How videogames can uniquely set sensitive narratives, like an asylum seeker’s journey.
I was studying for a Master of International Social Development at the University of New South Wales in 2005, I attended what was then called a Refugee Court of Testimonies. People were invited to tell an assembled audience some of what they had witnessed before, and while, seeking asylum. Many had seen their family and friends harmed, murdered or abducted, as well as wanting to disclose how frightening, and poorly resourced, refugee camps can be. Despite my own life being completely removed from these distressing experiences, I very much wanted to listen to what people had to say.
Games including Dragon Age and Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire tell stories of displaced people, but fiction is just that. Most players can appreciate the drama, the twists and turns, without having to actually worry about the characters. They’re not real. Recently, however, designer Abdullah Karam, invited me to play an autobiographical game about leaving Syria that he is currently developing with Causa Creations. It wasn’t like playing fiction.
At the court we were asked not to share details because the stories, and their telling, belonged to the people. Path Out is a reminder of why this is important. By making a game, however, Karam is able to decide, and control, how to engage his audience himself. Path Out’s free demo, which is currently available on itch.io, includes video commentary, where he speaks over the action to provide additional context. Karam says, “It was odd to see a depiction of my own life and then crack jokes about that. But that’s the Syrian way. Stay light, even in the darkest moments.”
“It’s not just my story. It’s a complex political situation we couldn’t ignore.”
Karam has also embraced the opportunity, afforded by interactive media, to combine what did happen with other possible outcomes. At one point, you’re asked to make a dangerous choice and his commentary explains that he was never actually in this situation, it’s more of a global representation. Karam says, “It’s not just my story. It’s also a complex political situation that we couldn’t just ignore. And I actually lived in a modern building, but we made it look like one from Aleppo’s now almost destroyed old town. Discrepancies like this are commented upon to make these transparent for players.”
Being able to see Karam’s facial expressions, and access a visual impression of how he feels, creates a unique and unusual engagement with content, too. His impetus to leave Syria is told not only through dialogue with his parents, who are characters in the game, but also in retrospect, as his commentary explains why his likely future in Syria, given a range of uncontrollable circumstances, is unacceptable to him. It’s helpful to hear his perspective on issues you wouldn’t expect the average nonasylum seeker to understand. And then, at other times, the gameplay contributes to making his experiences highly relatable.
In particular, there’s a level where the character is left alone in a wasteland by his uncle’s friend and you have to navigate with a small light, avoiding troops and landmines, scaling rocky outcrops. I felt appalled that a young person would find themselves in this situation. It was challenging to play, both as a game and because it was really scary. The video of Karam pops up and he explains how difficult it was to trust the people helping him, especially if they wouldn’t allow him to use his phone’s GPS as they traveled, for example. He also says, “This isn’t funny anymore,” every time you die. No, it’s really not.
I am aware that, on this page, I’ve inconsistently referred to the protagonist as Karam, a character, me and you. This blurring of identities is another way we share experiences through games. Karam says, “We wanted to create something exciting, walking the thin line between knowledge transfer and engaging the players.” Interestingly, the decision to make Path Out happened over “a good Syrian breakfast” with developers from Causa Creations, who Karam met after arriving in Austria and while seeking to improve as an artist. The team were able to access grants related to artistic and cultural activities.
Karam concludes by telling us that he enjoys racing games, CounterStrike: Global Offensive and occasional indies, like Party Hard. “I wanted to reach out to gamers and let them experience what a fellow gamer had to go through. There is an artificial divide in some people’s mind, generated in the media, reinforced by politics, but there is so much more that brings us together. We listen to the same music, wear the same clothes and play the same games.” Path Out is a rare insight into a real person’s difficult journey. I’m glad to have played it and to have appreciated Syrian humour, too.