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Turning the 1979 Iranian revolution into a heartfelt videogame

Navid Khonsari grew up in Iran until the age of ten, when the revolution that swept the country drove his family to Canada. After working on celebrated titles like Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne at Rockstar, Khonsari put his skills to use at iNK Stories, a new media company he co-founded that focuses on telling stories in fresh ways. Their latest project, 1979 Revolution, will give the player an experience of the hostage crisis and its aftermath, asking them to navigate the moral, emotional, and political turmoil of rebellion.

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KS: When people hear the word “revolution,” they think of heroism and changing things for the better. But I think, in reality, we see it’s a lot more complicated than that. Is 1979 approaching that territory?

We’re definitely digging in deeper. I think what you’re alluding to is that certain sexiness people think of when they think of revolutions—because you’re fighting against the establishment. I think our approach has been to recognize that the world right now is in a state of revolution and that things are quite polarized. So it’s easy to say “Yeah, we’re gonna fight The Man,” whether it’s the youth in Egypt, or what took place in Ukraine, or even if you look back here a few years ago at Occupy Wall Street. Look at what’s going on in Greece right now: you’ve got economic collapse, military intervention, nationalism—all that stuff. And, you know, it’s great to say you’re taking a stand. We certainly wanted to embrace that spirit of revolution, but we also show the trajectory of a revolution. For us, revolution has so many definitions, and I think that aside from great content, we want to shed light on how we judge things today based on revolutions that have taken place in the past. And that, necessarily, the outcome of those revolutions isn’t what we’re seeing today. 

“we’re creating our own little revolution” 

In terms of content in videogames, for us, we feel like we’re creating our own little revolution. And we say that with respect, having worked on such wonderful titles in the past that became such huge blockbusters. And while I don’t think there’s a lack of diversity in engaging design, there is a lack of diversity in content. Games have broadened their design and audiences. But I think in terms of embracing the real world and real events, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. And I don’t think real events are necessarily better or worse. It’s just been untapped. So for us, the revolution is to take this medium we love so much and see what other directions we can explore.

KS: It’s interesting too because even though there’s already a format around making narrative decisions, I think the act of making a choice changes in the context of a revolution. Because so much of what you hear from refugees or anyone caught in political turmoil is that their choices have been taken away. Their path is so restricted, and that feels so violating. What do you think giving a player choice does to their understanding of an event like this?

I think what it does is personalize things. It allows you to connect with the story. If you’re only interested in the content of the game, you can pretty much go online, look it up on Wikipedia, and read the timeline. And we are in no way altering history, but what we have done is take multiple perspectives from interviews and make it a personal retelling, derived from choices that were made by real people during this time. By making personal choices within a larger context of how history’s playing out, I think you get a better understanding of the journey and experience of those who actually took part in this revolution.  And then maybe understand not only that tumultuous moment, but also how then everything played out after the events that took place. 

The one really great thing about doing it episodically is that we can reflect a distinct part of the experience of a revolution. Because the people who start a revolution often do wind up becoming the victims of new leadership, and for them, it’s an education. An education that comes from experience. And when you see the way that we’re laying out our episodes, it’s kind of in the same way. We want to put you in the front seat of this journey so that you can feel the highs—that moment of elation and level of joy that takes place on the street when people come together and believe that they can make a change—and then the next episodes when things start to get more complicated.

KS: When I play a Telltale game or anything else choice-based, it feels like guilt plays such a big role in the emotional draw. Are you guys tackling that at all?

Absolutely. I don’t know if I would say just guilt necessarily, but certainly, a good percentage of the choices we have are there for you to be able to connect with the character. We recognize that we’re telling a story that many would feel kind of distant from. You know: Iran, a revolution from 35 years ago. It’s not something that necessarily jumps out at you. Although, these days, with the Iran nuclear talks and what’s kind of taking place, it seems to be at the forefront of everything.  

When you take a look at the greatest stories from major historical events, it’s never been about the dropping of the bomb. You could say Saving Private Ryan is about charging the beaches of Normandy. But that’s the first fifteen minutes. Everything from there becomes about personal experiences.  And there’s guilt in that. Guilt of killing another person or not. For us, the guilt doesn’t come from pushing for or inflicting violence on others. It’s more the guilt of surviving. Your emotional connection to people becomes much stronger in a situation like this. There’s all kinds of conversations you have with your family members you wouldn’t otherwise have to go through. What’s the number one thing you say at Thanksgiving? Don’t talk about politics or religion. But in a revolution, and in particular this revolution, that’s at the forefront, so when you do sit down, you have your mother, your father, your brother. How do you navigate this and stay true to yourself?  With the choose-your-own-adventure element of it, you have this great way of trying to test out who you are. You have the ability in one second to be passive-aggressive, and then the other one to be extremely kind. So it allows a huge scope. 

How do you navigate this and stay true to yourself? 

We start from a place of really wanting to provide an authentic experience of somebody who was there at this time. What would it be like to be on the streets of Iran during this revolution? But then, more importantly, how do we communicate what’s absolutely universal in this story—what’s appealing to anybody regardless of age, race, gender.  So you really need to bring out the common themes that come about during these times of joy and hardship.

KS: I love the title of the first episode. It’s Black Friday, right?

Yes.

KS: I just love that double meaning. Because this story does seem foreign at first. But with that title, you start to get hints of these kind of cyclical but still really different cultural themes. 

Absolutely. It’s a title that people everywhere are familiar with.  It has two very distinct definitions, but the roots of them come from a similar background. And the fact is that when the game was just an ideal or concept, it didn’t even come attached with Iran. We just thought a revolution would be an incredible environment to create a game around. It provides action as well as forces choice. The fact is that I find a game about the events of the 1979 hostage crisis far less relatable than understanding a mother who’s worried about her 18 year old son going out on the street, or an 18 year old who hooks up with a couple of his boys and they hit the street because they’re just like “There’s some crazy shit going on and we want to be involved with it.” That’s really where it actually all started.  So for us, we actually took a step back and said “Let’s focus on the roots of the revolution.” And in Iran, that Black Friday was really the defining moment where it was understood by all parties—religious, political, Communist, whatever, including the actual monarchy at the time—there’s not going to be any reconciliation. Once civilians were actually killed, there’s no going back or bridging that gap.

KS: On a related but tangential topic: I read an interview from your time at Rockstar. You said one of the most fascinating things about GTA’s role for the young people back home in Iran was they could just drive around listening to American music. They cared much less about the campaign and the missions and the guns. Are you conscious about these kind of moments for players in 1979? Where it’s more about existing in this culture at this time? 

Absolutely. I think one of the things I learned from my experiences of GTA, and not even actually working on it, but just strictly as a player, my greatest experiences with most games is when I find them relatable, and when I can actually laugh with them. To be challenged, but also to laugh. For us, we knew that people were going to look at this material and think it’ll be so heavy-handed, so political. So it was always a priority for us to establish humor, and establish elements of pop culture that are relatable. I mean, we’re talking about the time when Star Wars is coming out, it’s the height of disco, one would say that the movement that took place in the late ‘60s in the US had impacted the entire world in terms of fighting against the government, and for freedom. All that stuff was taking place. That’s why pop culture matters. Because it makes thing universal.

I think what people undermine about the US is how they’re the number one producer of pop culture in the world. And pop culture is truly an international language. It just has a way of capturing everyone, so for us, it was very important.  We’re very, very conscious about not making the music, like, super Middle Eastern. We’re actually pulling back from that and trying to relate more to the decade by, for example, emphasizing people’s clothes. Bellbottoms, big glasses, huge hair, sideburns. That’s breaking away aesthetically from what we’ve seen from Iran in the past 35 years: which is the clerics, the women covered in veils. All of that which, at this particular point isn’t relevant.  And more importantly, the people in Japan, Helsinki, New York, and LA can take a look at this just aesthetically and go “Holy shit, man, these people are wearing the exact same ugly clothes my parents or grandparents were wearing.” That, in itself, is such a strong way of telling a subtextual story.  People think what they see now is what its always been like. But it’s not the full story. 

KS: Completely. Have you had people who were in Iran in 1979 play? How was that experience? 

We haven’t been sharing a lot of the content, to be honest. But some of the feedback we’ve gotten has been incredible. We did an exhibition version at Sundance and it’s been embraced so much by Iranians as well as non-Iranians, gamers and non-gamers. I just got an e-mail from a person in the UK who responded to just the trailer we released for Steam Greenlight. I’ll just pull it up here. He said: “I was almost weeping, I’ve never been excited like this about a game in a long, long time.” Then an Iranian-American journalist who writes for one of the gaming sites, and he was calling it “a game that will truly get me to learn about myself.” Well, holy shit, that’s just exciting. Like, our goal here is to entertain. I mean, I’m just trying to stay true to my chops from what we’ve done in GTA. Those things work because they’re fun and well-designed and the people who work on it put their heart and soul into it. And we’re going about it with the exact same approach. But we also want people to feel like they’ve actually gained from the experience, either emotionally or just in terms of awareness. 

I mean, there’s so much uncharted territory when it comes to games, when it comes to visual interaction. We have so much diverse talent on our team: not just in games, but people with strong film backgrounds, strong documentary backgrounds, graphic novels. Our actors are just incredible. All Iranian-American actors, who just had a way of connecting with the material because they are the children of this revolution. We shot a few scenes in mocap and everyone’s got these suits on with light bulbs all over them. It’s just the most unemotional circumstances you could ever film under. And even ten minutes after I yelled cut, the actors still needed more time to finish weeping. It’s a real testament to everyone involved.  At first, everyone sees Navid and his personal Iranian story. But, that was only the spark. We have an incredible team of folks, from our actors, to our writers, to everyone that’s here in New York busting their ass.

Keep up with 1979 Revolution over on its website.