Telling Stories Through Phone Messages: Bury me, my Love and the Syrian Crisis

Interview with Florent Maurin, creator and producer of Bury me, my Love, an interactive work midway between fiction and documentary.

Using a phone to send messages has become one of our favourite pastimes. Messaging apps are actively used by more than 5 billion people—a figure that excludes traditional SMS services. It therefore didn’t take long for creators to seize the opportunity to use these platforms—or, at a minimum, their interfaces—to tell stories.

Among the pioneers, the Lifeline mobile game in particular has left its mark: in this game, you converse with a sole person on a faraway planet. His judicious use of mobile notifications allows you to live the story in real time: if the hero dozes off for an hour, the game “stops” and will only resume once you have received an alert informing you that he has woken up!

This game’s immense commercial and critical success has inspired many other works. Among the most recent ones, A Normal Lost Phone and Bury me, my Love stand out; they use this game mode to tell stories that are modelled on our reality: adolescence and sexual orientations in the case of the first, and the Syrian refugee crisis in the case of the second.

To discuss the emergence of this new entertainment genre, I spoke with Florent Maurin, the creator and producer of Bury me, my Love. Midway between a work of fiction and a documentary, Bury me, my Love was released for iOS and Android on October 27 and has already received positive reviews.

Before tackling the subtleties of this project, why not first watch a short trailer?

Using the phone to tell real stories

Everything begins with a project led by journalist Lucie Soullier on LeMonde.fr: Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil Whatsapp (to be watched preferably on your mobile). You are struck by a story that is both realistic and intimate: the faithful re-transcription of a conversation between Dana and her loved ones.

“Like us, she uses Whatsapp,” points out Florent Maurin. “Except that, instead of taking photos of kittens, she uses the app to ask for family advice, support and information to successfully escape Syria and reach Germany. I was struck by the contrast between the discussion thread—something that is familiar to us—and what she talks about, something that is difficult for us to imagine.”

With his company, The Pixel Hunt, Florent has been striving for many years already to create games about us and our societies, what he refers to as reality games. Through news items and events, he has learned to identify what can give rise to the creation of a good game, to a project that makes it possible to better understand reality through an entertaining description because games also have an educational function that enables us among other things to better understand the choices that certain people makes by placing us in their shoes and having us make decisions on their behalf.

“A migration is in reality a sequence of choices that have to be made. A migrant constantly has to arbitrate, improvise and adapt. This mechanism, in the spirit of a game designer such as myself, is at the heart of an entire game.” Florent then contacts Lucie Soullier, who initially thinks his idea is crazy. Florent nevertheless has her play Lifeline and explains his process to her. She is enthused by the project and they quickly add Dana to the team “so that she can help them avoid writing bullshit.”

If the intention is in part to produce a “documentary,” it’s also meant to be a game, a piece of fiction. It is impossible to imagine making Bury me, my Love (BMML) into a biopic of Dana because the main character can follow paths that are very different from hers.

Through their individual choices, players will determine their fate. That is how are imagined Nour and Madj, her companion. That is who you will be embodying. You will enter her phone and exchange messages with Nour. When you make a decision—by choosing what to answer—you are influencing her fate, the path she will take and where that path will lead, ideally somewhere in Germany but potentially somewhere between Syria and Germany—an unfortunate possibility...

“We therefore wanted to create a highly documented piece of fiction. We wanted to talk about not only the migrants, but also isolated women,” specifies Florent. “Because it’s a relatively recent reality. Once the men had left Syria, many women had no other choice than to leave the country on their own. We also wanted to talk about love and maintaining relationships from a distance. Decency also, because it is not easy to make grand declarations to someone whose life is in jeopardy…”

700,000 symbols

Avoid thinking of the team behind BMML as a large army. Florent calls upon a writer (Pierre Corbinais), a developer (Paul Jouannon), and an illustrator (Matthieu Godet). For the game’s interface, The Pixel Hunt signs a coproduction agreement with Figs, a company that specializes in the genre. All in all, at most some fifteen or so people lead the project to completion…

However, that is in no way a sign of amateurism. Despite limited means—initially through the fonds d’aide au jeu vidéo of the Centre national du cinéma français—The Pixel Hunt manages to convince another prestigious partner, namely ARTE. After having tested the game’s first prototype, the Franco-German channel’s digital team accepts to coproduce the project.

The team is therefore in place, but in creative terms, the task ahead is nevertheless immense: the script alone represents more than 100,000 words, i.e., 700,000 symbols, that must be written because this is not really one story but several stories. To structure this arborescent narrative, the team uses the open-source tool Ink developed by Inkle, a video game company that specializes in interactive works of fiction such as the brilliant 80 Days.

Moreover, the team makes the choice to develop everything in open code and opts for the MonoGame game engine, very similar to the famous Unity engine. “In fact, I also think that we shall leave the game’s code open,” proudly states Florent. “That doesn’t depend on me but seeing as developers are close to the open-source movement, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Beyond writing a strong and sensitive story, the main issue for the creative team is to design a game that requires no tutorial or explanations. “If you’ve already sent text messages, you know how to play our game,” insists Florent. “Even ARTE uses the term interactive fiction instead of game to describe what it has created.”

The game is therefore for people who do not consider themselves as gamers. “We find it a shame that video games are so popular yet certain people reject them because they consider them foremost as a waste of their time. In reality, these are people who have simply not yet played games that have interested them.”

It has been a growing trend for many years. Games have become increasingly scripted and deal with difficult and emotionally charged subjects. Video games are gradually ridding themselves of their solely entertaining image and garnering the interest of new audiences. However, it is true that things do not always unfold smoothly...

Can everything become a game?

A part of the public, and even a part of the gaming community, is regularly offended by how certain themes are made into games. The designers of the fantastic game That Dragon, Cancer—that deals with a child’s cancer—also drew fierce criticism from people who accused them of “playing” with a very serious subject.

“I am aware that we will draw criticism when the game is received from people who consider that ‘not everything [in life] is a game,’ but none of our testers have made this comment for now. And I believe that it’s probably due to our bias, in that we refuse to play the misery card,” explains Florent.

BMML is in no way voyeuristic and avoids showcasing human misery. It prefers to present a vision of a loving relationship in a deeply concerning situation from far, far away.

To defend this right to play on anything and everything, Florent reminds me of the history of the comic strip, initially reserved for younger readers with stories of heroes, adventure, and brawls… “Then, at the end of the 1970s, artists the likes of Art Spiegelman decided to create comic strips telling tales of concentration camps, for example. And although his Maus album initially prompted mitigated reactions, mindsets have evolved since then and comic strips are today used for reporting and scientific popularization purposes… No one has anything to criticize today.”

The video game is reaching maturity and tends to follow the same movement. It is establishing itself as an art form of its own right, as a support that can be used to tell an extremely varied array of stories. Florent therefore wants to keep in mind that “the medium does not determine the substance. Starting from the same subject, it is possible to produce a foul and manipulative film or, conversely, an honest and truthful film. The same applies to games.”

That is also why ARTE’s support is important: this support gives the project credibility, seriousness and respect for the creative process. BMML does not use refugees as puppets to entertain you! The work forces you onto an unknown, discrete and intimate territory where you’ll develop a great deal of empathy for the characters.

A new genre

Florent is optimistic when it comes to making predictions. “Will this game that unfolds in a phone be emulated by others? The answer is an obvious yes. It’s something that I’m even quite enthusiastic about.”

The strength of Bury me, my Love lies in the fact that the mobile phone and messages are fundamental to a successful migration. “Seeing as, these days, everything revolves around our phones, I think that there are a lot of other subjects that could be covered using the same formula.”

Posted in: Case Studies

Tags: documentary, storytelling, video game



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