1979 Revolution: an Interview with Navid Khonsari, Part 1

At midnight on the 8th of September, 1978, Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlav declared martial law in twelve cities throughout Iran, including the capital city, Tehran.  Protestors took to the streets in Jaleh Square, and refused to move when the military began to fire warning shots into the air. Eventually, the soldiers began firing into the crowd. The death toll on what came to be known as Black Friday was 89. The next year, the Shah fled the country, Iran became an Islamic Republic, and Ruhollah Khomeini was sworn in as Grand Ayatollah, the first Supreme Leader of the country.

Navid Khonsari, born in 1970, was a young boy during the Iranian Revolution. “I really didn’t understand the political complexities of it at the time and I didn’t take part in any way,” he says. “My grandfather took me out, and I walked with him in the streets, to get a sense of the emotional possibilities. At the beginning of the revolution I was taken aback and in awe of the spirit of people, and the hopefulness that existed within them. You couldn’t argue with that. It felt like the crowds were about to change the world, and I felt like that was pretty mesmerising.”

Last month, Khonsari’s studio iNK Stories released Revolution 1979: Black Friday, a Telltale-style adventure game that deals directly with Black Friday, the events and emotions leading up to it, and its aftermath. Although the game’s title refers to the year after Black Friday, the game actually mostly deals with the years surrounding it, before and after. The eponymous year casts a shadow over the game; we’re made aware of the changes Iran, and the game’s characters, underwent during 1979 without ever needing to see them.

The game casts players as Reza Shirazi, an aspiring photographer who returns from travelling to find Iran in a state of political upheaval, his friends and family pulling him in different ideological directions. The player has some degree of control over where Reza’s allegiances lie, and what his part in the revolution ends up being, but the realities of Iran’s situation are set in stone. It’s a fascinating game, a hugely effective take on the adventure game formula that directly comments on and educates players about real events.

The team refers to 1979 Revolution as a ‘vérité’ game, named after a style of documentary that is often thought of as ‘observational cinema’, in which the director adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach and watches events as they unfold (the term is actually more complicated and loaded than this, but its documentary origins are important – Khonsari himself has worked as a documentarian in the past). “We’re kind of a hybrid of a start-up that’s trying to build an engine to tell narrative stories based on real events”, Khonsari says. “But we’re also a traditional game developer, trying to get a game out to the market.”

Khonsari has had an enviable career in games. He worked at Rockstar between 2000 and 2005, working on five different Grand Theft Auto games, as well as classics such as Manhunt, Midnight Club III, The Warriors, and the first two Max Payne games. There’s a big difference in the resources between Rockstar and iNK Stories, but working for such a huge publisher taught him about the importance of delivering on your ambitions.

“I think one of the luxuries of working at a place like Rockstar is that money is plentiful when it comes to development”, he says, “which is one of the key reasons that they can make incredible products. We could do iterations, without having that burden of financially needing to hit a certain date. But that luxurious position also instilled in me, at an early stage, that you can’t really compromise on the content that you’re making, especially if it’s something that’s going to be personal.”

Revolution 1979 is extremely personal, right down to the in-game home videos that pop up midway through, which were recorded by Khonsari’s grandfather on Super 8 video between 1950 and 1979. This personal touch is, he feels, a through-line in the projects he has worked on. “Rockstar’s a unique place,” Khonsari muses. “There were a lot of personal things going into the games that we were working on. They might not necessarily have been as biographical as 1979 is, but a lot of our personalities were going in there.”

“I think the difference now is that the small size of our team has really shown that 1979 is an authored piece, with definite direction and a personal touch. We can tell audiences that this is something we want to share. We saw this as an important part of the equation to get people to convert to this sort of game. The template’s been done by Telltale, but to bring in real events, to make that have a real impact, it needs to be personal.

Khonsari left Iran with his family at the age of ten, moving to Canada, and now lives in New York. To make the game a true personal account of the events depicted, he and his team needed to interview over forty people who were involved in the revolution in some way. Their personal experiences, and the pictures many of them donated, informed the project, giving the game a deeper connection to the people affected by the events.

“The spectrum was pretty wide,” Khonsari says. “Multiple different religious backgrounds: Bahá’ís, Muslims, Jews, Christians. Cultural backgrounds too: obviously a lot of Iranians and Persians, but also Turkish Persians, and Armenians who were involved. And then, more than anything else, class differences. I think that was the key. We had people who were from well-to-do families, middle class, and then also people who were impoverished at the time. So their attitudes towards the aftermath of the revolution was much different from the other groups.”

“There’s also generational differences – we spoke to people who were mothers and fathers at that time of the 17 year old kids who were on the street; we spoke to grandparents; we spoke to people who were sixteen at the time; and to both men and women – you know, the role of women in that revolution was huge.”

Much of the game involves documenting the lives of the people you encounter. Reza has an important role in the revolution: as one character tells him, his photos will show the world what is happening in Iran.  As you take these photos, you unlock facts and trivia about the revolution, giving further context to what Reza is experiencing on the streets.

The country itself is just as important as any of the characters to the narrative. Again, Khonsari cites his experience at Rockstar as an influence here. “With the GTA games, the game design was pretty much the same, but the environment was always changing, the worlds were changing. The environment was always in flux between locations. And I feel like that’s something people don’t really talk about in games, that the environment and world is a main character with its own personality. I started thinking about my experiences working on documentaries, and I kept coming across these real world situations, these real worlds which were also characters that, in tumultuous and chaotic times, really push us as humans and humanity to the extremes of the spectrum: kindness, jealousy, greed, anger. And that, as a storyteller, is an interesting base for creating a choose-your-own-adventure narrative.”  

“As a team we wanted to make games based on real events,” he says. “We knew that no one had ever done this, because we researched it. We knew that if we were going to do it, we had to put ourselves out, and I’d have to have a personal stake in the experience in order for it to resonate with audiences.”

The feedback has been strong so far – on Metacritic, there’s not a single score below 75. Khonsari has heard from many Iranians who have played the game, and says that “99% of the feedback from Iranians around the world has been ridiculously positive, supportive, and very emotional. With other audiences, it’s been pretty much the same. If they’ve enjoyed adventure games, they’ve embraced it”.

“This project has obviously been something not only very dear to me,” Khonsari adds. “We really feel that our end goal is not to just create 1979, but also hopefully to invigorate a group of game developers, designers, companies, publishers, non-profits, historians, educators and students to think about the possibility of what they can do with this medium, and start telling really historical stories.”

(In Part 2 – the politics involved in depicting real-world events, the complexities of the game’s revolution, and the educational and empathetic potential of games.)