Liyla and The Shadows of War* is a roughly ten minute-long mobile platformer about a father attempting to keep his family alive in the midst of a warzone. To be honest, it’s a short story that could have worked in any medium it was presented in. However, by virtue of being a game, the relative lack of production values could be off-putting to those accustomed to higher-fidelity projects. You might even laugh at the obvious use of simple, rocket-shaped sprites to clear new paths, kill you unexpectedly, or blow up a conveniently placed truck.
That was my reaction.
I was being a jerk. Looking down upon the heartfelt efforts of first-time developers thousands of miles away because I’m the journalist, right? I’m the important one. I determine what someone hears about or doesn’t, right?
That’s about when my in-game daughter, Liyla, asked if we could help a group of boys playing soccer at the end of a beach.
As the timer for the decision ticked down Telltale-style, my eyebrows went up in surprise. A moral choice component? Maybe the father could be a hero, and adding children to your party would result in increased difficulty as you tried to save as many as possible? I had barely made my decision when the same, simple rocket sprite I was mocking moments earlier shrieked down from the ashen sky and slammed into their tiny bodies.
The father and daughter started running, every potential place of refuge going up in a fiery blaze just as they reached it–just as they began to believe such a thing as safety was possible. A school filled with children was reduced to smoking rubble in a single strike. Liyla’s screams raked across my brain like nails on a chalkboard as I struggled to save her dad again and again. Even the ruins left behind went unspared–the father ducking behind a cart to avoid the burning light overhead, and the drone swooping in beneath.
That’s what’s funny, isn’t it? How true to life it is? How senseless, brutal, and easy modern warfare has made killing thousands of people? How you can ruin people’s lives with a push of a button, and never know who you affected?
A river of blood, unseen by all but a few unblinking drones and God himself.
It’s strange how much power a headline can have. How, even while promoting something, it can distract.
Sexy. Difficult. Controversial.
You probably clicked on this article because of its title, too. After all, what kind of monster would play a game about families dying in a warzone, and find something worth joking about?
This isn’t that kind of article. Sorry.
And, no, Liyla isn’t just that kind of game. When you get beyond the headlines and reduction, Liyla and The Shadows of War isn’t about controversy, or making some grand political statement. It’s about a father and daughter, running, illuminated only by the white phosphorus burning under Gaza’s night sky.
I’m not laughing anymore.