Iranian-American video game creator Navid Khonsari is no stranger to controversy. His previous projects, including “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” and “Max Payne,” sparked uproar and even a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling over how much gory, unadulterated violence should be allowed in children’s games.
Khonsari’s latest and perhaps most ambitious venture, titled “1979 Revolution” and tag-lined “There are no good guys,” has cast the net even wider by revisiting the turbulent days of the overthrow of the Shah. He fully expects it to make waves with Iranians and Westerners alike when the iPad version is released this spring.
The episodal game, set in 1979 Tehran, enables the gamer to be one of a number of ordinary Iranians struggling to overthrow the dictator, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and, later, grappling with the Islamization of the state and rise of a theocracy.
Performing triage on a friend injured at a protest, or fabricating lies in the military interrogation room, the player navigates the revolution’s grisly underworld, against the backdrop of the September, 1978 “Black Friday” massacre (in which soldiers shot and killed anti-Shah protesters) and the American hostage crisis, as the euphoria of popular revolt slides into deadly chaos and moral dilemmas proliferate.
For Khonsari the story is personal. While he doesn’t remember being able to fully grasp the upheaval as a 10-year-old boy in Tehran, he does recall excitedly holding his grandfather’s hand as they made their way through the public protests, “amazed to see a tank rolling down the street, and swept up by the thousands of people believing that they could change the world.”
But violence quickly escalated, driving Khonsari’s family to flee to Canada in December, 1979. Khonsari eventually moved to New York, but he has been itching to revisit the story of that pivotal year.
Now, he believes, is the perfect time. Speculation of war between the West and Iran, and the morphing of the Arab spring into an Arab winter have heightened interest among international gamers.
Anticipation voiced on social media has been matched by financial contributions to the company’s Kickstarter campaign. Crowd-funding has been essential to maintaining creative freedom, says Khonsari. He believe’s the game speaks to a global thirst for change.
Khonsari, who is still fascinated by the revolution, hopes to speak to like-minded revolutionaries around the world who believe in the fight for dignity and identity.
Israel has shown “a lot of love” for “1979,” says Khonsari. The fan base is made up of gamers, filmmakers, composers and fans - some of whom have been thrilled to contact his company with stories of how their grandparents, too, fled their homes in Tehran. It’s theses personal stories that are the crux of the game’s plot.
Though the game is fictional, real audio, photographs, and interviews with Iranians who lived through the revolution provided the material for characters like Reza, the game’s highly affable protagonist. He’s a young, moderate photojournalist, riveted and inspired by the mass protests and the promise of the end of the Shah era. Following the murder of his cousin, he is transformed from a passive onlooker to a dedicated revolutionary activist who must eventually confront betrayal.
Supporting characters cover the full gamut of the country’s social, religious and political spectrum. The design was the product of a small team of journalists, academic advisors and concept artists. Many are Iranians themselves, such as actor Navid Negahban, who played terrorist Abu Nazir on “Homeland”, and Farshad Farahat, the airport interrogator from the Oscar-winning film “Argo.”
In contrast to “Argo” which was premised on a “war-mongering, angry dark people” versus a small group of foreign service workers, Khonsari says his characters recount the more nuanced narratives of the majority of Iranians- those who experienced the revolution and were deeply conflicted by where it ultimately led.
“What’s similar between the Arab spring and all revolutions including Iran’s and even going back to the French revolution,” says Khonsari, “is that what people fight for isn’t necessarily what they get.”
As a result of “1979: The Revolution,” Khonsari has been labelled an American spy by the Iranian media, which has prevented him from visiting the country. But that has only deepened his motivation to get the story out there.
“Controversy seems to follow me,” he muses, adding that that’s what’s to be expected when you use “great stories, without censorship.”