Beware, for in this game, your choices have real consequences. Yup, it’s one of those. But this time, you have to save your girlfriend not from a storm created by time travel, but from a very real threat: war.
At least, compared to other videogames of its kind, its treatment of this humanitarian crisis isn’t as obtuse or insensitive as I’ve learned to expect. Bury Me features a detail-rich context, but it’s not condescendingly didactic; it is familiar, yet sober—which in this case is only appropriate. At least, on a superficial level—but the problems of this work run deep.
I’m tired of this videoludic ego, of this savior mentality, and of this exceptionality attributed to something that’s not meaningful for the reasons we’re often told it is. No, videogames are not “the perfect medium” to build empathetic narratives (this idea isn’t just incorrect; it’s also easy to exploit) because the potential bonds they can create with the player through interactivity (don’t get me started) are unprecedented (people should consider diversifying their cultural horizons). Like, come on, let’s stop pretending these illusive truisms aren’t the indie alternative of “This videogame makes you feel like Spider-man”.
Bury Me, My Love’s creators wanted to give a voice to Syrian refugees through the character of Nour while placing ourselves—players presumed to be living in western countries oblivious to her position—in the role of her husband, Majd, who guides and counsels her throughout her journey. To give off the impression that Nour isn’t the avatar of the avatar—a collateral object of our whims and fantasies, instead of an autonomous subject—, the game will make her disagree with and even ignore our instructions sometimes. On paper, this decision strips us of our agency, so we can experience what her husband, texting her from a different country, would go through in that situation. But they couldn’t commit to a decision like that, now could they?
I mean, it’s a videogame. That’s why they offer you 19 different endings and encourage you to get them all, right? Well, this renders the power dynamic between the presumed agent (Nour) and the actual agent (us) very conflicting. Bury Me might want to implicate me in its politics, but willingly sabotages its premise to the point of turning itself into a collectionist game. Oh, and it wants me to accept that Nour has agency of her own, engendering the same issue: she seems to do, but doesn’t, for the sake of the game experience.
Sure, videogames have an inherent proficiency in broadcasting these messages, but they have to stick to crass conventionality and revere player agency in that pursuit somehow. How strange! It’s almost as if empathy was a marketing buzzword at this point and videogames had a lot to offer, not because of generic innate virtues, but because of their artists’ vision. However art is defined I don’t know, but I’m sure of this much: art isn’t just there, art is created.
As harsh as this might sound, I don’t think the creators of Bury Me, My Love thought they were making art first and foremost—although yes, they were, and no, there’s nothing wrong with not doing so. This videogame’s vision is journalistic to the quick: it wants to inform, to archive, to be faithful to reality at all costs, and to encompass a wide range of circumstances, albeit channeled by the same character, because they don’t want to miss the full scope of this (his)story.
Said fixation with accuracy is the core of the experience in every other sense. From the uncanny similarity the interface has with your messaging app of reference, to the focus on telling the story in a hyper-realistic chronological order, Bury Me makes its tone, ambitions, and narrative devices clear-cut.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Bury Me, My Love is a work of art out of convenience. For example, if you want to humanize a marginalized group of people, turn them into defined characters! We are all weak to the charms of drama, after all. That would be counterproductive in a journalistic setting for several reasons, but might work to an extent in a fictional narrative. No matter; Bury Me doesn’t show a lasting interest in that sort of expression, and that’s a wound the game can’t heal from.
The narration is devoid of spirit and can get ridiculous when its obsession with fidelity and player options get out of hand (replying to people’s suffering with emojis is gimmicky, to say the least). As advocacy journalism turned into fiction, it lacks earnest execution, while as a personal/universal narrative, it lacks a heart. Bury Me, My Love isn’t exploitative, but is for sure a palatable gamification of a conflict that doesn’t want to confront me, either aesthetically or ideologically.