Shadow Game: Teenagers on the run in life-or-death game
‘Of course this game is dangerous. You can die in this game.’ This is how a 15-year-old Afghan refugee talks about the blood-curdling journey that he and many other teenagers are forced to undertake. Eefje Blankevoort and Els van Driel made an award-winning documentary about it and also translated the confronting reality into a virtual game world.
It started four or five years ago with a plan for a short documentary about one child,’ says Blankevoort. 'But it soon became clear that the story deserved a long film.’ Working closely with journalist and translator Zuhoor al Qaisi, they created a mosaic narrative, following several teenagers through their hardships on their way to a better future. These are heartbreaking portraits of ten boys, who along the way also filmed themselves doing everything they could to cross the borders. The film has already won several awards, including a Golden Calf for Best Long Documentary and the Prix Europa for Best European TV Documentary of the Year.
In a tent camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border, the filmmakers heard the word ‘game’ being repeatedly dropped in conversations among the boys themselves. When they asked about it, it turned out that the boys describe the whole flight process as a game with different levels. But it’s a game of life and death, in a shadow world we rarely get to see: one full of minefields, wild animals, fast-flowing rivers and aggressive border guards. This led not only to the title and theme of the film – Shadow Game – but also to the creation of an adventure game with the same name. In order to reach as many people as possible, they allowed the initial plan to grow in this way into a much larger transmedia project. ‘Not everyone watches documentaries,’ says Blankevoort. ‘The game will appeal to a younger audience.’
Thinking about the game also influenced the documentary, which portrays the life-threatening game the boys play chillingly well. Blankevoort and Van Driel already had advice from several gaming experts during the making of the film. ‘Gaming is a new medium for us, and we wanted to know what it could do for storytelling. An eye-opener was that the story we wanted to tell – like a game – can have multiple outcomes. That sharpened our ideas, including for the film plan.’ Even before the days of shooting were over, they began developing the first game concept together with Little Chicken and graphic novelist Aimee de Jongh, with support from the Fund. A financial contribution from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) then made it possible to create a playable demo together with the Flemish game company Happy Volcano.
As a player, you take on the role of a character based on the story of Mohammed, a 14-year-old Syrian boy who is also featured in the film. The avatar is a clever rendition of his person. The worlds and levels you must pass through mirror the places he and the other refugees in the film encounter on their journey through Europe. For example, there are border areas to prepare for the crossing, where players are given tips from the real world. You should bring hairspray and a lighter, for example, to scare away wild animals, you should charge your phone before you start your game, and download Google maps to know where you are. Using these items, you have to run, jump and dodge your way to the end in the journey levels. ‘We weren’t looking to produce a serious game, in which a lot of information is embellished with a few interactive elements,’ Blankevoort emphasizes. ‘We wanted to make a real adventure game for real gamers. The game begins as an exciting adventure, but gradually the question arises: Is this real?’
The biggest challenge now is getting investors for the production. Hopefully, Mohammed’s enthusiasm after playing the demo will be contagious. Blankevoort: ‘It was magical to see how he was gaming and really didn’t want to stop. He could hardly believe it: this is exactly how it was in Bosnia, this is the camp where I was, he said. We named the main character Sami with the idea that you actually have to create some distance between reality and fiction, but he disagrees. It really is me, he said. He absolutely wants this character to have his name, that’s how cool he thinks it is.’
Text: Willemijn de Jonge