Eight years ago, French game maker Florent Maurin became disillusioned with the world of news reporting. That's when he decided to quit his job as a journalist. He was initially attracted to the profession for its "noble goal of turning the world into something understandable by everyone." But over time he found that journalism had struggled to adapt to the requirements of the digital age.
"Before the web, journalism was a matter of building linear discourses. We were thinking in a broadcast logic, from the issuer (the newspaper, TV or radio station) to the receivers (readers, viewers, listeners)," Maurin once wrote in a Gamasutra blog. "But the Internet doesn't work that way. It rather is an inherently interactive distribution channel. Therefore, we suddenly had to consider conveying news as discussions rather than discourses."
What Maurin feels news stories need in the digital age is more interaction. A TV report or a written article lets the audience be passive in that it unravels without their involvement. But if that same news story is turned into a video game then the audience has to try to understand the web of facts, people, and politics for it to advance.
Another benefit of making news interactive, according to Maurin, is that "[it] is sometimes far more efficient than linearity, for instance to underline causal links [and] explain how systems work."
Maurin doesn't say any of this from a place of inexperience. In June 2009, after quitting as a journalist, he founded the company The Pixel Hunt to make games based on real issues and events. He's since produced interactive projects about the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the corrupt 2012 election in Papua New Guinea, and the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. He's worked with news organizations such as Libération and TV companies including France Télévisions Éducation.
Now, for his latest project, Maurin is making a newsgame in collaboration with design workshop Figs and Franco-German TV network ARTE. It's called Bury me, my Love, and is intended to give players insight on the experience of Syrian refugees and the people they leave behind. Maurin wanted to make a game on this topic after being moved by the stories coming out of the European migrant crisis.
But it was the article "The Journey of a Syrian Migrant, as Told by her WhatsApp Messages", published on the website of French newspaper Le Monde, that gave him the idea for how to do it.
It was the article's unusual format that got Maurin thinking. It presents the journey of a Syrian migrant called Dana as if you're reading through her WhatsApp messages, complete with emojis. "The plain act of reading the article had something oddly ludic to it," Maurin says, "it switched my gamey mind on, in a way." What Maurin discovered was that having the story presented to him in the way it played out in reality, rather than having a writer explain it with prose, meant he had to piece it together himself.
He took that as the basis for Bury me, my Love, which is also styled as a WhatsApp conversation, this time between a fictional Syrian woman called Nour and her husband Majd. The couple communicate via the smartphone app as they have been separated like so many real Syrian families in recent years.
Nour leaves Syria to start a better life in Europe after her little sister is killed by a bomb. Majd would join her but he instead stays behind to look after his mother and grandfather who couldn't survive without him. From there, players take on the role of Majd, and aim to help Nour on her journey via text messages, trading selfies, and sending over helpful hyperlinks.
Maurin knows two Syrian refugees who live in Paris that he interviews and asks for advice, and recently had a "transforming experience" when going to the migrants orientation center in La Chapelle, Paris. "No matter how many pictures you see, you'll never get an experience as strong as actually being side by side with these people," Maurin says.
Maurin also brought Dana, the subject of the Le Monde article, onto the development team as a consultant. "I realized we'd need Dana the second I read Le Monde's article: she was so different from what I thought a 'typical migrant' would be that I knew writing something without her assistance and control would end up in clichés," he says.
With Dana on board, Maurin and his team are able to ask her questions over WhatsApp about her life experiences. Her sister also plays early builds of the game and gives them feedback. Their guiding voices help the development team avoid stereotyping and embed authenticity into the game's writing. "Recently, I asked [Dana] to tell me Syrian children's jokes, for instance, because one of our characters is a doctor, and in a part of the story she has to vaccinate children and tries to make them laugh before she stings them," Maurin says. "That's the kind of small detail you don't get from classic information sources."
As the purpose of Bury me, my Love is to help players understand the real struggles of Syrian refugees, the team has found other ways to make it feel genuine. One of the techniques used to do this is "pseudo real-time" texting, borrowed from the 2015 game Lifeline…. All it means is that if, for example, you tell Nour to wait at a closed border for two hours to see if it opens, you won't hear from her again for two real-world hours. "We wanted the player to feel worried and helpless most of the time, so that she'll cling to every piece of interaction she'll have with Nour," says Maurin, "be it an excruciating discussion about which slogan she should write on her cardboard for a refugee's march she takes part in," or any of the other events Nour gets wrapped up in.
"This probably is one of the most admirable ways of showing your love for someone: [doing] all you can to make them feel good, even though you're having a bad time yourself."
But Bury me, my Love also builds upon what Lifeline… did with real-time texting. Sometimes, during discussions, Nour will withhold information from you. The idea behind this came from Maurin's discussions with Lucie Soullier, the woman who wrote the article on Le Monde that inspired him, and who now also advises on Bury me, my Love. "Very early in the discussion, Lucie drew my attention to the fact that, even though Dana was risking her life, she nevertheless remained cool and calm on WhatsApp," Maurin says. "This probably is one of the most admirable ways of showing your love for someone: [doing] all you can to make them feel good, even though you're having a bad time yourself."
Nour adopts this behavior in Bury me, my Love as she's a strong woman but also a migrant travelling alone—an open target. She won't tell her husband every time someone tries to grope her or steals her cash at night. But in doing this she renders her husband, and therefore you as the player, oblivious to the full scope of the harsh reality she's facing. This is why Nour will sometimes disobey you: what might seem like the most obvious choice to make to you, might not actually be in the full context of the situation. If Nour continues to ignore the advice of her husband this will frustrate him, and the passages of text you choose for him to send may include him lashing out at her.
There are, however, ways to prevent this divide growing between the husband and wife. At times, Nour will drop hints about the troubles she's choosing to cover up from her husband. If you notice them then you might be able to help steer Nour towards safety. Otherwise, you may only realize the consequences of your ignorance later on, when it's too late.
Nour's relationship with her husband is only one of the factors that affect which ending you get in Bury me, my Love. Where Nour ends up, how long her journey takes (anywhere from a few days to several years), and in what condition she's in is determined by many different variables. They include: the length of time actions take, the money she has left, her morale, the roads she travels, and the objects held in her inventory.
It's hoped that you'll be encouraged to play Bury me, my Love several times in order to see the range of possible endings—or beginnings, as Maurin points out that "when a migrant stops being a migrant and decides to settle some place to actually start a new life, it's not an end, it's more of a beginning." Having players explore the different endings is a crucial part of how the game will achieve its overarching goal. That is: to work against the portrayal of refugees in media coverage and by certain political groups as a faceless mass.
"Contrary to what one may think looking at the images that are often shown on TV—huge, undefined crowds, pressing against Europe's doors—these are individual human beings," Maurin says. "Some are great, other less so, they all have qualities, flaws, hopes, dreams…"
"Making this game definitely changed the way I think about migrants," says Maurin, "and I guess I could say I hope it might have a similar effect on players."