No Solace in Shadows – A Review of Liyla and the Shadows of War

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Is Steven Universe Queer? (Spoilers: Yes!)

What makes the children’s television show, Steven Universe, so compelling? I must confess that I joined the bandwagon pretty late and after some resistance. But, one week and 41 episodes later, I am hooked!

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Steven Universe is about the titular character, Steven Universe, who is raised by the Crystal Gems, three magical aliens, in the resort town of Beach City. Half-human, half-gem, Steven spends half of the first season learning to control his magical gem powers with the guidance of his family and support of his friends and the other half on his own sort of wacky adventures where he develops other skills like empathy and how to emotionally support the people he cares about. Despite the idea floating around that this show, like others such as Adventure Time, is actually developed for young adults and not children, the show demonstrates some classic children’s show formatting:

  • 15 minute episode segments
  • The main character is a boy with a strange cohort of family and friends
  • Steven does not participate in the institutions of childhood (school, church, sports teams)
  • Conflicts are resolved within the time frame of one episode
  • Characters verbalize their conflicts and tensions with other characters
  • Episode themes are clearly articulated in dialogue (clear morals)

Premiering in November 2013, the show is a hit. And, not just a hit with children, but with teens and young adults as well. A simple Tumblr search finds fan art, fan fiction, theories and speculation, and even a blog that imagines text message conversations the characters would exchange. A search on DeviantArt found over 70,000 pieces on Steven Universe. It’s even been nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Short-Form Animated Program. People watch this show and have a lot of feels.

But, again, what makes the show so compelling? I have a few ideas: The soft pastel animation is warm and friendly and light

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The music is also upbeat, soft, and I think the ending theme (below) adds a bit of serious weight to the silliness of the plot

The references to other shows is evident. I’ve noticed references to Sailor Moon and other magical girl anime, video games such as Pokemon and Final Fantasy, and even films such as Lars and the Real Girl and A Hard Day’s Night. These references, like the references in many children’s shows, are meant to engage older viewers with material that is aimed producing a feeling of nostalgia. But, I find it difficult to view Steven Universe as simply catering to young adults to increase viewership. The influence of Japanese anime on the animation style not only attracts the viewership of young adults of the Internet generation, but it incorporates the style as part of a canon of American media  influenced by anime that is actually quite extensive. Steven Universe may be a good example of “what happens when something moves across platforms and across national boundaries.

Yet, where Steven Universe really seems to shine is in its creation of family dynamics. PBS Idea Channel explored the idea that Steven Universe expands the idea of family to include the nontraditional elements that make up Steven’s strange family. And, I could not agree more. Many of the episodes of Steven Universe focus on character development and the complicated relationships that Steven has with the other Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems act as both parental figures and siblings to Steven. They take care of him, provide support, embarrass him, misunderstand him, and provide him with the opportunities to take risks, to take on responsibility, and to learn to cope with failure and disappointment.

Garnet in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)

Each of the Gems takes on a primary role in their relationship with Steven. Amethyst takes on the role of the big sister, Pearl is the disciplinarian and tutor, and Garnet is the save-the-day-mom figure. In fact, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, has stated that she based the Gems on the roles she took on in her relationship with her little brother, Steven. Sugar also draws upon theories of emotional development in the development of the show’s characters.

Connie in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)
Connie in Fusion Cuisine (S1 E32)

In the episode, Fusion Cuisine, Steven’s friend Connie tells her parents that Steven has a nuclear family in order to continue hanging out with him. Steven attempts to convince Connie’s parents that his family is normal, but when his plan fails, he and Connie attempt to run away. When Connie’s parents see the Gems disciplining Steven, they realize that the Gems are actually responsible parental figures and will continue to allow Connie and Steven to be friends. While I appreciated the ending of the episode, what allowed Steven’s family to be incorporated into the normative understanding of what constitutes family units is through the use of discipline in order to exert control. The Gems only convince Connie’s parents that they are worthy parental figures by grounding Steven after his attempt to runaway. Good parenting is seen as shutting down your child with love and doing things for their own good, despite their feelings on the matter (something Steven comes to resist a bit later).

Pearl: We would never starve you, but you will lose your TV privileges… for 1,000 years. Steven: No! The midseason pre-finale of “Under the knife”! How can you do this to me?! *cries slightly* Greg: *Disapproving look* Because we love you, Steven. Steven: *Groans* Dr. Maheswaran: Wow. That was a masterful use of the “because we love you” shutdown. I’m quite partial to the “it’s for your own good” myself.

There is nothing vague about these complex relationships. In typical children’s show fashion, the show does not dance around the issues it desperately wants to convey to the audience, but has the characters discuss and challenge particular ideas in dialogue.

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“Man, why did Connie have to say I have one mother instead of zero… or three?” -Steven Universe

Steven actively tries to understand his relationships to the Gems. Notably, he doesn’t know the answer to the above question. Are they his mothers? Sisters? Guardians? Do they have to be only one of those things? I think that the Gems play all of these roles for Steven with much of the character development focuses on how Steven discovers his own role on the team (This is ignoring the very queer nature of the Gems themselves, which will probably be the subject of another post). What makes the show compelling then, could be the themes. Jack Halberstam argues that animated films succeed “to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly child, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there beyond the family, if only he could reach it.” The discussion of topics that we normally would not expect from children’s media (due to the perception of silliness, frivolity/frivolousness, and that children must be protected from potentially harmful ideas) are exactly what makes them successful.

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I would argue that allowing Steven to even ask such a question, the creators of Steven Universe are pushing the continuously ongoing discussion of the nature of childhood and the family unit in a positive and progressive direction. It’s a show for the queer child who might find family in a universe that only seems to become queerer.

Steven Universe (Title Intro)