The Iranian Revolution of 1979 set off a contest of narratives that continues to this day. The revolution that began as a vast popular movement to overthrow the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the work of numerous factions, some religious, some secular, some liberal and some authoritarian.
Because the visage of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini now defines the revolution for most people, popular media have failed to portray the events of 1979 in any depth. Navid Khonsari, an Iranian-Canadian video game designer known for his work on Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne aims to change that.
Last week saw the release of Khonsari’s dream project: 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a historical game in which players navigate the chaos of Iran’s most fateful year, encounter the rival views of the day, and make moral choices along the way. IranWire spoke to Khonsari on the heels of the game's April 5 release.
Violence in the streets, 1979.
We tend to think of computer games in terms of genre. Does 1979 belong to a genre?
With 1979, we are trying to establish a new genre, a genre we're referring to as "vérité games" -- narrative-focused games based on real events. We’re taking all that's great about the interactivity of video games, but basing the narrative on real people's interviews, on actual photos, actual recordings, and actual experiences, and trying to stay true to the journey of the people involved.
What are the precedents and forerunners you think of when you deal with history in games?
The biggest challenge for us was that there haven't been any precedents for this kind of game. We've seen games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed draw from historical moments and try to be accurate in terms of weapons or costumes, but they are not telling historical stories. One of the biggest challenges for us has been to be accurate not just about facts and figures, but about the sentiments of the Iranian people in 1979, and about what gave people momentum at that time, and then to make it an entertaining experience that can be had by all. Hopefully, it will start conversations about an Iran that anyone who has been watching the news for the past 35 years is still somewhat unfamiliar with.
Nostalgia: home movies recall everyday life before the revolution.
I understand that your family left Iran after the revolution. What did they say about this project when you told them about it?
Like many Iranians during that time, my parents had no interest in the political changes that were coming about. They were a mother and father trying to raise their kids, have all their family around them, and enjoy life. More than anything else, they were just concerned about what the implications would be for me, especially as I wanted to be able to go back to Iran. I think they recognised that the approach I was taking was honest and fair, but everyone is somewhat reluctant about content being made in the West about Iran because the backlash in Iran can be quite fierce. They just made me aware of it and knew that I would push on and do what I wanted to do.
Historic moments: photography gameplay.
What resources did you rely on to re-create revolutionary Iran, both historically and visually?
I knew I was going to fail if I just reached out to people I knew, so we consciously reached out to academic advisors, to religious and cultural advisors, and really tried to cover a large spectrum of people, including people of different faiths and economic backgrounds. We did about 40 interviews, and there were common themes that rose to the top. Those themes became the foundation of the narrative we created.
We had amazing references for the photos. We reached out to the French photographer Michel Setboun, who was unbelievably generous with the photos he had taken in Iran at the time. He just said, “Go through them and tell me which ones you like.” Rather than just have them as a reference for artists, we thought it would be amazing if you could actually see them. So we built photography gameplay that allows you to go around and take pictures, and then see the actual pictures side by side. We also had home movies that my grandfather made before the revolution.
We used a fair number of audio recordings. Khomeini's speeches in France were key. If you hear him say that he has no interest in being in government, and just wants to be a spiritual adviser, I don't have to say any more than that. But the goal here wasn't to beat people over the head with education. The goal was to entertain people and allow them to see what it would be like if you were on the streets in Tehran in 1979, whether it's checking out the Mujahedeen or Tudeh graffiti on the walls, or coming across an opium addict, or being caught up in the violence of Black Friday, or having conversations with your family, who are divided around the dinner table.
Battle of the bademjan: revolution at the dinner table.
Now that you’ve been thinking in-depth about the revolution for several years, have you drawn any moral conclusions about revolutions in general?
The one common pattern we have recognised is that revolutions represent the highest point of hope and possibility amongst us as humans, to be able to come together and fight for change. On the other hand, the revolutions we fight for, whether it's the Iranian revolution or the Arab Spring, or even in Ukraine, never wind up following through on the hopes and passions of those who started them. They create a power vacuum that allows the most aggressive and the most violent person or group to come in and dominate.
The Iranian revolution was, of course, called an “Islamic Revolution.” Where do Islam and Islamic identity fit into the game?
I would argue that it was deemed the Islamic Revolution after the revolution, and not during the revolution. But Islam was a major influence. The continual battle between the government and the clerical leadership is entrenched in 20th century Iranian history. Islam is present in Iran and Iranian culture, so it was very important to show that within this game. We wanted to be respectful of it, so we have an area in the game where someone asks whether you would like to join him in prayer. If you decide to join him, there is a booklet that has a translation of the actual prayer in English. We knew that coming from the West, people would be looking at how we were going to approach it. The easiest thing would have been to ignore it, but if we had, then we would not have been doing something authentic.
Scenes of solidarity.
1979 is still in living memory, and you were willing to enter that contested territory. That makes me wonder: will there be a sequel called “2009”?
Our goal with this game was also to draw a lot of parallels with what took place in 2009, and I think if you were to just flip the roles of certain characters, it could easily pass for a 2009 iteration, just with 1970s haircuts and bad clothes. This project has helped us create a template so that we can do other iterations of other historical moments. We wanted to provide everyone with a full experience so that if they never wanted to have a sequel they would be fine, but we would love to do a sequel. It could be a continuation of how the revolution played out, leading into the Iran-Iraq War, and where Iran wound up in 1980.
How have Iranians received the game so far?
One of the more interesting things has been how the Iranian community in the diaspora and within Iran have reacted to this. It has really come across as a division between generations. When I started this project, I thought the easiest place I would be able to get financing would be amongst the Iranian community, but unfortunately didn't play out. Those who are with funds are from a generation that was so busy trying to assimilate in the West that it wanted to forget about the revolution. On the flipside, those under the age of 30 have been nothing but supportive both inside Iran and outside. Those inside Iran can finally play the role of someone who is like them, and not terrorist number 1, 2, or 3. For those who live abroad, the 1979 revolution is the event that has led to them not living in their country, and yet they connect culturally so much with Iran, and there is a hunger to reconnect with the history. I hope we are bridging this gap.