Whether it’s running from “la migra,” staying out of sight of the light emitted from “los moscos” hovering above, or simply staying hydrated in the dry Mexican desert, LU drawing/ink artist Gonzalo Alvarez tells the story of his parents’ immigration to the United States through the video game, “Borders.”
The Sol Art Gallery will hold a reception for the immigration art installation, at 6 p.m., Friday, with the game available to play in the gallery through March 26.
Alvarez said he had the vision of creating a game about the harsh reality of immigration for a while. He was able to make this idea a reality when he went to IndieCade in New York in April.
“There I met some game designers,” he said. “Some programmers, specifically, because I’m an artist, so I know nothing about programming. That’s the thing I needed to be able to make games. I met some friends and whenever I came back to Port Arthur, I contacted them and we sat down for a seven-day game jam.”
Alvarez worked with a small group of independent developers on a project where they had seven days to create a video game. In “Borders,” one plays an Mexican immigrant in a retro arcade-like environment.
“I went with pixel art style, because of its minimalism (and how it) allows for creative stimulation from the viewer,” he said. “You can’t really tell what it is — but you can tell what it is — and that ambiguity allows players to portray themselves in the character without necessarily seeing the character as an entity.
“So this isn’t Joe, this isn’t Bob, this isn’t Jose — this is just, essentially, a vessel for you to put yourself in. You kind of become the character.”
Alvarez, an art major who grew up in Port Arthur, is a first-generation Mexican American, and is the first of his family to attend college.
“My parents, they’re immigrants,” he said. “I mean, they have their citizenship and everything, but they did cross the border. I’m the first one to be born here, and so this is kind of built off the stories they told me as a kid.”
Players have to avoid being detected by “la migra,” Spanish slang for immigration police or border patrol. Alvarez said his mother had to avoid them.
“My mother actually got caught a couple times,” he said.
Players also have to retrieve water jugs to avoid dehydration, Alvarez said.
“It’s really hot, so you have to stay hydrated,” he said.
He said the game reflects his parents’ experiences hiding from helicopters.
“They called them, ‘los mosquos,’ the mosquitoes, and so it was kind of just taking my parents’ experience, and creating something that people could interact with, simulating what it’s like, he said. “Now people get to experience it themselves and try to beat the game, because the game is actually kind of hard.”
While the game does have a retro feel, the more players progress, the more they realize its underlying theme.
“It’s pixelated to not be like this disgusting or grotesque (game),” Alvarez said, “It’s supposed to be more whimsical, but have a darker meaning behind it.”
“Borders” implements a mechanic in the game so each death doesn’t go unnoticed.
“When you die, it leaves a little skeleton,” Alvarez said. “When you start over and you walk towards where you die, there’s a skeleton — it’s still there.
“There’s no way to go back to the families and say, ‘Hey, your brother died.’ They just don’t know what happened to these people, and I think that’s the worst part — there’s just these unnamed skeletons lost in the Mexican desert.”
The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona has received more than 2,200 recovered remains of suspected migrants crossing the US-Mexico border since 2001. Alvarez said the more people who play, the more skeletons will be in the game.
“That’s a part of the whole thing — you’re gonna die a lot, and it’s gonna add to that death pool,” he said. “But if you do happen to cross the border, you’re met with a nice little illustration I did, and you get to put your name down, kind of like in the leaderboards sort of thing, but it goes beyond, ‘Oh, I just beat the game.’ (It’s more) like, ‘I kind of actually got to survive, versus the thousands of dead bodies that didn’t.’”
Alvarez said that even though the game is just a simulation, he hopes it illustrates the struggle of the immigrant.
“In interacting with the game, and trying to survive and finish the game and dying over and over, I hope that people can realize how much harder in reality it is,” he said. “If it’s this hard in a video game, imagine how much harder it is in real-life.”
“Borders” is a commentary on what is currently happening in the United States, Alvarez said.
“I’m trying to avoid the more gruesome, political side of it, but I am addressing it — but just with something a bit more approachable,” he said. “It also came out of the kind of speech about what’s kind of going on with America at the moment, especially with Trump’s presidency and all this kind of avocation for a bigger wall — to kind of try to state a message about who you really are trying to keep out, and what they’re dealing with — maybe help some people see it differently.”
The player lucky enough to reach the end of the game, he is met with a cityscape, Alvarez said.
“Symbolically, it’s this new journey, this new America, this new place full of hope,” he said. “We have kind of a somber type of music, to really make you feel that emotional experience that I believe that my parents had, or other people had once they actually saw the city on the other side.
“In reality, that’s why I’m able to show you this today, because if it wasn’t for their win — for my parents’ win, crossing over — I wouldn’t be able to be doing this right now. I’m living proof of them winning the real game.”
“Borders” is developed by Alvarez with Jon DiGiacomo and Genaro Vallejo Reyes. The game is free online, but donations are accepted.
To download, visit gonzzink.itch.io/borders.
UP multimedia editor