1979 Revolution: A Snapshot of Chaos and Propaganda

1979 Revolution is an adept depiction of the chaos, ambiguity, and uncertainty which characterizes real historical events-- but which other games rarely communicate.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday knocks you sideways first thing. The game begins with the protagonist Reza in a prison interrogation room. In front of him sits a tape recorder, a file folder, and his camera. A sinister interrogator gives him tea and asks him questions. Despite the real-life setting and cultural details, any gamer knows the drill. We’ve done the Interrogation Resistance Section before in Metal Gear Solid. Just be strong and tell them nothing -- they’ll give up eventually. Rescue will come.

But when I tried that, the interrogator beat Reza to death. I stared at the screen in shock before restarting.

That was the first indication that 1979 Revolution was something very different -- a Telltale-style adventure game that isn’t interested in creating heroes, but exploring the confusion, uncertainty, and half-truths that proliferate during political upheaval. Rather than plant an ideological flag, it lives in the messy space between beliefs, where people choose sides for individual, and often very personal, reasons.

“Tell Me What You Know”

Evin Prison. Evin Prison.

The game opens in 1980, with notorious prison warden Asadollah Lajevardi -- a real person -- interrogating photographer-turned-revolutionary Reza Shirazi. The revolution, for all intents and purposes, is already over. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his US-backed government has fallen. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic has ascended to power. The revolutionaries now rule the notorious Evin Prison, supplanting the Shah’s SAVAK secret police.

But revolutions are never that neat, and now Reza and his allies -- revolutionaries themselves -- are rebelling against the Republic they helped bring to power. The brutal interrogation acts as a framing device. As Lajevardi tortures Reza, the photographer recounts his revolutionary past, gradually revealing how he went from an upper-class college student to rebel who may -- or may not -- be part of a bomb plot. This framing device immediately sinks players into 1979’s world of murky uncertainty.

These interrogation scenes are so potent because they simultaneously align the player with both Reza and the interrogator. It’s an odd situation -- you’re controlling a character you know nothing about, and answering questions about background events you haven’t witnessed. When the player cooperates with the interrogation, they learn more about Reza. If they resist too much, they learn nothing and Reza dies. The game, therefore, steers the player toward cooperating enough to keep Reza alive, but not so much that he gives away his friends. It’s a fairly nuanced depiction of what it’s like to face questioning under torture -- if you have to give up something, make it half true or even a total lie.

It happens naturally. Picking dialogue at random almost always turns up information that later turns out to be untrue in flashbacks. This raises fascinating questions first thing: What’s happening here? Is Reza lying? Misremembering? Does he genuinely not know where his friends are, or is he just playing dumb? And most intriguing of all -- does present-day Reza still hold the same values as the idealistic photographer he was a year ago? Yesterday’s peaceful protester, after all, can become today’s violent extremist.

These contradictions lend an uncertain air to the flashbacks. Like any confession extracted under torture, it’s hard to say what in Reza’s story is real and what is made up for the benefit of his torturer -- as an observer, we can’t wholly be certain.

Motives and Molotovs

1979’s greatest strength is that you never know exactly where Reza stands. Sure, the player controls his reactions -- how he responds when he’s buffeted this way and that between opposing factions -- but the game also refuses to make his motivations clear.

At first I thought this was a consequence of the format. After all, giving the player control can sometimes lend protagonists a contradictory manner and make them behave against type. Yet as chapters clicked by, I realized that this was intentional. Reza isn’t a blank slate like many game characters, but there is a part of him missing -- a central puzzle piece -- that they player projects themselves into. In the opening scenes I saw Reza as a young college student swept up in events, a guy who’s not part of the crowd, but appreciates its raw emotion. Later, I saw him more as a documentarian, and questioned whether his political zeal stemmed partly from wanting to impress a woman or rebel against his wealthy family. Each scenario provided more reasons why Reza might have joined up, and each one was more personal -- and less ideological -- than the last.

These dramatizations might at first appear to obscure Reza’s ideology, but it’s actually a deft evocation of how we form political opinions. Most people are under the impression that their politics are ironclad, but studies show that the people around us significantly influence our politics via peer pressure and group mentality.

This proves just as true with radical politics. Activist groups, for example, spring up around college campuses because it’s a place where peers are close together -- and it’s always been this way. During the American Revolution, taverns served as a nexus of revolutionary thought and discussion, while the French Revolution spread in coffee houses.

The fact that Reza’s political awakening happens under the influence of friends, cousins, and love interests feels natural and earned. These are peers, and they often call on each other as friends and family when their loyalties diverge. By the end of the game, it’s impossible to disentangle Reza’s emotional ties from his ideological ones -- which is what makes the story powerful and complex.

How, after all, does one choose between beliefs, friendship, and family? It’s a recipe for chaos -- and chaos is something this game does well.

Forget the Signal -- Listen to the Noise

Historical fiction likes to tell stories about people who win.

It’s only natural -- successful factions shape history more than unsuccessful ones, and we like tagging along with the big names. Take Assassin’s Creed, for example: the player follows power brokers like a shadow, pairing up with Napoleon before he’s anything special, and partnering with America’s founders. The whole series revolves around an absurd conspiracy that, essentially, justifies the player hanging out with history’s movers and shakers.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how history works. No one in Revolutionary France knew that this Corsican would one day rule as Emperor, and there was no guarantee Benjamin Franklin would be more than a pretty successful printer. When creators spend inordinate amounts of time on great figures and successful factions, it makes their success appear preordained and misses the chaotic nature of revolutionary change. It misses the confusion, misunderstandings, and failed causes that didn’t take root. We’re biased toward winners, and rarely spend time with people who are simply swept up in history rather than making it.

Revolution 1979 conquers this issue by making confusion an inherent part of the gameplay. The revolutionaries opposing the Shah are a coalition of disparate groups that revile the US-backed regime only slightly more than they revile each other. There are radical Islamists pushing violent revolution, pro-democracy activists, feminists, communists, and older people who took part in previous movements. Each faction distrusts the other as weak, dangerous, or riddled with government moles. 1979 Revolution never condescends by simplifying this into a traditional left-right spectrum -- it just lets everything hang out.

The end result is massive, and intentional, bewilderment. Keeping track of who wants what is practically impossible, and much like life, there’s no top-down assessment to figure out who has the upper hand. While the player knows the Islamists will triumph, the game never treats that as inevitable -- and as a result, this in-the-thick-of-it perspective challenges the western assumption that Iran’s revolution was entirely Islamist.

And the factionalism doesn’t stop there, either. Each group also descends into sub-factions based on generational gaps, religion, a willingness to employ violence, and strict class divisions. In one extreme instance, friends that face death together can’t eat at the same table afterward. Over time, it becomes clear that Reza’s still fighting in 1980 because -- even though the revolution “worked” -- he has nothing in common with the faction that prevailed.

To further emphasize this chaotic environment, the game also exposes the player to straight-up propaganda. Throughout the game Reza can find cassette tapes that contain Ayatollah Khomeini “speeches” -- in reality, newspaper quotes -- extolling how the revolution will bring freedom to Iran. In these tapes Khomeini claims that he will recuse himself from political power and establish a new government that respects freedom of speech and religion. The tapes are a neat rhetorical trick. By contrasting the cleric’s moderate rhetoric with is later repressions, the game essentially suggests Khomeini fooled centrists into supporting his conservative faction. However, the leftists aren’t free from propaganda either -- Reza’s moderate friends frequently blame SAVAK agents for burning civilians to death inside a cinema, but other characters question the validity of that story (later investigations would reveal that Shiite revolutionaries set the Cinema Rex fire).

And of course, as a photographer Reza stands on the front line of this propaganda war.

Deadly Photography

Layered on top of these intricate layers of friends, factions, and competing beliefs is the element of distance. Reza wants to be a photographer. He attends his first protest not to participate, but to document history. But as the protests and ensuing government crackdown spiral into indiscriminate violence, Reza has to decide whether to serve as a witness to the revolution or an active participant.

This conundrum starts out clean-cut. If the player wishes, Reza can emphasize that he’s only at protests as an observer, documenting the event. And Reza does document them -- in fact, whenever he takes a photo, the game compares the in-game picture with a historical photo of the same subject. These snapshots unlock collectable stories that provide a window into the events, increasing the player’s understanding of what they see. The mechanic itself, then, supports Reza’s case -- he’s putting history to film, helping people understand what’s happening in Iran. These explanations provide a sense of cool, considered reflection separate from the chants and gunfire.

But that classic ethical struggle -- that of observer vs. participant -- can’t survive long in the bloody street violence. Almost immediately Reza’s camera throws him into a shadow world, with both police and revolutionaries suspecting that his photojournalism is a cover for espionage. His pictures get coopted for propaganda, and end up having consequences he couldn’t foresee when he clicked the shutter. Reza may refuse to throw rocks, but his photos encourage the rock-throwers. People die as a result, and not always justifiably.

It’s an unflinching look at how art, even documentary art, is never really neutral. Cameras might portray truth, but that truth depends heavily on what the photographer chooses to shoot, and what he leaves out of frame. That’s a fascinating, not to mention brave question for this game to take on. It’s almost inevitable that 1979 Revolution would get called propaganda -- Iran has already declared its director a spy -- so it’s a trifle amazing that developer iNK Stories produced a game with the message beware the unintended consequences of art. It shows a deep level of self-awareness and insight that’s rare in the industry.

 

I have, quite frankly, been waiting for a game like 1979 Revolution for quite a while. Though not perfect, it has the courage to portray revolutionary politics as the chaotic, uncontrolled, and (sometimes) disingenuous phenomenon they so often are. After the final snapshot, I found myself hoping that the subtitle Black Friday turns out to be prophetic, and this episode is but one slice of Reza’s journey from idealistic college boy to morally compromised radical.

I’m still trying to figure out how the peaceful photographer of 1978 turned into the suspected terrorist of 1980 -- if God wills it, I’ll get to find out.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp

Evin Prison photograph by Ehsan Iran.