Liyla and the Shadows of War is a game that wasn’t made with profit in mind. It’s a free mobile game, and one that has a serious message to it about the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.
The game was recently the winner of Reboot Develop Indie Award in category of “Visual Excellence”. It was also nominated for Best in Show & Most Innovative Game and Best Game Narrative for Indie Prize at Casual Connect Asia 2016. But talking to Rasheed Abu-Eideh, the creator of Liyla and the Shadows of War, it was not a easy road to the game’s release.
When is a game not a game?
The discussion started with the controversy surrounding the release of Liyla and the Shadows of War on App Store. Apple said Liyla was “not appropriate” for the Games category, instead saying it would be “appropriate to categorize your app in News or Reference”. When asked why Apple wanted to do this, Rasheed had a straight forward answer.
“I think it’s about Palestine. If it was about a different country, I think it would be fine. The game itself does not say anything about any side. Liyla is about the war and the effect of the war on civilians and children. There is nothing political in the game, and I tried to avoid anything that would [promote a certain side],” they said, adding, “I needed to focus on Gaza, but it is also about the civilians and children in any war.”
The greatest irony about the reclassification controversy for Liyla and the Shadows of War is that it has thrown much more attention on the game than it would have received otherwise. Since Apple has relented and let the app be available as a game, Rasheed sees the irony in how it ultimately led to more people playing it than would have otherwise.
“Yeah, actually it was good! They gave me free advertisement. We got attention from everybody. This was one thing that I never expected to have,” reflected Rasheed. “To be honest, I was expecting they would reject the game, because it’s dealing with a sensitive situation.”
The fact that Liyla and the Shadows of War was rejected as a game by Apple but suggested for news or reference is something Rasheed can only laugh about now. “It was shocking to put it under ‘news’,” he said. “It’s a game! It has everything that should be in a game! If they told me they’d reject the game I might understand that, but put it under news? That’s unusual.”
Liyla and a Love for Limbo
Liyla and the Shadows of War has a very distinct art style, things depicted as silhouettes and shadow. The name Liyla itself means “night” in Arabic. Rasheed confirmed this was to give the game a certain somber mood.
“The nature of the game is very sad, and it’s like there’s no hope, so I choose to make it black and gray scale,” detailed Rasheed. “I thought this is a perfect combination with the story; everything is black because its at night. You don’t know what’s happening, nothing’s clear to you.”
The style of Liyla is evocative of the seminal indie game Limbo, and Rasheed confirmed that the somber mood of Limbo was an inspiration for them. “I like Limbo a lot. When I thought I should make a game, the first thing that came to my mind was I had to make something simple,” said Rasheed. “I made some pixel art, but it’s not compatible with the idea and the story. But Limbo was the perfect inspiration for me, and it’s also not hard to do. I was making a sad game, so the dark is compatible with [the tone]. Most of the things that happen in war happen at night anyway.”
Games Make the Narrative More Immersive
This project was a very personal one for Rasheed. While they live in Nablus and not Gaza (where immigration in and out is highly restricted), they still feel a common connection from being Palestinian.
“Games are like any other media; they can have a message and they have value. The advantage for game the player is in charge, not like movies or songs,” said Rasheed. “The player is the one taking the actions, so they have the feelings with what’s happening to that person. You only get that experience through games, not through movies. When you play it’s like ‘I did this’ and ‘I made this decision’ not another person. It’s a different experience. If you watch the experience, there’s more distance.
“It’s very tough to make a game about something that’s so emotional and sad to you. What inspired me to make this is children who were killed. I’m a parent of two, so thinking about carrying my child’s body… I wanted to make a game to describe that feeling. I worked mostly at night because of my full time job. I was coding and crying at the same time. I wasn’t happy to make this game and I wish these children were never killed, but this is the world we’re living in. I’m sorry, I have to do it.”
Making Art Online
There were three people that worked on Liyla and the Shadows of War, with Rasheed doing the game design and programming, with art by Wedad Irshaid and animations from Sarah Shawwa. Since Rasheed is a project manager at a software development company, they had to devote their spare time to making it. After making a basic prototype in two months to demonstrate what they wanted to do, it took many more months to put together the final product.
“I tried to find other people that could join me, but I didn’t find anyone from people that I knew, so I searched online. I asked for volunteers because I had no money to give! I was looking for professional people to work for free, so I made a prototype and sent it out. I was lucky to get Sarah and Wedad; they’re Jordanian and I only met them online. So I had to wait a lot of time to get my assets. Online, it is very difficult to describe art!”
Telling Local Stories Globally
There were multiple obstacles in getting Liyla and the Shadows of War made, from the lack of resources to Rasheed’s personal concern that they might be jailed for making it. They also noted another difficultly in promoting it unique to the region of the world that they live.
“I have a funny story trying to join IndieCade. The payment they have is Paypal, but I could not find Palestine! So I tried everything but I couldn’t pay $80 through Paypal, so this is something that’s particular to here. Also, you cannot find Palestine on a Google map! It’s something I had to face as a game developer. Eventually, I talked with Rami Ismail on a Twitch broadcast and he was awesome to me and he explained how to publish the game and he did it for me. It’s crazy when you live here. There are different challenges [that we have to face] than people from other parts of the world.”
When asked if they would make another game like Liyla in the future, Rasheed responded, “To be honest, I don’t know. But I think there’s a lot of stories here that should be told. I think also from the feedback I get like, ‘The game is very emotional’ and ‘I’m touched by your game’ and ‘We need something that opens eyes in this world’… maybe yes, if I did something new, it would be about a local story. Because there are so many people making shooter games and adventure games, I don’t have their resources so the difference I can make is this.”
While the story of Liyla and the Shadows of War is not a happy one, it can be celebrated that it was released as a game on the App Store and is fully available for people to play. As unsung as the game started, hopefully it will shine as a light amongst many that will help bring peace to a tumultuous region of the world.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.