There’s an inescapable heaviness when you’re dropped into the world of Liyla and the Shadows of War. You play the game as Liyla’s father, jumping through rubble, hiding behind trash containers, and running from Israeli bombs hitting the Gaza Strip. Your goal is to protect your daughter. But you can’t—no matter how many times you play, no matter what you do. Unlike your typical mobile game and much like war itself, there are no extra lives, no superpowers, and there is no winning.
A Dangerous Idea
“I saw the picture of a father carrying the body of his dead daughter. And I asked myself, what if I couldn’t protect my family? What if this happened to me?” For Rasheed Abueideh, a 37-year-old father of four, this was not an exercise of imagination but a very real possibility.
In 2014 the Palestinian software engineer watched from his home in Nablus as Israeli ground bombardments and air strikes hit the West Bank, a mere 130 kilometers from him. This sparked an idea that scared him, one that could cost him his liberty: making a video game about the war.
“I’m living in Palestine, and if you do something that makes a noise, you’re risking your freedom.”
He started his work in secrecy, being careful not to share anything on his social media platforms. He assembled a team consisting of mostly international members—so as to not put anyone in danger. This was the beginning of Liyla, a 20-minute-long platformer/choose-your-own-adventure mobile game heavily influenced by the art style and the gameplay of Limbo and by some story beats of The Last of Us.
But Abueideh didn’t want to use his game as mere escapism: “Palestinians in the mainstream media are always dehumanized. Their personal stories are not covered, they ignore that we exist, that we have feelings, that we are living under attack, and that we don’t have rights as everyone else in the world. I tried to make something to break that,” he told WIRED in an interview.
Setting Things in Motion
Abueideh makes sure you know that the game was based on actual events. It’s the first piece of information you’re confronted with when you start playing, and you feel it all throughout the gameplay.
Many, if not all, of the elements in the world of Liyla were modeled after photos taken during the war and distilled into a very minimalistic art style heavily reliant on silhouettes and completely devoid of color, except for the flares of the rockets and the plumes of the explosions. For Abueideh, the likeliness to reality was an essential part of his development process.
“People were killed, actually. This isn’t just a game. It has a much deeper meaning. So by connecting all of these images, I wanted to reflect exactly what happened and to be able to convey the exact emotion of the person in that situation.”
It was this effort to reflect exactly what happened that was the most challenging for Abueideh. For the two years he worked on the game, he had to read and watch footage of the war over and over again, “I was literally crying sometimes while writing the code or designing the game. It was hard,” Abueideh says. “The war lasted for 51 days, and I repeated that for 2 years.”
In 2016, the year of its release, Apple wanted Abueideh to recategorize Liyla in the App Store under the “News” or “Reference” category rather than under “Games,” due to what it considered to be political messaging. This brought on a wave of support from players, which eventually pushed Apple to relent and display Liyla as a game.