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07 August 2017

Retro-style game about Syrian refugee’s experience will make you laugh and cry

Path Out is an RPG adventure game like no others. 

It lures you in with its nostalgic, 16-bit aesthetic but its aims are anything but reassuring. 

Based on designer Abdullah Karam’s experience as a Syrian refugee escaping from the civil war to neighbouring Turkey, Path Out wants players to feel “right at home while creating friction with the portrayed content”, German developer Georg Hobmeier from Causa Creations said. 

A tale of both immersion and alienation, the game entices the nostalgic player with a Final Fantasy VI-like ambiance only to ironically create distance with humorously well-placed video commentaries.  

Image: screengrab/causa creations

Path Out‘s first episode, which is now available in demo form on Itch.io (the full game will be out in early October), starts off in a dark forest in Northern Syria, where the main character, in a yellow T-shirt, has just lost its way after being smuggled. 

It doesn’t matter where you decide to go, death awaits you whether it’s a minefield or a Syrian soldier.

But worry you not, because Karam himself is popping up on the top left corner to troll you with a pre-recorded, YouTuber-style reaction video: 

“You just killed me man,” he says, while laughing at his own, virtual demise. 

Then, the scene jumps back to 2011 in Karam’s old bedroom in Hama, central Syria, during a sadly common power outage at the start of the civil war. 

After carrying out a few quests on behalf of your parents, you get out to explore the neighbourhood, not without the omni-present commentary on stereotypes. 

Image: screengrab/causa creations

Karam’s actual house was a modern building, not the large, Arab-style courtyard in the game, but the designer himself invites players to “enjoy the cliche” in another video. A camel in the streets, though, inspires only contempt. “C’mon, we don’t have camels in the streets in Syria, only in tourist places. C’mon guys, stop the racism,” he says in another pop-up video. 

As explained by Hobmeier and Karam, the video commentaries allow the game to “reflect upon itself” or at least reflect some of the tensions that developers had when displaying such material. 

“Obviously, even members of the team had their own conception about how Syria would look like in a game. Instead of making it clean, we decided for this element to show these tensions,” Hobmeier said. 

It also allows for reality to enter this non-realistic depiction of a real adventure, reminding the player that “while this is just a game this little character one is playing is a real person.”

“This is a meta game, we also try to extend when exhibiting the game [as shown in the below image], where Abdullah is showcasing the game, dressed like the main character. Or the other way around?”

Karam met Causa Creations’ Hobmeier, who had experience in creating games about migration such as Frontiers and From Darkness, by chance at a cultural event in Salzburg. 

Together they came up with the idea to combine Karam’s tragic story of fleeing Syria with his desire to get involved in game design, getting on board also American illustrator Brian Main to serve as mentor. 

The RPG game format came almost naturally as per Causa’s previous works and Karam’s interest in Japanese games and drawing style.

“Both audio and graphic design draw quite heavily on the standards of the genre, while trying to portray Abdullah’s environment and story at the same time,” Hobmeier said of the game design. “We wanted to find the perfect mix of Syrian architecture and pixel art to form our very own special style.”

The plot itself is deceivingly simple and straightforward, and in its tiniest details perfectly mirrors the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust at the start of the revolution. Even in the first few scenes, the character discourages you from talking to and trusting a certain neighbour on the account that he might be a spy for the Syrian regime. 

Image: screengrab/causa creations

As observed by Edwin Evans-Thirlwel on Eurogamer, “the continual prospect of betrayal is one of Path Out‘s more harrowing aspects – lost in the bombed-out wilderness of Aleppo with little besides a pocketful of cash, you have no choice but to take the game’s smugglers at their word.”

It’s worth not revealing too much of Karam’s odyssey in 2014, when he fled Syria to avoid being drafted into the Syrian Army. “We would very much let people experience the details of his ordeal with the game,” Hobmeier said. 

“Many Europeans have a poor understanding what it means to lose a home, to be in an active war, to have one’s entire life torn apart by violence and atrocities. Path Out is meant to show especially to younger gamers, what it means to lose almost everything.”

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