He would speak of the time immigration officials caught his wife, separating the couple and sending her back to Mexico. And the time the father walked by a skeleton in the desert, not knowing how long it had been there, forgotten and unidentified.
The image of these unnamed skeletons stuck with Alvarez, a 23-year-old senior and illustrator at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex. So in the midst of last year’s election rhetoric targeting undocumented immigrants, he designed “Borders,” a video game that would put players in the shoes of migrants, challenging them to dodge Border Patrol agents, “los moscos,” prickly cactuses and more. The migrant character crosses rivers and large swaths of desert, all while collecting water jugs to stay hydrated.
“Trump definitely made me kind of stand up and put my voice out there,” Alvarez said, adding that he tried to find a way to help people understand the unimaginable dangers migrants are willing to face to find a better life north of the border.
“My goal is to move people to look at immigration differently,” he said. “I just hope people become more sympathetic.”
In the arcade-style installation of the game on display at Lamar University this month, each time a player dies, a skeleton pops up on the screen. It stays in the same location permanently, marking the place of death.
“There’s over 600 skeletons in the game now,” Alvarez said. “It kind of helps push the message of just how many unnamed skeletons there are in the Mexican desert.”
A central purpose, Alvarez said, was creating a game that would “start trying to change people’s ideas for what a video game can be.” It’s not a mere form of entertainment, filled with violence and meaningless thrills — it’s also a way of creating social commentary and sending a message.
Alvarez said his game’s message is more important than ever.
Since 1998, more than 6,915 migrants have died along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics. More than 322 died in 2016 alone, but experts and activists say these numbers are a far cry from reality.
“Borders” is Alvarez’s first time designing a video game, and a scholarship helped fund the project. He began working on the game last spring, after meeting a group of programmers during a trip to New York City. He showed them his designs, and by July, the group had developed and launched the game, which can be downloaded free online.
In a previous game, “Papers, Please,” designed years ago, players take on the role of immigration agents. So for this game, Alvarez wanted to show the other side, in which the migrant is the protagonist.
Players might be surprised by the retro, pixelated display on the game, and the ambiguity of the characters and map. But that ambiguity is intentional, Alvarez said. It allows players “not to focus on who the person was but the message of the game.”
“That kind of abstraction allows you to kind of immerse yourself more,” he said.
In the design stages, he was asked whether he’d like to make it possible for players to leave their name with each skeleton after they die in the game. But Alvarez decided against it because, in reality, many people who die are never identified.
“There’s hundreds of bodies of people who can’t get identified, and those families will never get to know,” he said.
His father, originally from Mexico City, first made the journey across the border alone in 1987. Because of an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants during those years, he was able to become a citizen. Three years after arriving, he returned to Mexico, bringing his wife, Eva Alvarez, back with him.
At the time, Eva Alvarez was undocumented and, at one point, Border Patrol agents detained her, separating the couple for an entire day and causing her husband to wonder whether he would ever see her again.
They moved to New York and then Port Arthur, Tex., where they have lived for 22 years, raising two U.S.-born children. The mother is now a permanent resident.
“We were lucky,” the father, Gonzalo Alvarez, 48, said, adding that the message sent across in his son’s game will hopefully “help people understand the risks,” he said.
If players make it to the end of the “Borders” game, the younger Alvarez said, they will be met with the vista of a city, with buildings in the background resembling a refinery. Subconsciously, Alvarez said, he realized he depicted a view similar to that of his home town, Port Arthur.
The final stage gives the migrant a chance to write down his or her name on a leader board. It’s almost a way of saying they made it to the United States, Alvarez said. They’re safe.