My wife’s first journey across Europe ended abruptly in a Bulgarian forest. I could have, should have, told Nour to catch up with Emmanuel, rather than telling her to stick with Zineb, the young mother, and her children. It seemed like the right thing to do, but, as Bury Me, My Love so brutally taught me, the right thing to do isn’t always the smart thing to do. Unlike most video games, I wasn’t given a binary choice, a good-or-evil decision. To put it simply, I was naive.
Nour and the family get caught and beaten by border-patrolling police, and shipped off to a refugee camp. Nour is forced to apply for asylum in Bulgaria, stranded so close and yet so far from her goal of Western Europe. It could be worse, I tell myself; she could be dead, drowned at the bottom of a channel sea. Still, it’s a cold comfort. Nour leaves me a voicemail, the disappointment at her, our, predicament tangible in her voice. Then, the credits roll.
I’ve replayed Bury Me, My Love several times, but it’s the first journey that matters the most to me, that stays with me. Nour’s journey ended in a refugee camp in Bulgaria, in limbo. All other journeys, all other outcomes, permutations tested mostly for the sake of this review, are the idle thought experiments of a husband filled with regret.
Bury Me, My Love is a text-based interactive fiction about the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s text-based in a literal sense; You play as Majd, doting husband to Nour, and communicate with her solely through instant messages. You can talk to her and respond to unfolding events through text messages and emojis, as you try to guide Nour through war-zones, border controls and hostile institutions as she navigates her way to western Europe.
The story’s greatest narrative strengths lie in its implicative silences. The action of Nour’s journey takes place in the space between our conversations, and ultimately Majd has very little power over the course of events. He (you, I) can encourage a certain action to be taken by Nour, but what plays out beyond that depends entirely on Nour’s agency. The delayed-response dynamic between Majd and Nour works really well to address some of the inherent flaws in modern interactive choose-your-own-adventure games, specifically the balance between characterisation, character agency and player choice. Majd’s powerlessness often drives him to frustrated ignorance; in one instance, he states to be wary of a fellow refugee as ‘all Africans are thieves’. Nour, smartly, responds by saying that this is probably what everyone says about Syrians.
The game quickly hooks you with Nour’s deft characterisation. She’s sassy and loving, with an unflinching optimism even in the face of threatening uncertainty. She manages to crack jokes and make light of her situation, even while you panic and fret on the other end of the line. Nour’s journey would truly be one worth following, even without any player agency. At times during my first playthrough, I forgot that I was playing a video game, thought I was communicating through time and space with a real, living person, which made her ordeal, our ordeal, even more harrowing.
Nour travels through the world, meeting other refugees desperate to escape hardship and seeking a (perhaps non-existent) better world. She is helped by some and hindered by others. Smugglers try to exploit her for her relative wealth (a few thousand Euros, her life’s savings as a medical professional). All the while, Majd can only offer up what little guidance he can based on the limited information provided by Nour. Choices are never right or wrong, good or bad, and Majd exists in perpetual anxiety. Did I steer Nour wrong earlier, in a way that’ll come back to bite her hours, days from now?
Such is the reality of the refugee. Bury Me, My Love is based on true stories of immigration, people torn asunder from their settled lives by war and corruption. Nour is smart and compassionate, but, at times, she must make hard choices. She must choose which borders to cross, physically and mentally, in her journey to the west.
Bury Me, My Love left me wanting to know how it ends, and how it could have ended, in other realities. The story’s ability to wrench me out of the world, with a nail-biting ferocity, demonstrates the strength of this interactive experience, and anyone with an understanding of the refugee crisis owes it to themselves, and to Nour, to experience her story, the story of millions of people.