It’s 10.30 in the morning, and you get a message about a bomb blast, and a worried “Are you OK?!”
That’s the explosive beginning of “Bury Me, My Love”, a game that has just released on the Nintendo Switch and on Windows PCs on Friday, although it was available (with a few small differences) on mobile phones late in 2017. In Arabic, “bury me, my love” is an expression that means “don’t even think about dying before I do”, or more simply, “take care”, the game’s creators explain on their website.
It tells the story of a Syrian refugee trying to make her way through Europe, and is told from the perspective of her husband, who must stay behind in Syria so she can afford to make the attempt. The game plays out like an interactive novel, told through texting, where you choose your responses to your wife Nour’s WhatsApp messages.
Nour works at a hospital, and her decision to leave Syria and make her way to Europe is triggered by the bomb blast in which her sister Nawal is killed.
Majd, her husband [you] is working two jobs, and the two use up all of their savings in the attempt to get Nour to Germany. You’re left watching her journey unfold through texts, emoji, and selfies.
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Nour has to deal with taxi drivers who demand “risk premiums” because there’s a shooting at the border, and grapple with whether she wants to seek refugee status in Europe or take up a job as an illegal immigrant in Istanbul’s Little Syria.
Majd can’t do much beyond offer some advice, and some support. Nour keeps texting, telling you what’s happening, and sending photos and selfies. Most of the time, Majd’s replies are also decided in advance, but there are times when you might try to dissuade her from trying—for example—to make her way across a minefield, or suggest that a human smuggler might be asking for too much money.
In most videogames, the impact of your choices tends to be pretty clear. In “Bury Me, My Love”, you won’t always know what the outcome of your messages will be.
Will telling Nour that the man she’s talking to seems a little too friendly just upset her? When you advise her not to take a bus to the border, will she decide to try anyway and tell you about it later?
It’s hard to guess whether, for example, €1,500 is a reasonable amount to pay a human smuggler. But beyond that, Nour is making her own choices, you can only give her some advice.
You’re left wondering about the impact of your actions, and with 40 locations and 19 different endings, totalling up to 110,000 words, there are a lot of ways in which the story can unfold.
Despite this, at many points in the game, there is only one message option, and even if you don’t make a choice, the message will be sent on its own. It can become a passive experience as you watch Nour and Majd have a conversation, but it feels so real that you don’t mind.
The game is based on real stories, and real messages sent by refugees making use of WhatsApp. Smartphones are an invaluable tool for refugees, after food and water, and the real chats help shape the messages you see in the game.
The creators worked with Dana, a young Syrian woman now living in Germany, but rather than telling only her story, they drew upon multiple accounts to create a fictional narrative based on individual accounts, documentaries, and even comic books.
They also worked closely with journalists, including Lucie Soullier, who wrote an article in Le Monde (in French) about the journey of a Syrian migrant through her WhatsApp thread, which inspired the creation of the game.
But what makes “Bury Me, My Love” so gripping isn’t just the big moments, where you’re worried that Nour will get herself killed. It’s the little things, the jokes that you share, the mild bickering, that feels familiar and comfortable. When Nour says that the Blue Mosque in Istanbul is not as impressive as one back home, you can imagine the look on her face.
Neither is very expressive about their affection. They say “I love you” just a handful of times in a story that can be zipped through in a matter of hours if you’re inclined. But there’s a real feeling of warmth, which makes you genuinely concerned about Nour’s well-being.
Between texts, time passes—in the original mobile game, events played out in real time, so if there was a five hour gap in the story, you would have to wait it out to see what happens next—and on the Switch, scenes are divided by a small clock moving forward. Sometimes, it’s just a minute or two.
But at other times, many hours can pass before you hear from Nour again. Watching the clock move forward for more than 12 hours, you might start to worry—is everything all right? Why hasn’t Nour checked in, just to say hello? What bright idea did she get now?
It helps that both Nour nor Majd are treated as humans, warts and all. Nour is a compulsive texter, always asking for advice and suggestions, and rarely listening when it’s important. She’ll derail important conversations to make jokes, or be too stressed to tell you what’s going on, while you worry.
Majd on the other hand can be jealous—he gets upset when Nour seems to be getting along with other men—and early in the story, makes a bigoted remark about all Africans being thieves. Nour immediately calls him out on it, but it’s exactly the kind of casual racism that is so common in the real world.
The use of humour, in what would otherwise be a bleak and depressing story, is very important. But even so, Nour’s journey is harrowing. When you’re playing a video game, you typically work to “win”, but that’s just not possible here.
The game is exploring a war, yes, but you’re not playing a soldier with a gun, blasting through your problems; nor a general commanding troops, using strategy to crush the opposition. You’re just one helpless man, reading the texts that his wife sends.
Some of the endings are happier than others, but ultimately, it’s not divided into good and bad choices, through which you can guide it to a result you want. You’re simply left to explore the journey, and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, like any story with multiple endings, you’ll want to restart the story and play through the journey multiple times to see how things could have ended up. Because there’s no chapter system, you’ll have to start from the beginning every time. That can quickly get tedious, and could keep people from seeing the different ways in which Nour’s journey ended.
Also, on the Switch, the text is a little too small, although there is the option to rotate it 90-degrees, at which point you can use it like an oversized smartphone. Some users have also said that the game crashed at times, causing some progress to be lost, although we were lucky not to experience this.
You can also get it on Windows via Steam. Or, just buy the game on your actual smartphone—it’s also available on both iOS and Android. On the latter two platforms, you have the option of playing in real time, while the Switch and PC versions play in “Fast” mode, where there’s just a short pause even when several hours pass in-game.
“Bury Me, My Love” is priced at $4.99 on the Switch, and just Rs 199 on Steam, for Windows. On mobile, it’s priced at Rs 270 on Android, and Rs 249 on iOS. Whichever version you buy, it’s well worth the price of admission to experience this fascinating—if often stressful—journey.