Galland, Martin. (2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘Bury Me My Love’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 3, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0036
Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015.
By Martin Galland*
Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015. Both the journalist who wrote the article on Dana’s story and Dana herself working as part of the game’s editorial team (Le Monde, 2015).
Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes.
As part of the COMTOG project’s goal to bring together different but complementary voices of the field, three individuals were interviewed about the game Bury Me My Love and its subject matter. These included Florent Maurin, President of The Pixel Hunt and one of the game’s lead developers; Dr Angus Mol, a Games Studies scholar from Leiden University; and Tigs Louis-Puttick, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for Samos Volunteers, a non-profit organisation supporting refugees and asylum-seekers on Samos. Keeping in mind the intent of the project – which was to “showcase the educational and social potential of video games relaying the realities of conflict” – I first formalised my approach towards Bury Me My Love and the interviews I conducted around two main themes. The first and most important which informed most of my questions as the interviews were conducted was the difference between authenticity and accuracy of the experience of people on the move. The second was the necessary emphasis on empathy towards people on the move and their experiences and the engagement of players in those narratives.
The discussion around authenticity is the one that is most discussed academically and theoretically in Games Studies. In this burgeoning field, scholars note that creative designers (big studios, indie developers, social media influencers) “design their versions of the past, purely or mostly, as entertainment products, where the focus is on making money through designing fun.” This becomes a three-fold issue when such actors “(1) have not traditionally been and are frequently still not taken seriously in their role in shaping our collective understanding of the past, (2) are not primarily (or at all) concerned with teaching about the past and (3), more and more, the connection many people have with the past is partly or even primarily shaped by video games, including how they learn or teach others about it” (Boom et al., 2020: 28-29). These challenges highlight the importance of bridging the gap between stakeholders beyond those in the video game-making sphere and including activists on the ground and researchers alike.
Authenticity vs Accuracy
In the interview with Dr Mol, an important theme which emerged from the conversation was the difference between authenticity and accuracy when it comes to portraying the experience of people on the move. For Dr Mol, what really interests players is this notion of an ‘authentic past’ more so than focusing on the accuracy of the past portrayed. Bury Me My Love strongly engages with the player’s sense of empathy, providing an experience that emulates the challenges, thoughts, and problems people face on the move. Of course, this experience can only go so far in accurately visualising these very issues which thousands of people faced and still face today. Part of the game’s intention, as explained by Maurin, was to replicate this sense of anxiety and distance through the text-message thread between Nour and Majd, with the player often left with information streaming in progressively, missing context until it is later explained, and no answers from Nour until a given time when she can respond back.
In order to best showcase the sort of journey people on the move can undertake, the game developers went through numerous documentations on the subject: including testimonies, articles, news reports, and documentaries, and themselves interviewed people in refugee camps in France. Maurin comments that the first four months of production of the game were solely dedicated to documenting, reading, and watching different sources. This was in order to get a firmer idea of the game and story they wished to tell and to account for the different paths people on the move take to get to Europe. For Dr Mol, this sort of emphasis on research and fact-checking is something that has become more prevalent and noticeable in the industry in the past ten or so years. It also reflects a shift in academia with regard to video games. As Dr Mol attests, the ways to study video games and the medium, in general, have greatly advanced and evolved in recent years, and while there is still some level of disconnect between developers and academics, there is an increasing number of projects which try to bring both sides together in the research and development of games.
One crucially important aspect brought up by Louis-Puttick is the game’s inability to truly replicate the sense of time that people on the move go experience. It is true that comparatively speaking, Nour’s (and Dana’s) journey is very short compared to the length of time now spent by people on the move in camps – where months and years go by with little to no change in their status. While the game does include both a path which discusses this major issue in the refugee camp, and an ending which does see Nour stuck in a camp indefinitely, the player does not experience these in real-time, and so this crucial part of the experience of people on the move cannot be passed on. However, the game does not shy away from portraying some of the intense hardships faced by people on the move during their journeys. Whether it is the cold realisation that death is always a possibility, or being antagonised, chased, and beaten up by a neo-Nazi group in Greece, or the lack of care shown by European authorities as they either condemn people to a camp or deport them back to Syria.
Ultimately, what is missing the most from this report with regard to the authenticity of Bury Me My Love is a voice from people on the move and their testimony, and whether they feel as though the game reflects enough of their experience. While the game was inspired by and involved the editorial input of a person on the move, this project would have benefited far more from involving someone with the direct experience of travelling to Europe under difficult conditions.
Empathy and Engagement
When it comes to a subject matter such as the one on the experiences of people on the move, it is difficult to discuss Bury Me My Love in terms of ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment.’ Few would describe the journey undertaken by people on the move, even vicariously, as being ‘fun,’ and it was not at all in the intention of the developers to portray it as such. For Maurin, it was difficult to balance the stark tone that the game takes with the way people would cope with this experience through levity and humour. With several thousand lines of dialogue, much of the game’s focus was on the story and the characters and the ways in which they interact with the world around them as events unfold. From personal experience with the game, both main characters were truly well-fleshed-out and felt real in their emotions, thoughts, and worries for one another. Those who meet Nour along her journey also reflect a multitude of people and how they would act towards her plight.
It is difficult to assume how different players will engage with Bury Me My Love, as the game’s several endings make it so gameplay experience can wildly vary from person to person. Criticism of the game can be found on the game’s Steam (an online game distribution platform) page, where one particular comment lists that they found the game far too upbeat and treated with too much levity with regard to the subject material. When addressing feedback of that nature, Maurin comments that, while the commenter appears to be hyperbolising, it is entirely possible that they experienced the trek replicating Dana’s journey, which was comparatively easier and with fewer issues than other possible paths – which is an outlier. Dr Mol comments on this notion of making a game engaging enough for players to want to play it while respecting the subject matter enough to consider and internalise the message. In my experience with Bury Me My Love, the game is ‘entertaining’ in the sense that it does engage you with the challenges presented in front of Nour; it is also equally heart-breaking in the lowest lows of the story and does leave one with more awareness of the life of people on the move.
Ultimately, the game is not one meant to be entertaining in the literal sense of the term. It provides a story, a human story, one that is anchored in reality, and pushes the player to learn about the hardships faced by people on the move. News cycles and mass information have been noted to desensitise individuals of distant (and not so distant) occurrences and Bury Me My Love works to try to fight that antipathy by providing a deeply empathetic experience about the Syrian Refugee Crisis and inspiring the player to do something with the feelings they feel and receive after having played the game.
In closing the interview, all three interviewees were asked whether or not they felt video games could contribute to helping address common memory of certain conflict-centric events, such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Maurin puts it best that the game and its themes of adversity, displacement, struggle, and distance, are still very much relevant today. There are still important migrant flows of people fleeing conflict and disaster, and as such, the game Bury Me My Love remains, unfortunately, relevant and contemporary. This sentiment is echoed by Dr Mol and Louis-Puttick, who both see potential in video games, though with addendums on the intent and the goals set out by the developers in making such charged games.
This set of COMTOG interviews was designed to bring together different stakeholders and actors who have only to gain by interacting with each other. This project also placed front and center the importance of discussing and grasping the notion of ‘authenticity’ and how games can provide empathetic perspectives on still ongoing challenges for countless people. Maurin addresses it by humorously commenting on the ‘God-complex’ of developers and that their total control over the world in which the game is placed is misleading. If there was an attempt by developers to portray a very pointed perspective (in terms of values, convictions, etc.), it would feel very forced and could be spotted immediately by players. What developers like Maurin try to do is portray a collection of stories which are sourced from documentation; they do not provide a moral or a lesson but the tools for the players to internalise the experiences they have vicariously lived through and hopefully do something about it.
ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project
Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.
The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.
Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.
(*) Martin Galland is a Master’s graduate in both European Policy and History, from the University of Amsterdam and KU Leuven, after having done a Bachelor in International Studies at Leiden University. His most recent thesis analysed the presence of (banal) nationalistic discourses present in a historical theme park in France, and how a specific vision of a French identity emerges from the theme park’s various shows. His research interests lie in the banal nationalism of contemporary populist movements, and the strengthening of right-wing populist discourse in interpretations of the past and history.
— (2015). “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp.” Le Monde. December 18, 2015. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/visuel/2015/12/18/dans-le-telephone-d-une-migrante-syrienne_4834834_3210.html (accessed on March 2, 2023).
Boom, K. H. J.; Ariese, C. E.; van den Hout, B.; Mol, A. A. A. and Politopoulos, A. (2020). “Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past.” In: Hageneuer, S. (ed.) Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology (12–13 October 2018). Pp. 27–44. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bch.c. License: CC-BY 4.0.
Politopoulos, A.; Mol, A. A. A.; Boom, K. H. J. & Ariese, C. E. (2019). “History is our playground”: action and authenticity in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Advances In Archaeological Practice, 7(3), 317-323. doi:10.1017/aap.2019.30.