This past IndieCade, I had the opportunity to demo an upcoming indie title, Bury Me, My Love, developed by The Pixel Hunt and Figs. The game is an instant messenger adventure that has the player overseeing Majd and Nour, two lovers that got caught up in the Syrian Civil War. This game is currently available on both iOS and Android since this October.
The game is based on a true story of multiple Syrian refugees attempting to find a safe haven from the war.
The main designer and producer of Bury Me, My Love, Florent Maurin, first had the idea for the game when he read a French newspaper, Le Monde. In it, there was a section written by Lucie Soullier that depicted over 250 screenshots of a Syrian refugee’s text messages to her lover during the war. Maurin, touched by the story, contacted both Soullier and the refugee, who goes by the name Dana S., to facilitate a discussion with his game. I contacted Florent Maurin to discuss more aspects on the game’s creative thought and production.
Matthew: Starting off, tell me about yourself. What led you to game development?
Florent: Well I’ve been playing video games since I’m seven, but when the time came to learn a profession, I opted for my other passion, journalism. Some years later, I started working for a children’s magazine’s web site, and as part of our interactive productions we started making games for our readers. We would make games to explain them things such as Egyptian mythology, how the body works, how to write good fiction…One day, I thought to myself: is there any good reason why games as a medium could not also be directed to adults? And as I was unable to find any, I quit my job and created a company that does that: reality-inspired games for grown up players.
Matthew: Before Bury Me, My Love, what were some of your other video game projects?
Matthew: What was a video game that influenced you the most?
Florent: I have a lot of ones that are dear to my heart, but if I had to quote only one, that would be Grim Fandango. Everything from the setting to the characters to the voiceover left a permanent mark on me.
Matthew: I read that the main characters, Nour and Majd, are not just two characters, but rather a collective thought of people’s experiences, in order to depict as many refugee scenarios as possible. What’s your reasoning in expressing these experiences in just two characters instead of having individual characters experiencing their own story.
Florent: Well, the main reason I can see is that strictly biographical stories don’t make for very good games. If you’re telling a story that already happened, and you want to be faithful to it, what would the player’s choices be? Using Nour and Majd as some kind of metaphor allowed us to tell us a multitude of stories, that stand as a virtual representation of the multitude of people who, in the recent past, were forced to leave their countries and hope to find a better life elsewhere.
Matthew: Were there any stories that didn’t make it into the final product? If so, what were the reasons for leaving them out?
Florent: We’ve read hundreds of articles, gathered lots of testimonies, interviews and anecdotes. We’ve consulted lots of NGO reports and watched documentaries. So yes, obviously, when we wrote Bury Me, My Love’s story – which is “only” 110k words long – we had to leave some of our material out. Our selection process wasn’t very conscious though. We were writing our story’s different narrative branches, and fueling it with what we had learned about what being a migrant actually is, and when we felt it was over, we just stopped.
Matthew: What would this game offer to people who are at risk of leaving their homes and loved ones?
Florent: This is not easy to say. I’m not sure it would offer them a lot of comfort as it is quite a gloomy game sometimes. I don’t think, either, that it could prepare them for what could soon face them, because every story is different and even though there are quite a few in Bury Me, My Love, you never know what is going to happen in life… Maybe they could learn a few things about what to try to anticipate before they go?
Matthew: I noticed a recurring trend from your blog post about this game’s development cycle and this game’s central themes (time and money, paths to choose, etc): fear. What, if any, did these concepts have in common with each other?
Florent: You’re right: making Bury Me, My Love indeed was a stressful experience. Lots of things to manage, lots of obstacles to overcome, lots of moment when I thought: “Well that’s it, this time we’re never going to make it”. So in a way, you could argue that it shared something in common with the game’s central theme. But let’s not lose perspective here: making game is a luxury very few people on earth can afford while being a migrant is a curse a lot of people can’t escape.
Matthew: Which experiences from your own life have influenced parts of the game?
Florent: Well during the writing process, my co-author (Pierre Corbinais) and me have put little bits of ourselves into the game. For Pierre, it’s typing mistakes and autocorrect jokes he made while actually texting his girlfriend. For me, it’s moments of my life that have been a bit rough and that I felt I could invoke in order to write more believable scenes. I think this almost always happens, in almost every creative endeavor.
Matthew: You mentioned that the game’s goal is to portray the journey of a refugee to the player. What impact would recreating this experience by using a texting mechanic accomplish rather than using a visual novel aesthetic or a 3D cutscene?
Florent: The thing with text message is that they very easily recreate a feeling of intimacy. Most people would say over text messages things they wouldn’t dare to say or wouldn’t phrase the same way if they had the person in front of them. This is very interesting narratively speaking, because you don’t need much to make the player feel connected to the characters. Plus, almost every migrant today has a smartphone, and for many of them, text messages indeed is the main (if not only) way to communicate with their loved ones. People who care about those on the way do not get fancy 3D images. To picture what happens, they have to rely on a few texts, and leave the rest to their imagination – which, in this situation, isn’t a good thing, because you tend to imagine very bad things when someone you love is in a complicated situation.
Matthew: How does rooting the game into common ground (Nour not replying due to battery life, sending selfies and emojis), incentivize players to play the game?
Florent: I don’t really care about incentivizing the player, to be honest. This, for once, isn’t a game about the players. That’s why you don’t get to play your own role, but you rather have to share space with Majd. That’s also why you lack agency and are often treated very unfairly by the game – you have to make choices with no way to foresee the possible outcomes, you lack information, some seemingly trivial situation may snowball out of control… We did not make the game real-time based and simulate issues such as a failing battery to stage suspense for the sake of suspense. We made it to have the player feel bad, and worried, and troubled. Because that’s what the game is about: coming to terms with the idea that, sometimes, no matter how hard you want to, you’re unable to help the people you love.
Matthew: The game contains 19 different endings, an impressive amount for an indie title. Was there any hardships trying to connect each of the stories together in order to create a substantial conclusion for each ending?
Florent: Yes and no. Actually, we wrote as we felt it, and it’s also true for the endings. Every time we felt the story could end – because we read stories of migrants who stopped – or were forced to stop – in Istanbul, Ventimiglia or Calais – we did add an end. But that also means that some of the journeys Nour may take will be more convincing story-wise than others. A Bury Me, My Love playthrough can sometimes be short and end abruptly, even though Nour did not meet lots of events on the way. That’s because, once again, we did not write those stories with the reader in mind. We decided to break free from the consideration that each possible path had to be full of unbelievable events. Each time we had to choose between fun and believability, we opted for the later.
Matthew: Being based on text screenshots, how was the process of going through all of that information?
Florent: Actually, it’s Le Monde’s article that is based on screenshots, and our work is based on Le Monde’s article. So they’re the ones who did all the parsing job, not us 🙂
Matthew: I read that you also wished to put in audio logs into the game. However, due to budget constraints, you weren’t able to implement this feature. What would putting audio into the game contribute to the player’s overall experiences?
Florent: No, actually, there are audio logs in the game! Each time you reach an end, you’re able to hear a voice mail from Nour. We thought it was an interesting conclusion to each story. Texting her for a few day then finally hearing her voice is something that’s bound to shake the player – at least that’s what we intended to do.
Matthew: Finally, if you had the chance to develop this game again, what would you do differently than the first time?
Florent: I would ask our dev to opt for a different technology! We made the game with 100% open source softwares. The game’s engine is MonoGame, the scripting language is Ink… even our Git client is open source! This is cool, and a source of pride, but it has also been complicated. Our main dev had to stop working on the project before its completion, and finding another dev who knew MonoGame has proven difficult. Plus, when you run into an issue while working on, let’s say, Unity, you KNOW someone on the Internet already faced the issue before and will be able to help – that’s far less likely with MonoGame because the community is smaller. Don’t get me wrong: open source is great, and MonoGame is really really a cool project. It’s just that for a small team like ours, this added another risk to an already very complicated project. I would have spared me a couple white hairs without it 🙂
Bury Me, My Love is more than just a simple multiple ending game. It is a collection of stories that tell the tale of real people and their struggle to live during a time of hardship. It takes the concept of a documentary and makes an interactive experience for people who’ve never experienced war. While there is no extravagant cutscenes or fast paced gameplay, it makes up for immersing the player in the role of an ordinary person trying to guide their lover to safety. The suspension of waiting for that message hits close to home for any person, whether they’ve an advocate gamer or not. As the title suggests, we don’t want to see someone that’s close to us disappear. We want to cherish every moment with them, even if they’re miles away from us. That is what Bury Me, My Love accomplishes.
Bury Me, My Love is available to download on both iOS and Android.