"The vast majority of migrants have smartphones. For them, that's crucial. It's a way to get info on their journey, but more importantly, it's their only way to connect with their families and friends. So, we felt the best way to tell the story we wanted to tell efficiently was to mimic the device they use and the way they use it." says Florent Maurin, producer and designer at The Pixel Hunt, developers of Bury Me, My Love.
Bury Me, My Love has players following the journey of their wife, Nour, as she works her way from Syria to Europe. However, players act as the husband, Majd, only able to know whatever parts of the journey Nour chooses to text back to him. Players can try to offer advice, support, and guidance to her via text, but otherwise, all they can do is hope and wait.
This play style was designed to mimic that sense of helplessness many immigrant families feel as their loved one leave for another country. It captures those long silences where you don't know where they are or if they're safe. The sense of never being sure if they're telling you everything. Of wondering if this message will be the last.
"Even through Bury Me, My Love is a fiction, we wanted it to feel real. Lots of migrants take huge risks to try to get a better life, and lots of relatives spend days waiting, not knowing how things are going to turn out. Yet, when we (as Europeans) hear about migrants on the news, they're often depicted as a faceless lump, some kind of horde that gathers at our borders. This is scary, and I think that's part of the reason why hostility towards migrants has been on the rise in the last couple years." says Maurin.
"Bury Me, My Love is a simple reminder: migrants are human beings, with people who care and worry for them. It's a game about love, really."
"It all started with an article in Lemonde.fr, which was called 'The Story of a Syrian migrant as told by her Whatsapp conversation'. This piece really moved me, because it felt both very familiar (the use of WhatsApp, the emojis, the jokes...) and completely alien (the young woman in the article was risking her life)." says Maurin.
Bury Me, My Love was inspired by the real-world journey of a Syrian immigrant that had been captured in her Whatsapp conversations. While the banter between the two was immediately familiar in its comfort, intimacy, and humor, its subject matter was still foreign to Maurin. It took the terrifying travel from Syria to Germany, with all of its fearful moments and times things could have gone horribly wrong, and deeply personalized them. This was someone undertaking a journey that could have gone wrong in so many ways, and the messages from someone far away who could do nothing to help them but talk.
It was a powerful thing for Maurin to read, and something he felt others needed to see, and perhaps experience, for themselves. This would lead to the text-based play of Bury Me, My Love, where players can only communicate with a loved one through messages.
Maurin wanted to make the game's messages and moments feel right, which can be a challenge for situations that feel foreign to the developer. It would be much more effective if, in seeking to really bring up feelings of helplessness in the player while on a journey fueled by hope, to learn what it felt like for someone who had gone through it.
"So, I got in touch with Lucie Soullier, the journalist at Le Monde who had written the piece, and I told her I thought her work would be an incredible basis for a game. She put me in touch with the Syrian woman, who was then settling in in Germany, and they both agreed to be our editorial advisors on the project. Once I knew they were on board I got pretty confident we'd be able to write a story as believable as possible." says Maurin.
On top of speaking with the woman from the article, Maurin and his colleagues did research on migrants' stories, watching interviews and reading articles to get a feel for what the journey was like, and the frightening events many met while on the road to what they hoped would be a new home.
"We gathered documentation during a 6 month period, read hundreds of articles, watched documentaries, interviewed people... Yet, when we started writing, we weren't sure of ourselves. We really didn't want to be over-the-top. We felt that those stories were powerful enough, so we did not need to 'Hollywood-ize' them."
This didn't mean The Pixel Hunt got everything right on the first try. "Dana, the Syrian woman who consulted with us on the game, read our texts... and she often was strong with her comments. For instance, we had written a scene where Nour meets a smuggler on a beach before leaving to Greece... 'It's not frightening enough', Dana told us. 'The smugglers I met had guns. They were mean. They made us walk for two hours, in pitch darkness, with no light and no idea where we were going. Your scene looks like a joyride in comparison'. So... we rewrote this moment, and many others!" says Maurin.
Through their research and consulting with someone who had actually gone through this harrowing journey, Maurin and his team created an experience that would feel close to the real thing, conveying all of the fear and hope that mingles together in it.
Despite being able to consult with the person who had actually made the journey from Syria to Germany, Maurin did not put the player in control of the person travelling in Bury Me, My Love. Instead, the player is the family member who must helplessly watch the journey through their texts, hoping and praying for the next message to come through.
"From the start, it was obvious to me that the player would be put in the position of being the one that stays rather than the one that goes." says Maurin. "I guess it's because I did want to be very careful not to disrespect the game's topic. If we had put the player in the position of a migrant, I fear we would have ended up with an awkward, over-simplistic depiction of this incredibly complex journey. A 'Press A to stay alive' kind of thing."
Something about making simple gameplay decisions to balance money, or choosing the correct path in a visual novel-style adventure, would cheapen the experience for Maurin. It would be too much like making survival into a game to play, which wouldn't convey the emotional reality of all the decisions, fears, and hopes that go into it. Instead, it made far more sense to have the player be on the other end, feeling that helplessness as they tried to keep track of a loved one they couldn't control.
"Pretty much all of the game is about this: accepting you're not in control. Coming to terms with the fact that sometimes you are unable to help the ones you love. You wish you were, of course, but you just are not." says Maurin.
"This really is something any game design teacher would advise against. In 'classic' video games, the pleasure and the fun often arise from the player's capacity to make the best possible decisions to beat the rules system. But in order to be able to do that, players have to get clear information on their choice's consequences. We do not provide them in our game. We don't even display how much money Nour has left, for instance. Because this would have felt too much like a game, and not enough like reality. We made a game that is unfair, a game that takes control away from you, but we made it because we wanted to talk about a situation which is that way, too." he continues.
Reality is unfair, which runs counter to how many games must feel in order for players to be able to work through them. Bury Me, My Love is designed to capture how unfair things are, though - how unfair it is to watch a loved one go through difficult times when you can do nothing to help them. When a person has to undergo terrifying times just to find a safe place to live. These are unfair parts of life, and for Bury Me, My Love to effectively convey them, it, too, had to be unfair.
"When you play as Majd, there's so much you're not aware of that, even though it might seem unfair, you can easily understand that nothing really is your fault. You have next to no control over the course of the events. Even Nour is hiding things from you because she cares about you and doesn't want to burden you with the challenges she faces. I guess helplessness is a feeling that isn't often explored in video games, and that's what struck us most about the stories of migrants we gathered. So, that's what we wanted to talk about." says Maurin.
Majd only gets to know whatever Nour tells him about the journey. He only knows what she chooses to text him. There is nothing players can do to help in this position, save for send some words of support or suggestions on what she do next. Beyond that, she will do whatever she wants, and all players can do is wait, in pseudo-real time, for that next message to arrive to tell them she's ok.
Or have that message never, ever arrive.
For that to work, Maurin worked to ensure the players felt a connection with the couple and their journey, exploring their intimacy through the joking, loving, and heart-wrenching messages they send to one another.
"There's something immediately intimate in texting someone. You really can express yourself, your concerns, your worries... in ways that are often more direct than if you had the very same person in front of you. I really like this type of game because of how simple they are, yet how nuanced in revealing your characters they allow you to be." says Maurin.
Texting allowed a great deal of the characters and their connections to come through, which is something Maurin and his co-writer worked on a great deal throughout development. "I wrote about 20% of the text, and the game's main writer, Pierre Corbinais, wrote the rest. I hired him because I had loved his previous works, especially his ability to write extremely believable dialogues." says Maurin.
"I think that to be able to really worry for a fictional character, you have to really love them first. I created a frame for Nour and Majd as characters, but I left him to flesh them out the way he pleased. And quickly, reading Pierre's passages, I fell in love with Nour (he told me he loves her too), and then I knew seeing her going through troubled times would be hard." he continues.
Part of this connection with the couple came from drawing from their ordinary life and dealings with loved ones, drawing on the tiny, warm moments with their own loved ones. "I tried to be consistent with this in my part of the writing. We both put little details of our personal lives into those two characters. The auto-correct typos that happen in the game are, in fact, derived from real discussions between Pierre and his significant other. The fate of Majd's dad is inspired by how I lost mine. The jokes Nour tells children she vaccinates in the camp in Nizip are the actual jokes Dana told her sister when she was 8." says Maurin.
"I think that those small details are precious, because the reader feels that they are real, and so they develop a bond with the characters that is close to a relationship with a real person. And when something bad happens to that person, well... of course, it's troubling."
Once they got the player to care for Nour through intimacy through texts, and through the believability of her journey, they could create the gulfs where no messages would be coming through. They had taught the player to care for her through an attention to detail for her journey, for the frightening realities she would meet, through the unfair helplessness of watching her from afar, and from the small, connecting touches from their own lives.
And now, all you could do was wait, and hope, that she would come through all right.
"We felt compelled to have this feature in the game, because the stories we read during our documentation phase were unanimous. It's the waiting that's hard. It's not knowing what the ones you love are going through. So, if we really wanted to have players feel a fraction of what migrants' relatives feel, we had to incorporate those moments of waiting in the game." says Maurin.
So the player must wait in Bury Me, My Love, all while hoping their loved one is all right, truly feeling those gaps in the conversation with the character they care for. Through that, they can feel a fraction of what an immigrant goes through, getting a sense of the fear and hope and helplessness that mingles in those travels. And hopefully, they will feel a little something more for the people making these journeys every day.