Activist Review: Bury Me, My Love

One of the most interesting categories of game is the political game. These are the programs that go out of their way to make arguments, open dialogues, and persuade players who interact with their systems. This concept is largely embodied in ‘procedural rhetoric’: the use of processes unique to games armed in a persuasive manner. Games like McDonald’s Videogame and Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12 demonstrate good examples of this category.

In the following article, we learn some of the ins and outs of building a persuasive videogame, through the adventure/text title Bury Me, My Love by The Pixel Hunt. Throughout Bury Me, My Love, players follow the story of Syrian refugee Nour and her husband Majd as Nour attempts to make her way to safety in Europe. Mechanically, the game focuses on a text-adventure structure, cleverly framed as a conversation between the two via SMS. Players have the ability to make choices about what Majd says to his wife and how he responds to the situations that she is experiencing. This allows for a total of 19 different endings ranging from Nour obtaining a German green card to her tragic death.

To begin, it is useful to understand some of the concepts which Bury Me, My Love attempts to engage over its course, using these issues to effectively ‘set the stage’ for its rhetoric. Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, 5.6 million refugees from the region have attempted to make it to safer areas of the world, including Europe and North America. Along with this crisis have come a variety of detracting voices, such as the increasing sentiment in Canada that “there are too many visible minorities” coming into the country.

While facts like these may seem more pertinent for a political science paper, these challenges form the basis for the game’s worldview. In Bury Me, My Love, players are encouraged to engage with issues faced by Syrian refugees, ranging from police brutality to the harrowing trip across the Mediterranean. It is important to understand these issues because they inform a key rhetorical kernel which effectively argues in favor of supporting refugees rather than turning them away. Through the developer’s manipulation of procedure, these concepts are reinforced time and again, as we can demonstrate. 

At its basis, procedural rhetoric is about play. In his 2001 master’s thesis, game designer Gonzalo Frasca describes ‘video games of the oppressed’ as a process where games can become a “medium for fostering critical thinking and discussion about political and personal problems.” Notably, his work draws direct correlation between games and dramatic forms such as ‘theatre of the oppressed,’ a revolutionary form of acting which encourages audience participation in the meaning-making process.

This interrelationship between text and audience could arguably be attributed to ‘explicit interactivity.’ In other words, the ability of the player to make meaningful choices about the outcome of a system—a basic foundation for play. In Bury Me, My Love, developers make the specific decision to include choice elements, allowing the player to ‘play’ with Majd’s text response to his wife’s situation. For instance, a choice as simple as sending the wrong emoji to Nour could have lasting effects throughout the playthrough. This is what separates the work as a game rather than a linear visual novel, creating a sense of unease as neither Majd nor the player know how the story will unfold.

 Perhaps the game’s most striking mechanics are the ones which constrain play. Player responses are tightly controlled, with only a few available routes per interaction. Importantly, ‘play’ has boundaries; constraints on the system which shape the meaning of the process. As academics Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen describe, “play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure.”

By focusing on the rigidity of a choice-based text system, the developers effectively concentrate the process of speaking with Nour, allowing the player to emotionally explore systems of cause and effect without deviating from the original argument. This perception (or perhaps illusion) of control is often utilized in less political series such as Telltale Games. Through this lens, we can see that the invoked sense of ‘play’ is an integral part of what makes Bury Me, My Love an effective experience.

Another element which Bury Me, My Love brandishes is its control scheme. Instead of using the standard pop-ups common with Twines and other interactive literature, the developers aesthetically frame interactions in the game as an ongoing text chain, where a player can select responses. This control scheme has both a rhetorical and ludic advantage.

By using this system, Bury Me, My Love activates its mechanics as ‘metaphor.’ For instance, using text messages to convey choice embeds the game in a pre-existing system of social interaction. This makes the controls both immediately accessible to players due to their familiarity, but also establishes assumptions about the characters involved. For instance, it rejects the notion that nations in conflict like Syria are backwards, or that ‘civilized’ Western technology is somehow inaccessible to people in the global south.

Games are never bereft of social context, and these contexts can be wielded by developers. These simplistic mechanics also allow players to easily attune themselves to situations present in the game. Consider a non-narrative example. The game Tetris has become a universally renowned title not because of in-depth mechanical schemes; quite the opposite. It is successful primarily because it is ‘easy to learn, difficult to master.’ Similarly, Bury Me, My Love cuts controls down to bare minimum in order to focus attention on the interactions between Nour and Majd, amplifying the narrative effect.

Narrative and player positionality are another effective tool wielded by the developers. According to foundational game studies thinker Espen Aarsseth, games lie on a ludo-narrative continuum where pieces with more narrative traits embody aspects that are increasingly rigid. For example, agents (or characters, colloquially) can range from flat and open, to deep, rich, and developed. In Bury Me, My Love, developers embrace this latter format for creating characters, and generally the game entails a much more ‘narrative’ rather than ‘ludic’ experience.

While this idea is no great revelation, it is interesting to note how the game uses identification techniques to position players. Frequently, developers choose to create character-avatars “that people find appealing… that people can believe in, and that the player can identify with,” as Ernest Adam puts it. However, Bury Me, My Love avoids this altogether by creating a rounded protagonist in Majd, who prevents players from directly self-inserting.

Obviously, another taxonomy is needed to explain this strategy. Alternatively, Jaime Banks argues that player-avatar dichotomies can unfold in ways other than direct identification. She acknowledges three categories of player-avatar interaction instead: identification, attachment, and instrumentality. Of these three, attachment—fostering a symbiotic ‘friendship’ between character and player—best describes the strategy employed by the dev team. Nour’s husband Majd is his own man, complete with a medical career and a well-developed personality, yet his choices fall to us. These design decisions ultimately raise some important questions: what does it mean to play as positionalities different from our own, and why does it matter?

On first glance, separating a game’s main character from the player might seem like a fatal flaw. After all, it seems intuitive that creating direct identification schemes should yield a greater sense of immersion. Bury Me, My Love could easily have implemented similar systems through name insertion code, or an avatar creator. However, identification is not always related to immersion; correlation does not equal causation.

Instead, the dichotomous structure developed between Majd and the player allows the game to deliver its point while creating space for the player to consider their own response, independent of Majd. In this schema, self insertion can still happen, but is not an overwhelming drive, creating a balance between what psychologist James Paul Gee might call ‘real-world identities’ and ‘projected-identities.’

This in turn protects the player from becoming disingenuous. After all, playing through a simulation of an experience and having that experience are not the same thing. By establishing Majd as a character who we can empathize with, we begin to develop what Salen and Zimmerman call “double-consciousness,” assuaging the player’s ludic concerns while making them increasingly emotionally in tune with the character.

This concept was borrowed from drama theory, which posits that an actor must develop an internal model of their character in order to recreate them on stage. In the same way, Bury Me, My Love utilizes this distinct positionality to encourage an ‘empathetic identity’ which players can respond to.

This point leads to a more holistic perspective on the game. So far, we’ve demonstrated many of the individual techniques which Bury Me, My Love has used to create effective procedural rhetoric. However, we have yet to fully examine these concepts in relationship to one another, or connect them in service of its greater argument.

Bury Me, My Love is ultimately a game about empathizing with a group of refugees that the player does not know. With this in mind, we can highlight how the game has used procedural rhetoric to satisfy Johnathon Belman and Mary Flanagan’s rules for developing empathy in video games. Two of their four principles are particularly relevant, numbers one and four.  

Belman and Flanagan’s first principle states: “players are likely to empathize only when they make an intentional effort to do so as the game begins.” As they later expanded, using subtle techniques to promote an empathetic state of mind is imperative early on. Bury Me, My Love delivers on this concept straight away. Within the first moments of the game, we receive a flurry of distressed texts from Nour asking if Majd is alright; an airstrike had rocked the neighborhood, and she had just received news.

Many players may have experienced a situation where a loved one texts frantically because something has gone awry. Using this relatable situation in combination with the procedures associated with play, the game can quickly draw the player’s empathy. Additionally, techniques such as using SMS, or even emojis, can make the narrative feel real and pressing, allowing for a powerful empathetic response. Belman and Flanagan’s fourth principle posits that developers should “emphasize points of similarity between the player and people or groups with whom [they are] supposed to empathize.”

This point is of particular interest because it draws on  the identification procedures we developed earlier. For example, by developing a ‘double consciousness’ which reflects both the player and Majd’s response, the game pushes players to consider a positionality that is not their own. These points demonstrate that the game’s mechanics are interconnected and effective at promoting empathy in Bury Me, My Love. This empathetic response can in turn be directed towards future political action.

Over the course of this article, we have described how the video game Bury Me, My Love (2017) utilizes various mechanics to create a procedural rhetoric. We have discussed various aspects of the game, like the select inclusion of interactivity, an SMS-based control scheme, and the use of positionality and identity. These aspects work together towards the larger goal of creating empathy within the game, espousing a message of solidarity with Syrian refugees around the world. While clearly political, Bury Me, My Love does not convey the straightforward cynicism of anti-advertisements like McDonald’s Videogame (2006), or the embellished oversimplification of Frasca’s September 12 (2010). Rather, it is a piece which is quiet, nuanced, and deeply personal. Not only is it a joy to play, but also a theoretical achievement in activist game making.

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