Syrian-developed PC game portrays Palestinian anguish
Firm has yet to grab overseas markets
Through different levels of play 'Under Siege' depicts characters ranging from sling-shot-toting 13-year-olds to adults with Uzi machine guns
By Habib Battah
Daily Star staff
Thursday, October 21, 2004
BEIRUT: The explosions, the shooting, and the 3-D graphics are familiar but the story is quite unlike any other hatched out of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. video game industry.
Developed in Syria "Under Siege" will be released by the end of the year, and if its chief architect has his way, the product will capture a market of millions of gamers who are tired of seeing Middle Easterners on the receiving end of the barrel.
"We are providing a new kind of digital dignity," says Radwan Kasmiya, executive manager of Damascus-based Afkar Media. "Under Siege," he explains, should not be seen as an answer to top-selling games like "Delta Force" or "America's Army," which often feature stereotypical images of Arabs as enemy combatants.
"This is not a game about killing ... We are telling a story," he says. "Under Siege," is the latest version of its predecessor "Under Ash," which was released in 2001 and has been downloaded nearly 500,000 times since, according to Kasmiya. The games are based upon supposedly historical accounts of Palestinian suffering under Israeli military occupation. Through different levels of play, "Under Siege" traces the lives of unrelated characters from a sling-shot toting 13-year-old chasing after tanks to a 25-year-old "macho" archetype armed with an Uzi machine gun.
The game opens with an elaborate fly-through depicting worshipers at a Hebron mosque before it was attacked by New York physician Baruch Goldstein in 1994. As Goldstein opens fire on the crowd, the player's objective is to dodge bullets and quell the shooter. In another scene the goal is to toss a canister of tear gas back at an Israeli tank, while in Jenin, a woman hands her child over to relatives before opening a grenade among Israeli troops that are shown killing her husband in "cold blood."
"It's not about desperation," Kasmiya explains, "it's about sacrificing your life to let others live." Suicide attacks do not figure prominently in the game and Kasmiya, 30, says he's not "mature enough" to analyze them.
"If you shoot any civilian, Israeli or Palestinian, you will loose points." The message: "We can't harvest peace unless we seed justice."
It is a theme that is likely to resonate with Arab youth who will be Afkar Media's initial target audience. But English and other language versions of "Under Siege" will be released early next year with the help of volunteer translators across Europe, Asia and South America. The majority of downloads for the demo version of "Under Ash" came from the U.S., according to Kasmiya, although hard copies of the game only went on sale in the Middle East, where 15,000 pieces were sold for $10 each. He says he was surprised by the number of copies sold considering that region is host to some of the highest piracy rates in the world.
"I didn't expect that kind of responsibility, and I am very proud of it," he says.
Since the 2001 release of "Under Ash," Afkar Media's video game design unit has grown from a staff of five to 18. Although the company is expanding fast, marketing studies are still under development and the firm has yet to secure access to overseas markets. But in the short run "Under Siege" will be made affordable throughout the Middle East, Kasmiya says.
A software engineer since the age of 13, Kasmiya says Afkar Media will also be releasing a game about the history of Islam, aimed at debunking stereotypes that say the faith was "spread by the sword."
He declined to discuss the commercial environment in Syria in detail: "I prefer not to rely on anyone to get moving," he muses.