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How a lack of control fosters empathy in Bury Me, My Love

Bury Me, My Love's Florent Maurin spoke at GDC to explain how designing outside of conventional norms helps create a feeling of helplessness.

Game Developer, Staff

March 22, 2018

4 Min Read

Technology has created new ways to remain connected throughout long distances, but accessibility doesn't hold the same weight when trying to communicate with loved ones seeking refuge in a different country.

"Nowadays, every migrant has a smartphone. But for them it's not a luxury, it's the only way to keep in touch with friends and family." 

This was the message from Bury Me, My Love's  game designer Florent Maurin, who explained how he confronted players with a feeling of helplessness through a series of design choices to put forth the idea that games don't always have to put the player first. 

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this afternoon, Maurin explained how designing outside of conventional norms by taking agency away from the player served to help create the feeling of helplessness experienced throughout Bury Me, My Love

"We wanted you as players not to live their lives, but to empathize and understand what those people go through," said Maurin, who collaborated with a Syrian woman named Dana on the narrative.

Using Dana's experience of keeping in touch with friends and family with a messaging app as she traveled built the foundation of Bury Me, My Love. 

Through listening to migrants, Maurin learned that no matter how they prepared for their journey, things would always go sideways.

Too many things can change, and being able to adapt is key. The biggest takeaway in these situations, however, is that "you'll feel like you're not in control."

How was that helplessness translated into the game? 

In Bury Me, My Love, the player is not on the ground, meaning that they aren't the ones going through the experiences of a migrant. Nour took that role, and the player embodied her husband Madj instead. Maurin expressed that making Nour feel "real" was pivotal in making the player feel as though they were talking to a real person. 

Because the game passes in psuedo real-time, sometimes Nour will take hours to tell the player that she's reached a destination safely.

Sometimes she'll type out a sentence and an animation will pop up indicating that she's responding, but will suddenly stop. This helps to enforce a feeling of helplessness in the player, who isn't on the ground with Nour to provide advice.

The player spends 99% of the time waiting. "Most of the time, Majd is in the dark, and she doesn't have time to chat with you all the time.

She's the one who's living through the things, you're just there to support her." When Nour goes offline, that's when the sense of helplessness creeps back in. 

"Why is she offline? Is she in a zone with no signal, or did something worse happen? You won't know. And since you're not on the ground, you won't know until she comes back." 

Maurin emphasized that these lapses in communication were to enforce the fact that the player is never in control. "We tried to do that to portray how She's living the things while you aren't." 

While Nour can die in the game, it's meant to emphasize how cruel the world can be. "We wanted to make clear that to migrants, life is not fair," said Maurin.

"We're talking about real people who are risking their lives. Would it be disrespectful to keep her alive?It would have been disrespectful not to put death in the game. They are risking their lives, and it shouldn't be ignored." 

It's important to make the player feel frustrated and helpless by putting them through unfair situations, and there will be many unexpected moments to compensate for a lack of control.

"The only thing migrants have is to live in the moment. It will matter at the time, but they take one day after another, and it's the journey that matters. We wanted you to feel that way, to care about the journey." 

After reaching the end of the game, there are two options: never play the game again (which Maurin expressed was "completely okay") or restart from day one. There are no save points for a reason. 

"Nour is a metaphor for the thousands of people who actually did this journey. We wanted you to feel this way. Every time you play this game, you play a new person who is facing a new situation." 

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