It's impossible to know what it's like to be a migrant if you've never had to flee. What's not impossible, given the opportunity, is empathy.
An upcoming game called Cloud Chasers puts you in the shoes of the migratory experience, and tries to impart much needed understanding of the desperation and hardship faced by those trying to make a better life far from their homes. The game, set to hit the App Store and Google Play on Oct. 15, has been in the works since last September — long before the world turned its eyes to the refugee crisis in Europe.
"The media tension and the discussion is about how migrants are a problem when they arrive," Moritz Zumbühl, co-founder of the Swiss game studio that made Cloud Chasers, told Mic. "But nobody talks about why they leave, or what they experience along the way."
The game is challenging, tragic and rich with stories pulled right from the modern migratory experience. The game takes place in a fictional world where the world's elite have escaped to a city in the clouds, harvesting water from clouds for themselves and leaving the rest of the world dying on a barren planet.
You guide a father and his daughter — Francisco and Amelia, for the missionary Francisco Hidalgo and the aviator Amelia Earhart — through the desert wastelands toward a point called the Spire, a traveling point between the world's surface and the cities above. The game's world is inspired not just by modern migrant journeys through the Middle East and "El Tren de la Muerte" in Mexico, but by future migration crises.
"We wanted to make a game that works everywhere on Earth," Zumbühl told Mic. "So we had to find a metaphor that could work anywhere — it's why we decided the create a new universe."
Gameplay is divided between two experiences: an over-world where you play as Francisco, navigating the desert with Emilia in tow, exploring the randomly generated world filled with opportunities for bartering, random encounters with other migrants and story elements and a mini-game where Amelia flies around the clouds on a glider collecting water, the only currency in Cloud Chasers' dystopia and a constantly dwindling resource.
"What we wanted to do was to make fun games where you want to learn something —why people have to migrate, and what people discover on that journey."
The game is challenging in the need to balance resources, be prudent in bartering and navigate at the glider mini-game to reach bittersweet ending. It's a dreadful and worrisome survival game, and although you can take breaks, there's no saving your game at a checkpoint. If Francisco and Amelia die on their journey, you're read a tragic final diary entry and sent to start back from the beginning again.
The game was almost never made in the first place. Blindflug, the studio behind the game, is a four-person game studio out of Zürich designed for the express purpose of making games "that center around complex, real-world dilemmas." But migration was the first issue that the team found almost too difficult to tackle.
The studio's first major breakout — and the first game they didn't make for a client like Greenpeace or Amnesty — was First Strike, a game about nuclear weapons. Players take control of a nation in the nuclear arms race and attempt to achieve world peace. The hidden trick to the challenging puzzler is that the only way you can win is a slow, steady disarmament of your own nuclear arsenal to coax other nations into taking the same route — any other option results in a nuclear war from which there is no return.
Only 0.5% of all players discovered this path to victory. The rest bemoaned the fact that political maneuvering and all-out warfare couldn't ever result in victory.
First Strike was immensely successful, selling over 150,000 copies, and it provided a critical insight into how to make political games: Put the player in the driver's seat and let them experience the difficult decisions and maneuvers, and they'll discover the variant political crises and complications on their own.
Meanwhile, Zumbühl watched news reports roll in of thousands dying in the Eritrean Sea as hundreds of thousands crossed the world's deadliest border into the European Union, fleeing from persecution and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
"Every country in Europe is affected by this, though not every country is doing it's part equally to help," Zumbühl said. "What we wanted to do was to make fun games where you want to learn something — why people have to migrate, and what people discover on that journey."
The team had a politically charged hit with First Strike, but they thought nuclear disarmament was less controversial than the global, political maelstrom around migration. And of course, there was also the problem that Zumbühl is a privileged, European white guy trying to tell the stories of disenfranchised migrants and refugees.
"We might not be rich, but if you grow up in Zurich, you're one of the luckiest people in the world," Zumbühl said. "Can we do this as white guys and girls? Is this fair? Can we really honor the different stories and biographies? We want to get it right, or at least as good as we could, but we were a little afraid."
The decision to set the world in a fictional, universal setting — and the assurance that the game would be based on extensive research into migratory experiences from across the globe — assured the team that the risk was worth taking. Blindflug has spent the past couple of months taking Cloud Chasers on tour, where it has won numerous awards, including Best in Play at the Game Developers Conference and an Indiecade selection at E3.
Video games are deeply examining social and political issues in ways movies and books never could. Since the gaming industry has outgrown Hollywood, gone totally mainstream, reached a more diverse audience and developed a stronger independent studio movement, they've started to delve into the political, the timely and the deeply personal.
There are a slew of games tackling anxiety and depression, people complicit with performing government surveillance and the decision-making process of authoritarian border guards. There are virtual reality experiences that take users head-first into the world of Guantanamo Bay inmates, women who experience catcalling and the witnesses of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
But Zumbühl isn't an activist, and the games he's making with Blindflug Studios aren't necessarily calls to action. They won't end like a documentary that directs you to a hashtag or website, and they won't ask you to call your congressman. The games just ask you to play, and see what happens to you.
"We're a game maker, we're not a political player," Zumbühl said. "We're not here to provide a solution, we're here to get people thinking, like in a movie theater. Except if you watch a movie or read a book, you consume. In a game, you make a decision, and we think everyone is grown enough to make their own."