1979 Revolution: an Interview with Navid Khonsari, Part 2

Young people in Iran are hungry to learn more about what the 1979 Revolution was like-- but they can't play iNK Stories' game about it.

You can find the first part of this interview here.

It’s impossible to legally purchase 1979 Revolution: Black Friday in Iran. The National Foundation for Computer Games has blocked all websites that offer the game for purchase, and the organization’s director Hassan Karimi accused the developers of having hostile intentions. The Tehran Times has quoted Karimi 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.” Khabar Online, meanwhile, stated that the game is "designed to create Islamophobia and anti-Iran propaganda".

The game’s director, Navid Khonsari, recalls that one right wing news organisation accused him of being “a spy working for the great Satan.” While this may seem ludicrous, it wasn’t necessarily unexpected. “Look, I understand where their point of view is,” Khonsari says. “Anything that’s being made in the west, that’s giving some perspective on what happened, they’re going to wind up being apprehensive about it and attack it.”

What iNK Stories' website looks like in Iran. What iNK Stories' website looks like in Iran.

In truth, there’s nothing Islamophobic about 1979 Revolution– there’s no slander of any race, religion or agenda in the game. Khonsari and the rest of the team wanted to show the world that Iranians exist beyond the simplistic media depiction they’re often afforded. “We wanted to take something that has been locked off, that seems so unfamiliar, and make it seem and look familiar, show that we’re all much more alike than we think we are,” Khonsari says. “In the process, I also wanted to show the complexity of the revolution-- that it was multiple different political parties, people with different cultural backgrounds, from different social classes, who created this revolution.”

It’s a shame that the game has become so difficult to access in the country it centers on – young Iranians, Khonsari believes, are hungry to know more about their country’s history. “65% of the population in Iran is under 30,” he says. “They weren’t born at the time of the revolutions, and yet they live under that shroud every day. And there’s a number of Iranians in the diaspora for whom this subject matter…it’s not something their parents want to bring up. It’s something they want to bury. That’s something we dealt with initially with people we interviewed. And yet they’re connected to it, through their DNA, through their cultural holidays; they need to know about it.”

The 1979 Revolution is also sometimes referred to as the Islamic Revolution, but Khonsari wants to make it clear that the people who took to the streets, both in real life and within his game, did so for numerous different reasons. “It was the 1979 Revolution; it was not the Islamic Revolution until 1980, when Khomeini came in and took over. And I have no issues with Khomeini, it just undermines the power of the people if you make it sound like one political party had an agenda from the beginning, because it didn’t.”

“I also felt that all the people we interviewed, and my own experiences…there’s a responsibility to be extremely… not just accurate, but also truthful to the sentiment of the people, who thought they could change Iran at the time.”

A still from one of the real, homemade Super 8 films in the game. A still from one of the real, homemade Super 8 films in the game.

1979 Revolution battles against stereotypes that exist within the western world. Late in the game, the player can access home movies taken by Khonsari’s grandfather, reappropriated as a window into protagonist Reza’s youth. The player can watch footage of a child going to school for the first time, of young Iranian couples dancing together, of a family day at the beach. That beach footage was particularly important to Khonsari. “I felt like that visual element of people seeing women in swimming and bathing suits at the Caspian Sea would just be so jarring,” he says, “because we have this idea that all women in Iran are covered up, and that there’s a social and cultural hierarchy that exists. This is really reflected in the news footage we’ve seen from a culture and a country that has been closed off to the world.”  

Khonsari admits that it’s impossible to “sum up a country or a part of the world that has a history that dates back thousands of years” in a game this focused, but that part of their goal in developing 1979 was to clear up the misinformation spread by “35 years of CNN and ABC news clips”. With Reza, and the game’s numerous other multilayered characters, he wanted to present real examples of Iranian humanity. “If you’re from that part of the world, imagine how that’s going to resonate when you see yourself as a well-balanced character who thinks, who can be the lead, who can make decisions rather than somebody that you have to take down,” he says. “And I think it’s really important for us, as developers and designers, to understand the implications of what we’re creating and the impact it can have.”

It was never the intention of 1979 Revolution to “incite any kind of anger or frustration on behalf of the Iranian media or government,” Khonsari says. He wanted to showcase the spirit he saw on the streets his grandfather walked him down as a child, but also capture the way young people’s views and priorities shifted as the situation in the country intensified. “A lot of Reza also came from our lead actor, Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir on Homeland and was in American Sniper,” Khonsari notes. “He was a teenager in the late 70s. When he was 18 he wanted to be on the street, but he was just as into hanging out with his friends and trying to impress girls as he was having any sort of political affiliation. But he was also interested in the journey that his country was taking. When he began to see violence taking place, he kind of withdrew himself from that situation and started analysing what was taking place.”

Games are rarely overtly political, at least not in ways that aren’t focused directly on the west. Most conflicts, with only a handful of exceptions, are viewed through an American lens. 1979 Revolution isn’t a game in which you enact violence – numerous quick time events focus on healing injuries or defending yourself from the attacks of others, but Reza can preach pacifism if you choose certain dialog options throughout the game. In other words, it’s not like the other games.

The enormous expansion of the independent development scene over the last decade has offered more opportunities for developers to create games that deal with real events and political issues with nuance and depth. “Gaming, in my opinion, compared to film, compared to documentary, and compared to books, is the strongest way for people to actually be in the shoes of another person and understand what they’ve gone through”, Khonsari says. 1979 doesn’t just move through the logistics of the revolution; it delves into the human cost and the emotional weight of the events depicted, and forces players to deal with Reza’s decisions within the wider context of Iran’s political situation in the late 1970s.

Khonsari’s experience working with Triple-A developers and publishers gives him some insight into why these sorts of games aren’t typical. “On the publishing side, they’re looking for projects that are more in line with Hollywood movies,” he says. “They want something that’s going to be controversial for non-political reasons; politics puts them into the kind of hot water that they get concerned about. Publishers aren’t necessarily embracing developers who want to go in there.” Boundaries aren’t being pushed, he believes, because publishers back the safe bets time and time again. “We’ve basically had the last three decades of gaming show us that space, orcs, gangsters…that’s where it's at. When you train people to think and design and create continually in the same way, we stay on that same trajectory. There’s all these incredible designers and artists who can help this genre grow, who can take something what’s good and make it great, can take something that’s great and make it phenomenal… but no one’s pushing the boundaries.”

Although Khonsari’s CV is perhaps most notable for the numerous Grand Theft Auto games on it, another title he worked on – Homefront –  stands out as the most politically complicated. The game depicted a version of the USA that had been seized by the united Greater Korean Republic, where American citizens were imprisoned and enslaved. You played as a former member of the US Marine Corps who spent the game’s short run time shooting Koreans and being horrified by the brutality of the enemy’s occupation.  It was all very Red Dawn, and it make Khonsari (who served as the game’s cinematic director) uncomfortable. “I actually had a very tough time with the decision of using Koreans, and North Koreans in particular, who are real people, as the enemy bots in this shooter. My first comment when they brought me in, I think, was ‘should we really discuss the fact that we’re talking about a real culture that our characters are trying to take down and eliminate?’. It was definitely continually on my mind.”

He also saw the game as ambitious, though. Its depiction of a complicated conflict seemed worth engaging with. “That opening scene, where you’re in a bus and you go around a corner, and there’s a mother and father who are about to be executed, and there’s a child pleading with the soldiers, and then the aftermath of that execution, and how that child screams…that’s the stuff I put into it,” he recalls. One of his main inspirations was Schindler’s List; he wanted “to understand the humane and human motivations that took place” in this game’s world.

He also wanted to put some distance between the game’s villains and the real Koreans they were representative of. “When I actually took this on, my agenda was to make you hate the enemy so much that you could see past who they are, their cultural identities, and just treat them as bots,” he says. With 1979 Revolution, his intention is the opposite. One of the main pieces of feedback the team has received is that these characters are resonating with audiences, and Khonsari wants to bring them back for a sequel and develop them even further. “I feel that we want to go deeper into the revolution. We’ve shown what the causes of the revolution were, and the turning point that basically broke any possibility of the regime in power and the people consolidating, or coming to some kind of a peaceful agreement. I think we have a responsibility now to show not only the revolution and how it ended, but also its aftermath, because the aftermath is really what we’re seeing now, and its repercussions.”

1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a brilliant example of how the indie scene has expanded gaming beyond the stereotypes and clichés that have plagued the medium’s depictions of conflict. For Khonsari, it’s only natural to step away from the established norms. “Gaming is probably one of the more democratic experiences people can have,” he muses. “You’re not limited by anything other than finances. Your race, your religion, your sexual orientation or gender. But if you look at the majority of the content, it’s all aimed towards white men. And those are the continual figureheads. This narrative can also change, and it can benefit everyone. You’re not necessarily going to lose sales for a publisher, you just need to work harder to make sure that your narrative is something that will resonate with all audiences.”

Read Part 1 of this interview here.