It’s All in the Game




ON ANY GIVEN DAY at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Westwood Boulevard and Ohio, groups of senior Iranian expats sit around sipping tea, playing backgammon, and sharing their opinions and firsthand accounts of the mistakes and missed opportunities that led to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. These men — many of whom had been doctors, engineers, and scholars back in their homeland — tend to agree that the uprising went utterly adrift.

All of this, of course, is hindsight.

The great thing about 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a choice-driven interactive video game published by iNK Stories, an independent New York City studio co-founded by husband and wife partners Navid Khonsari and Vassiliki (“Vassi”) Khonsari, is that it dispenses with the ideas of what should have happened. Instead, it provides an honest depiction of the confused and desperate attitudes of the Iranian people, whose intent was to overthrow Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi — the Shah of Iran — and bring democracy to their country.

The game’s narrative is centered on the events of September 8, 1979 — also referred to as Black Friday — the day the Shah declared martial law in Tehran, and 11 other major cities where protests and street demonstrations had erupted. Hoping to appease the opposition, the Shah made it clear that once the curfews were lifted, he intended to continue the liberation. However, more than 5,000 protesters gathered in Jaleh Square in Tehran — either in defiance or having missed the declaration — facing off against the Shah’s army, which opened fire and killed 88 people.

“When people want to have their voices heard and it’s oppressed with violence, you have a lack of balance within your government,” says Navid Khonsari. “It became the defining moment, and neither the Shah nor the people would be able to come together and bridge this kind of gap. That was basically the start of the Shah’s downfall.”

The game was filmed using 3-D motion capture technology, and the player steps into the fray as Reza Shirazi (voiced by Fear the Walking Dead’s Bobby Naderi), a young photojournalist who has just returned to Tehran from abroad to find his native city in chaos. Through Shirazi, the player’s goal is to navigate the revolution; the protagonist’s every gesture, opinion, and action decide his fate and the fates of those close to him.

Yes, video games have come a long way since Sonic the Hedgehog spin-dashed to save the world from Robotnik. Interactive games set in the real world can be informative and deeply affecting. “We don’t get taught that kind of stuff in America,” a 1979 gamer noted on YouTube.

Khonsari, known for his work on Grand Theft Auto, is hoping the game will be used in classrooms to provide context to this important 20th-century event, adding that his daughters’ elementary school is already using Marjane Satrapi’s 2000 graphic novel, Persepolis, in its curriculum. “And I think they see 1979 as the next iteration of that experience to be shared among students,” he says.

The game, available on iTunes and the iNK Stories site, has been well received by gaming reviewers in the United States, but has been banned in Iran for its alleged “pro-western propaganda.” Anyone associated with its production may risk harsh repercussions when visiting Iran. That list includes Naderi and a who’s who of Persian Hollywood stars, such as Nicholas Guilak (Ray Donovan), Omid Abtahi (American Gods), Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist), Farshad Farahat (State of Affairs), Ray Haratian (Under the Shadow), Mary Apick (Homeland), David Diaan (Baba Joon), and Navid Negahban (American Sniper).

Khonsari says he has not made any attempts to visit Iran. “I can’t see myself getting a warm welcome and don’t see myself taking that risk,” he says, adding, “I just don’t necessarily have the greatest faith in the judicial system in Iran, where journalists have been in prison for no real reason.”

We spoke by phone shortly after the game launch in April.

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ORLY MINAZAD: Although the game has been banned in Iran, has there been any criticism anywhere else regarding its content?

NAVID KHONSARI: Not really. Both the critical and user reviews have been exceptionally high. People who don’t understand games, who see them as a trivial experience — compared to the heaviness and seriousness of the Iranian Revolution — might be opposed to 1979. But among those who have actually engaged with the experience — Iranian or not — there’s been a very strong connection and appreciation for the game, the experience, all of it.

Why did you decide to create a video game based on the Islamic Revolution?

It’s a combination of multiple things. I’ve been working in the gaming industry for a number of years at a company called Rockstar Games. I’ve worked on games like Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne, and left gaming to make documentaries. When my partner Vassi and I decided to look at our next project, we saw an amazing opportunity of bringing these two mediums together, and when we looked at the market, we saw that no one else had done it. There’s a massive amount of interest in narrative games and documentaries.

The Iranian Revolution always seemed like an incredible backdrop for people to be able to make choices and make moral decisions. That old saying, “live a day in another man’s shoes,” that’s what we’ve created. It’s the natural progress of the media. We went from Pac-Man to Donkey Kong to games that stressed hand-eye coordination — and what we’re trying to create here is a far deeper experience than any other form of media out there.

What’s your own connection to the Revolution?

My family left for a short while and went to Italy, and then came back in the hope that things would kind of pick up and be better. But that just didn’t happen. After the US hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq War, I think my parents decided that safety was paramount. And there was a witch hunt after those that had any affiliation to the West. My father was a physician, so we were middle class. If you had any finances, they would automatically associate you with the previous regime.

I think for a number of different reasons — the violence on the street, the attitude of you’re either with us or against us — my parents and many others were forced to leave the country for a safer, better life.

Just to make it very clear, this was not an easy decision to make; it tore families apart emotionally. My mother was born and bred in Iran, along with her whole extended family, and then had to leave them and try to raise her kids without their help. In Iranian culture, it’s very much a village mentality, and now we were going to a foreign country and my parents had to start from zero.

Was it difficult to revisit this history?

Not really. As a 10-year-old, I only had a surface understanding of what was taking place, so revisiting that wasn’t difficult for me. I think I only realized the complexity as an adult; there were a lot of things at play that got swept under the carpet. There seemed to be an endless amount of information about the events, all of it surprising, and it made me want to go deeper into the history.

There’s so much detail in each scene, almost like watching a movie.

We had people give us family photos, so those photos are part of the father’s office. My grandfather shot home movies on Super 8 from 1950 to 1979, and players get to see those movies as they experience the home.

We made a deal with a French photographer who was in Iran during the time, and when you walk down the streets of Tehran and take a picture, you’ll see the real picture he took.

So all of this material and content has been brought in to create a personal impact and depth. It shows the potential of where these games can go, and how designs can flourish when you involve people who didn’t even know this kind of game existed.

What information did you find to be the most surprising?

I found most of the interviews we did very, very relatable — maybe not through my own personal experience, but it gave me an understanding of what must have been going through my parents’ minds during that time.

The thing that probably was the most surprising was the persistence of hope after the Revolution, despite definite indicators that things were not going the way most people had anticipated. That sense of hope existed far into 1980, when the majority of the opposition was getting arrested, even executed.

It was interesting to see the rallies led by women who opposed [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini after he returned. These days we have this notion that, once the Shah left and Khomeini took over, everyone was like: Yup, this is how we want it. And yet a lot of people were opposed to Khomeini, and wanted a more democratic leadership.

So there was hope even as things got darker and darker.

It was interesting that you had Reza, the protagonist, living abroad, then returning to Iran as the Revolution broke out. Was this something that was happening with young Iranians at that time?

A fair number of people we interviewed were attending college abroad and decided to come back for the Revolution. They were at that perfect age, 18, and they’d been influenced by some of the movements that had taken place in the United States, in terms of political activism, and went back to change their country.

We also knew that the majority of people who are going to play the game are not Iranian or may not know anything about the Revolution, so having Reza be away for that year allows everybody to be on the same page when they first engage in the experience.

What is Reza’s ultimate goal in the game?

Obviously he has to make sure that he stays alive — but more importantly, what path is he going take? The violent or nonviolent path? Whom is he going help save in this particular climate, when his own brother is a member of the military and his cousin a member of the mujahidin [the opposition]? While his mother is concerned with what other people will think, his father understands his son’s spirit and what he wants to do, but, at the same time, he’s concerned for his safety. There are many different things at play.

Forget games. When people try to sum up experiences they’ve had, they polarize their stories. It’s either black or white; the Iranian revolution is either bad or good — but the truth is far more complicated. This polarization is a reflection of human nature, not of reality.

We’re all really shades of gray. The kindest person that you know will shut that door on you during the protests, because they’re concerned for their own safety. So these are all the situations that we wanted to provide as an experience for people.

So it’s not just necessarily about the protagonist, Reza, surviving. We want the player to come to her or his own conclusions and to realize there are no good decisions — you have to make the best of the bad decisions you have on your plate.

Although it’s mainly in English, there’s a lot of Farsi in the game as well. Is that an issue for players, and are other languages available for international players?

I have a feeling that because the game is showing Iranians as well-rounded characters, rather than terrorists or martyrs, people are going to be drawn to it and get over the language barrier.

As the project builds momentum and becomes more successful, we hope to divert some of the finances toward localizing it in Farsi, Russian, French, German, and Italian, and have more of an international footprint.

1979 seems like a different beast than Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne, which have done really well among gamers. Even non-gamers are familiar with them. How was this a different experience?

There’s a difference in terms of content and what we’re aiming to do with the content. GTA gives you the ability to travel across vast areas and do whatever you want to do within this fictitious world, whereas 1979 is based on real events. But they both give the audience the ability to make their own choices, to control their narratives; you can play GTA and do nothing that’s violent, and you can play 1979 and be extremely aggressive in your approach.

Our goal was to create an engine, create a pipeline. 1979 Revolution is going to be the first of many such games; it’s how future generations are going to engage and be interested in engaging with history. We’re losing touch with history. With the amount of content coming to us through social media, we’ll be lucky to remember what was taking place in the world last week. The Syrian refugee crisis was a hot topic last week, but this week it’s not. The suffering will continue with less attention. I think it’s very important to use all kinds of tools, including games, to engage people with longer narratives that have something to say about where we are as a race.

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Orly Minazad is a freelance writer covering arts and culture in Tehrangeles (also known by some as Los Angeles).

 

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