Liyla & The Shadows of War: A Game About Palestine That You Can’t Win

With no extra lives and the impossibilty of winning, Liyla is the creation of Rasheed Abueideh, which puts users in the position of a Palestinian father (like Abueideh) desperate to keep his family safe.

The aesthetic of the game is deeply gray with the only splashes of color coming from gunfire, missile launches, explosions, white phosphorus, and emergency vehicle LEDs. Children and adults are running shadows, silhouettes against ruined backgrounds. Gamers familiar with the Xbox Live puzzle-game Limbo or the mobile app Badlands might find the look of Liyla similar, but it’s far from the fantasy of those two. There are no superpowers, there are no extra lives, and the simple controls, mocking the fact that there is so little one can do, with so little in control.

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Critics

Abueideh states on his website that he created Liyla from a place of fear concerning his own children. How could he, as a parent, safeguard them when their home becomes a war zone, as it was in Gaza in the Summer of 2014? After creating Liyla, Abueideh was informed by Apple that they would not categorize it as a game in their App Store: “It would be more appropriate as news or reference,” stated the Apple certification letter to Abueideh and his team. Public outcry against Apple’s decision apparently caused the company to relent and release it as originally intended.

In truth, there is some difficulty in calling Liyla a game, not for its politics but for the connotation of escapism and entertainment it might convey. Rather, Liyla is a game the way the Zabruder film of JFK’s assassination is a movie: it is a document of the time, made available to audiences who might never otherwise experience trauma being chronicled.

Stark and direct, Liyla is a visceral experience as well as an educational one. Though brief – it may take only 15 minutes to play from beginning to end – each scene is inspired by the terrible events of real life: a school blasted to rubble, children at play randomly killed, ambulances destroyed en route to aid, and so forth. The game concludes not only with statistics coming from the 2014 events but also with a chilling tribute to those who felt their lethal effects first hand.

Conclusion

Certainly, objections could be raised that Liyla does not show the other side nor makes any attempts to be fair or balanced in its portrayal of Gaza. But this is neither its responsibility nor its “raison d’être”. Like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, its purpose is to make the user experience a side of history (Gaza for Liyla, Iran for 1979 Revolution) at a level that text cannot communicate but outright photo or video imagery might overwhelm. Abstracting and virtualizing it all through a video game places users in a figurative magic circle of distance and immediacy paradoxically all at once. Players still feel even if they don’t have to endure.

Unlike 1979 Revolution, however, Liyla is small and personal. This is one life among the thousands, one girl among the Palestinian masses. And, in the greater scope of history, her life or death may mean nothing.

To her father, though, she is everything—her survival is all that powers him. And his whole world exists in the result of those precious fifteen minutes.

The game is available free for mobile devices via Google Play or iTunes’ App Store. Try it out and experience a glimpse of never being able to win. 

Written by A. David Lewis

A. David Lewis

A. David Lewis holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Boston University and teaches college-level Humanities classes in the Greater Boston area. He is the Eisner Award-nominated author of American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife and several critically acclaimed graphic novels. He has written for Patheos, FaithStreet, Publisher's Weekly, and the Huffington Post.