1979 Revolution: Black Friday: Gripping Adventure Game Puts You in the Iranian Revolution
Navid Khonsari wants to make honest video games. Not just games that say something about the world, but games that draw on real events and bring a documentary approach to an interactive experience.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday, the first title from his studio, iNK Stories, distills what was a pivotal event for the world and for Khonsari into a short, emotionally resonant game. “The 1979 Iranian Revolution is a defining moment in the twentieth century,” he says. “The rifts it started define what the Middle East is now and what the West is. At the same time, nobody’s actually talking about the experience of the people during those times. The moral decisions: who do you protect, who don’t you protect?”
The adventure game draws its style from narrative-driven titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. But instead of navigating a zombie apocalypse, you’re making life-or-death decisions in Tehran amid a building revolution. In having you do so, 1979 Revolution forges something gripping and personal in the fires of a murky history.
Khonsari hopes it does something even more powerful: Define a new genre of games, one his studio will lead.
Whispers of Revolution
1979 Revolution: Black Friday lives in two moments. It opens in a time of desperation: 1980 after Ayatollah Khomenei seized power. You play Reza, a photographer turned revolutionary captured by the Revolutionary Guard as your cohort Bibi escapes. You’re thrown into Evin Prison, a notoriously brutal place ruled by the cruel Asadollah Lajevardi—who was the warden at the time. He’s determined to find Bibi, and determined to make you help him.
The second moment is one of hope: 1978, when Tehran is in uproar. Tension is mounting alongside resentment toward the Shah, the repressive monarch who’s ruled Iran since the 1940s with backing from the West. People are protesting in the streets, and a broad coalition spanning pacifist student democratic movements to radical mujahideen opposes the Shah’s rule. You are a younger, more idealistic and naïve Reza. You’ve returned home from studying abroad, with a camera ready to capture the passion of your people.
Black Friday oscillates between these two moments in time, exploring the causes and experiences that fueled the revolution. The game never directly engages the conflict, only its preamble and aftermath. That brings nuance to the its portrayal of history. One story simply cannot capture the enormity of so momentous an event, and Khonsari doesn’t try to. Instead, he provides a sliver of the experience and asks you to fill in the blanks. How is Reza transformed from an idealistic young man into a grizzled revolutionary staring down a torturer?
In true Telltale style, you interact with the game primarily by making decisions within the narrative, choosing what Reza says and who he sides with. Yet the game infuses that choice-based structure with an overriding sense of uncertainty and chaos. So much is happening, and so quickly. Your choices make a difference in how things unfold, but a far smaller one than you’d think.
As the early revolutionary chapter of the game moves inexorably toward Black Friday—the deadly 1978 protest from which the game takes its title—the sense of instability grows. Reza, thrown into situations too quickly to even gain footing, cannot be sure whom to trust. At one point, his revolutionary friends for him to identify an enemy of the movement. Surveying the potential traitors, I realized I didn’t even know all their names.
“We wanted to show the trajectory revolutions usually have,” Khonsari says. “People come together thinking they can change the world. They put aside their political differences to oust this one particular ruler. But as soon as they achieve that first goal, there’s a fracture.”
Khonsari’s interest in the Revolution goes beyond the academic. He was born in Iran and witnessed the revolution. “My grandfather took me out to the streets to see what was going on,” he said. “I could feel that possibility, that hope that things could change.”
The young Reza, excited by the power of the movement, is an extension of Khonsari. “In many ways,” he says, “that’s a reflection of me as a ten-year-old boy who didn’t understand the political complexities of what was taking place, but could certainly feel the emotion.”
Khonsari’s father was a physician in Tehran who moved his family to Canada after the revolution. Khonsari later attended film school and eventually landed at Rockstar Games, where he was director of motion capture on Grand Theft Auto III. From there he applied his cinematic expertise to every Rockstar project, including Manhunt and subsequent GTA games. “I was in heaven,” Khonsari says. “I was able to do what I wanted to do, that still felt very cinematic and film-oriented, in this medium that was exploding at an exponential rate.”
That spawned an idea for a game based on a real-world revolution, an idea he pursued after founding iNK Stories in 2006. That was only half of what drove him to the ideas that became Black Friday, however. The other half was working on documentaries in the early days of iNK Stories.
“That experience introduced me to another form of storytelling,” he says. “When you see people looking in the camera and giving answers, they’re starting to really listen to their own words, and it becomes an emotional journey. That element of the personal really resonated with me.”
Black Friday is an attempt at bringing documentary filmmaking to game design, a blueprint for what Khonsari describes as a new genre he calls “verité games.” He hopes to create games that have historical ambitions but don’t feel like edutainment products or newsgames. “Right now, with things like the indie design movement, you’re seeing a renaissance in terms of interactive design,” Khonsari says. “We want to be at the forefront of interactive design combined with narrative, creating edgy stories about the real world. For lack of a better term, we want to be like a VICE of gaming.”
Black Friday, released on PC a few months ago and on iOS this week, is an articulation of that vision, both a prototype and a deeply personal exploration of a pivotal moment in history.
It’s been a controversial one, too, particularly in Iran, where the PC version was banned. In an article for the Tehran Times, Hassan Karimi, director for Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games—”which I’m pretty sure is two guys in a bad office with a PC,” Khonsari says—decried the game’s “hostile intentions.” Karimi is quoted as saying that “games like this can poison the minds of the youth and young adults about their country by means of false and distorted information, and also damage their spirits.”
Khonsari hopes that the iOS version will be more readily available in Iran. “People can access Steam in Iran, but now there’s a block on our game,” he says, “whereas it’s very hard to block out apps [on iOS]. Iranians are extremely good at being able to work around the barriers that have been created. They have huge gaming communities. Their social media skills are unbelievable for a place that has the internet continually censored and shut down.”
Reaching Iran is only one aspect of what iNK Stories is trying to do; the studio is also working on a potential sequel to the game, a VR experience, and various other multimedia projects. It’s hoping to bring other creators in to work on verité games. More personally, Khonsari is hoping that The 1979 Revolution: Black Friday will help people better understand his childhood home.
“Iran has been behind this curtain for 35 years,” he said. “We’ve got crazy rhetoric coming from a prime minister who says we should annihilate Israel. We’ve got continual rhetoric that the United States is the great Satan, massive protests, American flags being burned down. Every woman’s covered up and every person’s a cleric. If you were born after 1980, you might think that’s all Iran is. By engaging in an experience [like Black Friday], it starts bringing this subtextual understanding that these people aren’t that different from us.”
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