Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated March 2018
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Liyla and the Shadows of War

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Stark, arresting game offers emotional perspective on war's human toll

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • Social Studies

Skills
  • Character & SEL
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
9–12
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Pros: Strong presentation and style that immediately engages.

Cons: Some may be disappointed, since it's more a narrative experience than game.

Bottom Line: The short length and powerful themes make this an effective way to help students consider the brutal effects of war on families.

Liyla and the Shadows of War is short, but that actually makes it perfect for classroom use. Teachers could design a one- or two-day lesson around Liyla, having students play individually until they reach the end and then offering a writing prompt or leading in-class discussion around the topics of war, family, emotion, and agency. This could be part of a lesson on Gaza's violent history as well as the current political situation in the region, or on specific events from 2014, which is when the game is set. In addition, teachers might also lead a discussion about Apple initially refusing to publish Liyla.

For teachers focusing on game design, Liyla makes a good case study, as it de-emphasizes refined interactivity, making up for it with very effective aesthetic presentation.

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Liyla and the Shadows of War is a 2D side-scroller about a father leading his family through a war-torn city, desperately trying to escape with them during missile fire. The game's events are based on, but not specific to, the 2014 invasion of Gaza by Israel. Liyla feels much like Limbo, featuring silhouetted figures running against a dark, monochrome war-torn background.  

Liyla roughly breaks down into two acts. The first features a few simple but punishing jumping puzzles. If players make a wrong move, they can be destroyed by predetermined events like missiles. The second focuses on a series of scenes where the player interacts with other characters and must make choices. Yet again, the wrong choice ends in death. In most cases, if the player dies, the level restarts.

This is a very short game that is nonetheless extremely evocative, offering a powerful lesson about the horrible consequences of war for families.

Liyla subverts some expectations when it comes to games, but this works thematically. It's impossible to predict which choices lead to death, so students will have to rely on trial and error and memorization to sequence the correct moves that get them to the end. This arbitrariness, however, is the whole point. Playing Liyla evokes the main character's helplessness and grief, and mirrors his struggle to prevent the loss of loved ones amid the brutal chaos of war. Helping students understand this will grow their appreciation of the game as well as the experience it's representing.

Still, some students may find Liyla too brief to be impactful. For those students, a longer game with more meaningful mechanics, like This War of Mine, might be more effective.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

This experience benefits from its short length. The silhouette-style visuals are affecting and fit thematically.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Play focuses on trial and error; there's no buildup of skill or logic. This is less important, however, than the game's perfect simulation of a parent's helplessness and loss during war.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

The game is short enough that very few will get stuck to the point of needing hints or tips. The website offers further resources and education about the war in Gaza in 2014.


Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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