as she encounters numerous and dangerous challenges, with multiple endings possible. Although fictional, the game was developed in collaboration with a Syrian migrant who had made the same journey, and the storytelling is intimate and emotional. You can choose to play the game in real-time, which makes the story and the feeling of waiting feel even more tense. We recommend watching this short film (from Android Developer) to see more about their process.
Widely acclaimed including winning the Google Play Indie Games Contest. Released 2017 from The Pixel Hunt with Figs and ARTE France, available for iOS/Android/PC/Nintendo Switch.
Florent Maurin was one of the speakers at the POPCHANGE x Platforma Youth Retreat in 2019.