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Liyla and the Shadows of War is a game that considers the civilian impact of war, its nighttime setting illuminated by the bombings and drone attacks of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. However, the initial refusal by Apple to classify the touchscreen platformer as a “game” in the company’s App Store caused something of an uproar last year. According to the Palestinian developer Rasheed Abueideh, Apple stated that Liyla would be “more appropriate” categorized under “news” or “reference.”
After some high-profile press on gaming sites and tech-focused publications such as Wired, and media like Eurogamer noting that the App Store had listed Israeli Heroes as a game — where you play as an Israeli missile in an Angry Birds riff — Apple ultimately listed Liyla as a game. And it remained so, both there and on Google Play, when an updated version of the free game was released last month with a new Spanish language option.
I finally tried out Liyla recently, and although the experience is brief, only measured in minutes, and the graphics minimal, it is haunting and compelling in its journey. You mostly control a father who is attempting to reunite with his family, then protect his daughter (the titular Liyla) from the debris and explosions. A bit of a spoiler: as in all war, there is no happy ending, but the dead rising as blue embers into the night sky provide a very affecting final image.
While the puzzles (none too challenging), played by silhouetted characters in the shadowy two-dimensional world, certainly utilize game mechanics, Liyla is above all a political statement. The New York Times noted in its review that it was “more of an educational experience than a game.” Yet its classification as a game in the App Store undoubtably expands its audience, and a global audience is very much the creators’ intention (as evidenced by the addition of Spanish). Like the recent 1979 Revolution: Black Friday game set during the Iranian Revolution, Liyla is aiming to place the player on uneven terrain, to empathize with a perhaps unfamiliar side of the conflict — namely, in Liyla, the children lost to war.
The litany of casualty and destruction statistics that follow the game (including a declaration of use of the white phosphorous as “evidence of war crimes”) will likely irk those who see the Gaza wars as justified, but the fact is that civilian deaths in that 2014 summer were high. The Human Rights Watch cites that of the 1,563 Palestinian civilians counted as killed during the aerial and ground offensives, 583 were children. The infamous missile attack that killed four boys on the Gaza beach figures in one game scene, where you must choose between trying to help (and losing Liyla in the process) or continuing forward to another futile grasp at safety. It is not easy to convey all of this through a short game, yet the medium, with its interactive elements, is an important place for challenging and even controversial engagements like this.
“When the war started in Gaza and I saw the images of the killed kids in their parents’ hands I was shocked,” developer Abueideh stated of his reasons behind creating Liyla. “I had a weird feeling, it’s a combination of sadness, fear, empathy, and anger. All [that] I was thinking of is: ‘what if this happened to me’.”