Much of the current debate around video games revolves around whether or not games should be viewed through a political lens. There are many gamers who advocate for better representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in games, and there are others who reject these demands as “politicizing” the ostensibly non-political. For those who argue for representation, representation is necessary in order to allow new bodies and experiences to be brought to the fore in our virtual worlds of gameplay. In addition, representation can also be about giving voice to marginalized and little-heard perspectives about gender, sexuality, and geopolitics.
Recently, game designer Rasheed Abueideh came into conflict with Apple over the placement of his new game, Liyla and the Shadows of War, in the App Store. The reason for this conflict: Apple considered his game too political for the Games category. Liyla and the Shadows of War is about the war in Gaza (also knows as Operation Protective Edge) during the summer of 2014. Though based on real events, the player explores war-torn Gaza through the fictional story of Liyla and her family as they attempt to escape the ensuing violence. Although Apple eventually reversed their decision and categorized Liyla and the Shadows of War as a Game (as opposed to an Educational app), this situation sheds light on the current questions over the political content of video games.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for the game. Though the game is quite short, if you want to preserve the narrative, I recommend playing it before reading on.
But what is Lilya and the Shadows of War like to play? For an experienced gamer, there are certain features that stand out. The game has no introduction or tutorial. Instead, the player is thrown right into the thick of things as you take the perspective of Liyla’s father and attempt to guide him home to his family. As you do so, warplanes and drones fly through the air, firing missiles in your direction. At one point, you push a dumpster in order to use it as a shield against gunfire. Upon meeting Liyla and her mother, you attempt to flee as your home is destroyed. Yet soon after, Liyla’s mother is killed and you must leave her behind as you search for safe haven.
In each of the subsequent scenes, Liyla and her father must run through the war-torn landscape, avoiding fire, missile-bearing drones, and white phosphorous. And unlike games that reward clever game play, in this game you are often placed in the proverbial no-win situation. When you come across a group of boys playing soccer, Liyla asks her father if they can accompany them and the player is offered a choice: Approach the boys and encourage them to join you in your escape or leave them behind. No matter the choice, however, the boys are killed with missile fire, the only difference being that if you elect to have them join you, Liyla is killed as well and you must start over.
In another scene, the player is given another no-win choice: Hide in the UN school or keep forging ahead. As soon as you make your decision, the school is also bombed, leaving it in ruins. Finally, you come across an ambulance where the father gives the last remaining space to Liyla. Upon the ambulance’s departure, it too is bombed, killing the passengers and Liyla. You look on as her father holds her lifeless body and watch her soul, along with those of many others, float up towards the heavens. As the credits roll, statistics about the war in Gaza play across the scene, each statistic related to a particular scene from the gameplay.
The game recommends that you play the game with headphones in a dark room to complement dimly lit, gray scenes. War casts a shadow over the entire landscape, from the silhouetted characters and platforms to the shadows where you hide from gunfire. The scrolling backgrounds paint a grueling picture of a war-torn Gaza. You run by crumbling houses, burning vehicles, and the ruins of what used to be towns. A harrowing tune plays as you run across the dusty plains escaping danger. Yet, in some scenes, the game is silent. leaving only the eerie sound of crackling electric wires and the sizzle of white phosphorous. The final scene where the souls of the departed float into the sky is heart wrenching, as the blue wisps are one of the few sources of color in the entire game, and even they slowly fade to nothing.
While Liyla and the Shadows of War follows the gameplay structure of a platformer, (a game where the player must navigate around platforms and obstacles to advance) the game primarily functions as a way to deliver a general overview of the Gaza War. No skills are acquired, insofar as most situations, such as hiding from a drone or jumping over fire, only occur once. Furthermore, the use of the statistics at the end drives home the idea that while you are meant to play the game in order to very briefly view the life of a resident of Gaza. The game’s short length (in contrast to others video games designed to be played for dozens of hours) prevents you from inhabiting that role for too long.
While brief, Liyla and the Shadows of War is an excellent, though haunting, portrait of the Gaza War and life in the occupied territories. While certainly a political game, I do not accept the belief that such a designation is a criticism. Indeed, Liyla and the Shadows of War helps illustrate how gameplay is “always already” political, as Derrida might say.
Video games, I would argue, are useful sites for the “playing out” of politics, because their interactive elements allow players to take on and explore a range of roles and experiences. Liyla both resembles and diverges from the typical manner in which roleplay occurs, and this allows for an “estrangement effect” in the Brechtian sense: you are not given catharsis or resolution, or even the pride of gaining mastery over a virtual environment. Instead, you are boomeranged back into the real world of political conflict and devastating war.
As the culture war over the occupation’s legitimacy grows more fervent, Liyla can serve as a cultural artifact that attempts to amplify the voices of the Palestinian people. Liyla feels to me like a necessary response to Israeli State propaganda, whose heavy machinery funds anti-BDS trainings across college campuses, pushes for anti-boycott legislation in various states and countries, and works to undermine the cultural legitimacy of Palestinians within Israel itself. The game is probably not for the residents of Gaza – they know what that life is like. The game is also not designed for Israelis, as Hebrew is not a language option, only English and Arabic. The audience rather seems to be for those outside the region who might need a different sort of knowledge and experience that the news cannot deliver.
As I mentioned, the audience is not delivered a happy ending, and that may the most political thing about the game. There is no politics of peace or reconciliation or hope. This absence reflects the ever growing rift in Israel-Palestine over the broken peace process, where peace seems impossible. There is no return to daily life, no repairing of the social fabric. There is only endless war and occupation.
Edit: I edited this piece on 2/13/17 for style and to add some new links.