Interview: 1979 Revolution takes you to the middle of Iran’s decisive cultural uprising

“If I sit silently, I have sinned.”

These powerful words were spoken by Mohammad Mosaddegh, former Prime Minister of Iran (1951–1953) who was overthrown in a coup d’état by the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6. Soon after Mosaddegh was overthrown the heir of the Pahlavi dynasty, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, returned to power. The events that began to take place here culminated in the great Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s.

On September 8th, 1978 Iranian military opened fire towards protesters at Jaleh Square, Tehran killing or wounding nearly 100 people. What is today known as Black Friday, was a pivotal moment in the history of Iran and signalled the beginning of the end for the Pahlavi dynasty that had been ruling Iran more or less since 1925. In January of 1979 Shah Pahlavi and his family had to flee the country and not long after the country’s new spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared Iran an Islamic nation.

Film and gaming veteran Navid Khonsari spent his childhood in Iran but moved to Canada when the revolution swept across the country. In the new millennium Khonsari found his way to Rockstar Games working with beloved series like Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. After leaving Rockstar Khonsari co-founded a media studio called iNK Stories together with his anthropologist wife Vassiliki Khonsari. Their slogan goes “story dictates the medium”.

Currently they and the rest of their team are working on 1979 Revolution which is an adventure game depicting the turbulent events of the Iranian Revolution. The game features a modern touch, heavy emphasis on historical accuracy and narrative content. The first episode of the game is titled “Black Friday”, try to guess the day the game’s story will pick up from.

The development of 1979 Revolution began a few years ago. iNK Stories even decided to try their luck at crowdfunding service Kickstarter, but without success. This slightly delayed the original release date of 2014.

As I’m especially keen on games with historical content and political themes, I decided to catch up with iNK Stories to see if I could lay down my opinions on the game. That was a no go, but I was granted an interview with Navid over Skype, which turned out to be very an interesting and inspiring talk. I’m embedding it here in its entirety.

Interview with Navid Khonsari

Niko: Does anyone in your team have personal experiences about the Iranian Revolution? What sources have you used to gather material for the game?

Navid: A number of people in our team are of Iranian descent, were in Iran during the revolution or are the children of those who were in the revolution. I, myself, grew up in Iran before I was 10 and a half years old and left immediately after the hostage crisis. So, I grew up there, I’m Iranian descent and I speak Farsi and we have a number of members in our team who have helped us in the exploration of elements for our game as well as dialogue, research and all the way up to animation and camera. I’d say that our entire cast who have voiced are either Iranian or Iranian-European descent.

— I should add that the number of academic advisors who have helped us with the actual information in that not only it’s authentic but it’s coming from a factual place based on actual studies, research and books that have been done.

— We have interviewed more than 40 people who have experienced the revolution from the large spectrum, so it’s not necessarily leaning on one or another political view but an entire representation of all the political views.

Niko: For many an U.S. or even European citizen the events that took place in 1979 Iran are quite distant. Do you plan to stay completely authentic to your sources or have a sort of creative freedom with the game?

Navid: I think our goal is to tell the truth in an honest story about the events and what took place in there. I think what separates us from others is that we’re also embracing universal truths; what takes place in the revolution so that it can be for people who might not be familiar with Iran or the revolution.

— Also, what is related to the Arab Spring, what is now taking place in Ukraine, the uprising taking place in Central America and what has been taking place recently in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Really, we want to get people to understand what it was like if they are or were young and they were believing they could change the world. How that actually winds up to be more than just political agendas taking place. It is really important that our story resonates with people as a universal story and that the addressing and the events are specific to Iran but it’s still relatable to everybody. So, that’s our key goal.

— The fact that we are creating the game in multiple languages, and the English version has elements of Farsi mixed in it in a way of hinting that we want to be mainstream content but we also want to make sure it’s authentic, so you can believe regardless of your cultural, religious or language background.

— You’re kind of interested when someone is penning you a new culture you’re not used to. When fans are getting into Star Wars, for example, they’re getting into that world because the creators are introducing the world they are creating and certain amount of rules existing in that world. One could say that about series like Mass Effect where you’re a part of that world the creators have created, and with ours we want you to be part of that world, but we don’t want you to feel distant from it — or alien.

Niko: You had this episodic adventure here, can you say how many episodes you are producing?

Navid: We’re planning on producing nine episodes, three episodes per season. So, we have three seasons.

Niko: The fact that the game has been localized to several languages was news to me and I think it’s a good thing.

Navid: It was very important for us, when we started doing some of our analytics we reckoned that we have a fair amount of support in regions that don’t usually get localized. Aside from doing it in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish we feel that we can have a strong footprint in the Middle-East, certainly in Iran, where people speak Farsi.

— We also recognized that this is a kind of game that could do well, based on a feedback we have gotten, in Russia and in China. So, there will again be another two languages we’re going to localize in.

Niko: When we speak of modern adventure games, comparison to Telltale’s games, like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, can hardly be avoided. How do you plan to stand out from these?

Navid: We have a lot of respect for what Telltale has done and we see them as kind of someone opening the doors so we can come in and try to do what we want to do. I think how we differentiate and distinguish ourselves from a game like that is that while we embrace the gameplay we create an adventure game that is based on a real story. That is first and foremost a challenge to set it in a real world.

— Secondly, we are also creating a fair amount of gameplay outside of the adventure genre. You are going to be able to do everything from throwing rocks and Molotovs to taking pictures and having those real-world pictures come in. Your collectibles are actually based on real audio recordings from that time period. You are going to be able to engage in exploration with objects that are authentic to that world and just learn from it. Exploration is truly an exploration: to open the door you have to find the key, which is a great experience and we recognize just like how you mentioned that part of the world might not be common to people and they get to explore it. So, we allow you to explore the world as well and obviously we have traditional branching, but we also got elements of music that we want to put in there, we got graffiti, we got a fair amount of avoiding getting shot and navigating in a riot.

— While Telltale dabbles with some quick-time events, we actually decided that we want to over-deliver our gameplay more for a core gamer who wants to go beyond than just play an adventure game. On top of, that what also distinguishes us is our art style and the fact that we are using great actors and more importantly that we are using motion capture to capture those actors, so there’s natural fluidity in the animation.

— We are looking to distinguish us with the content, we don’t want to distinguish us because we are thinking that Telltale is doing anything wrong. We really appreciate what they have done and hope that we can help to further establish the genre they have spearheaded.

Niko: Speaking of Telltale games I was thinking of a Finnish adventure game series called The Detail. Have you heard about that?

Navid: [silence] Oh yes, I’m familiar with The Detail. Are you asking where we stand compared to it or something like that?

Niko: It was more of a side note.

Navid: Yes, I think we’re definitely going to take a look at it and I feel that their content is aesthetically pleasing but we are providing a much more cinematic experience whereas The Detail leans towards graphic novels — but their content is rich and well written. So, I definitely have respect for them in that front and it’s something we want to achieve too.

Niko: You were previously talking about seasons with three episodes in each season and, obviously, this is a game that features a rich and emotional narrative. How do you plan to split the content between episodes? Have you thought about each season focusing on different themes or different characters?

Navid: Absolutely! What we have is each season covering a certain part of the revolution during the history of Iran in its crucial years. The first season covers the rise and outcome of the revolution, the aftermath and how our protagonist is transforming from a bystander into a hero of the revolution eventually becoming one of the enemies of its new leadership.

— In the second season we jump ahead into the hostage crisis and the other protagonist who is involved with the Operation Eagle Claw, that was the Americans attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages and continues on until the jihad that was called unto Kurds in the north and then embraces the Iran-Iraq war — that will be all of season number two.

— Season number three takes you back to Iran just in the aftermath of the hostage release and pretty much what we consider the darkest years in Iran with the war in Iraq and Persian war bombings taking place in Tehran. You can have a choice in season three to play as either one of the two protagonists from earlier seasons, and decide how to navigate and escape from there on.

Niko: It’s rather cool to have a global view in it insofar it’s not all about Iran but also the U.S. too.

Navid: Absolutely! Other protagonists get involved with different backgrounds and nationalities and that’s the key for us in the game, making sure that the content is embraceable among the people from multiple different cultural and language backgrounds.

Niko: Greenlight teaser for the game (above) shows a player taking pictures with his camera. Is this mechanic strictly tied into narrative or does it serve some other purpose as well e.g. Photo Mode, unlocking secrets and so on?

Navid: Absolutely! Your protagonist is a photographer that plays very much in with the story and the narrative but on the flipside we also have real pictures from that time period, so again it reinstates the history.

— While you could take pictures of everything, there are a number of pictures you will take and you see the real actual picture right beside it. So, the idea was to use the gameplay to establish the motivation for our protagonist and help drive the narrative, and at the same time reinforce the historical accuracy of what we are doing and allowing people to see the actual world we have created in the game as well as the real pictures seen together.

Niko: Speaking of historical accuracy, do you think your goals with this game lean more towards educating or entertaining gamers, or do you seek balance between the two?

Navid: I think the goal for me has always been to entertain. As a studio here in New York we make films, documentaries, video games and graphic novels, but we also feel that in entertainment there is this great opportunity in video games to embrace telling real world stories. We don’t think a lot of people doing those have been commercially successful at it, so our goal was to embrace real world stories and in the process we can have people get a little bit more insight on Iran’s country and culture, which compared to the western world is on the other end of the spectrum, and get them to understand that there is a fair amount of similarity between all people. We are not black or white, we are all shades of grey.

— Then, perhaps, there will be a greater depth when we continually get these news snippets online or through our news broadcasters that are quick to just show a culture that is thousands of years old by news from the past 35 years where all the women are covered and all the men just clerics up and hopefully show that there is a depth to this.

— This is just one culture and the goal for us is to create a tool to help other people who want to tell a story of other elements of history, and obviously if they go by the way of appropriate research and advisors we hope to enable them.

Niko: This year has seen a large number of refugees fleeing from Middle-Eastern countries to Europe. Is the story of 1979 Revolution also reflecting the modern life in Islamic countries?

Navid: I think what 1979 does and what its goal is, is to show how the rise of an Islamic nation has come about. Events of 1979 are one the quintessential defining moments of the 20th century because what began from there. Prior to the 1979 it was Russia and the West, today it is the West, Russia and the Middle-East. A major player in this is Iran, so I think I wouldn’t necessarily complicate the issue of the refugees and migration that is taking place, but it would be foolish not to think that the rise of an Islamic nation and Islamic pride don’t go part in part with Iran turning into an Islamic state.

Niko: Let’s take a little break from the game. Tell us something about your background. You were working with Remedy and Rockstar earlier, how have the experiences in these companies helped you?

Navid: I basically got all my learning working with professional teams like Remedy while I was working at Rockstar who also enabled me to work with other development teams and understand their professional and philosophical code, and how to make great content.

— One thing you could say about Rockstar, as well as Remedy, is that they never compromised and they have always over-delivered with their games and their audiences love them for that. I have learnt this by being with those companies while they were growing and the results are something that I brought to our experience. Since leaving Rockstar I’ve also gotten to do a number of my own projects in my studio, and so making documentaries has enabled to provide the balance for the kind of stories I want to tell.

— What I’ve learned from Rockstar was to bring in a different kind of stories, like the ones I want to engage with and what the audience out there wants to engage with. Stories about detectives and gangsters in space are all wonderful and have their place, but I believe gaming is still very much in its infancy and has the ability to go in multiple different directions that has to be pushed by creatives, designers, writers and producers.

Niko: Founding your own studio gives, despite the economic pressure, some fresh air and room to breathe and helps you create the kind of games you really want. Don’t you agree?

Navid: Yes, it’s a world where you have to survive economically and with the explosion of the past 6–7 years in mobile markets and the massive shift that has been taking place in the console world, not to mention the continued sustainability and strength of the games on Steam. It’s a great time to be taking these risks and pushing the boundaries of design because the audiences are actually willing to reward you for it.

Niko: Since 1979 Revolution is an action-adventure game, can you tell us what games inspired you?

Navid: I think the Telltale games definitely resonated with us as a team and I think part of the reason why it resonated with us was the fact that they were really great establishing the empathy and getting me much more involved in an emotional level. Then again, we also have enjoyed The Last of Us and a lot of the stuff done by Sony Santa Monica who are really influential.

— I’m still looking at other games that are out there and have that independent feel, that are designed really well with UI — like Monument Valley. Games like LIMBO have had influence in terms with how they can establish the tone with their art style. Outside of the games we are very much influenced by graphic novels: a big chunk of our aesthetics comes from more of a hand-drawn kind of feel rather than going super realistic that tends to be where most console games are going. So, we’re taking the actual step making it more of an art piece.

— Films have also been a huge influence in terms of what we want to do and the experience we want to make. It goes more back towards films from the 1970s like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and… what the hell was the name of that one particular movie? I can’t believe I’m blanking with that!

Niko: For example on Twitter you have been speaking of the film The Warriors (1979)?

Navid: Yes, The Warriors was huge for us and for the video game I got to bring in the cast for that. So that was the massive influence for us in terms of what we want to do.

— What was that James Woods’ film he did early in his career?

Niko: Well, I’m not that familiar with James Woods’ work but I see the point.

Navid: To be really honest with you… ah, it was Salvador (1986) directed and written by Oliver Stone. It takes place in El Salvador falling apart in 1980 and what it’s like to be a journalist in front of that.

— Also, a lot of documentaries influenced us: there is one called War Journalist which is based on a photographer in New York. Because for us it was about how you make those choices between for example taking a picture of someone and getting in the way of a violent act that’s going on. That is an interesting philosophical question and we wanted to look into that and bring it into the game.

— Also, TV series had a huge influence on us, like Homeland (2011–), which was an interesting one and meddled with Middle-Eastern content. Even the element of mystery that came about with series like True Detective (2014–). We opened ourselves to a lot of different influences because it’s not the traditional 3rd person adventure game, we basically look much more towards narrative content.

Niko: A lot of Telltale games by design have this feel of guilt, when faced with a decision to make you get an Option A that is slightly bad and Option B that is slightly worse, and you never get a good option. With 1979 Revolution have you tried to depart from this?

Navid: Actually, we have embraced it even more — not all the time, though. There are certain moments where we want to bring humanity to the experience by allowing people to understand that when it comes to certain elements of revolution, it wasn’t that people picked one thing and it defined them. They had to choose from two bad things, for example soldiers start shooting my brother and my cousin, and I can only save one of them. There are no good choices in that. You have the choice to be an aggressive person or approach the revolution in a more peaceful manner and see how that unfolds.

— That was the key for us, and I feel that most of the stuff from The Walking Dead was in such a dark world, anyways. Basically, you look around the corner and you’re going to get bit, and if you don’t get bit you’ll have to kill someone who got bit. That’s a great environment to choose your own adventure. We try to show a larger spectrum of experiences in that you are initially taken back by the euphoria and the passion that’s on the streets, and as the revolution unveils itself you continue with that kind of philosophy or you could start to change based on how you’re being affected by those around you.

Niko: Also, one of the traditional Telltale elements is that NPCs will usually remember what you did to them in previous episodes. For example, In 1979 Revolution Season One you refuse to help someone; do these consequences carry with you onto the next seasons?

Navid: We have certain parts that we really want to embed it into the actual response from the characters rather than lean on it too much. That’s something we want to work on right now. Some people like the NPC feedback and others say they want to navigate under mysterious circumstances, so I think we are going to have it as a certain element but not that heavy-handed.

Niko: Theme of this game reminds me from last year’s This War of Mine. Do you find anything common with it?

Navid: Well, I think This War of Mine is far more dark! [laughter]

Niko: Yes, it’s a really dark survival game.

Navid: Yes, it created a certain understanding and empathy that really resonated with players because the natural inclination is if the character needs to get medicine or food or whatever, you are like: “I’m going to get this guy out of here and feed him!” But if they are depressed you can’t do anything about it, and I thought that was such a strong part of it. The goal of them trying to tell an authentic story is very much in line with what we are doing but not as heavy-handed. It still leans on the rules of a survival game and ours leans much more on the rules of narrative, so in This War of Mine you need to get certain supplies and then you get inside that emotional rollercoaster that characters are going through. We don’t necessarily have the same kind of template to draw from and yet the tone, the feel and the level of empathy you’ve developed for the characters is definitely in line with them.

Niko: From my viewpoint, though, the strongest point in 1979 Revolution is that it takes place in the real world, and that catched my eye in the first place. Don’t you agree?

Navid: Yes, I think our goal has been to focus on what’s real in the game and that’s what draws people to our game — like “Wow, I’m actually in Iran”. Especially games taking place in the Middle-East are often depicted as first-person shooters and characters are what you just shoot at, and then you continue to the next mission.

— With this game we aim to breathe some life into it because Iran in the 1970s was really no different than what New York was at the time — or Helsinki, or even Paris. Young people affected by the American cultural revolution and the belief of being able to change the world. Everyone down there in Iran was watching Star Wars and listening to Bee Gees and wearing bad clothes from the 70s.

— What we do might not only sell the world but break the barriers from those who thought it was all sand and camels. That’s one key element and on the other hand we are using a lot of elements used in documentaries to reaffirm the history, because we feel that we have to make a great game first and foremost! That is going to attract people on Steam, and hopefully we are able to resonate with them. We’re also looking this as an opportunity to introduce a whole new group of people to this experience who might just be interested in history, politics or new technology. Or they might just be interested for the fact that this is selling for $5.99 and they have access to it on their phones and tablets as well as on their computers.

— There’s a great opportunity in it because of the historical approach that this will resonate to a much larger audience and get them to the same experience and hopefully encourage them to say “Hey, I used to think video games were just for the 17-year old kids with their headsets on playing Call of Duty or Halo!” and to realize that this incredible form of media is actually much larger in its scope insofar it covers a wide variety of subject matters.

Niko: I do agree that games have developed if we think about their creativity. For simulating war you don’t have to design an FPS, you can focus on narrative adventure, strategy, simulation and what else.

Navid: And it’s just a start where I’m concerned.

Niko: Let’s take one more question before we end this interview. What’s the estimated time of arrival for the first episode, titled Black Friday?

Navid: The first episode will be published in Q1/2016. We were planning this fall, in November. However, we have been experimenting with putting the game in VR, and we have been pretty successful in that, and we just want to add some final polish into it, and we’re certainly interested in what we have to do to put it down the line on Apple TV. We just want to make sure we put our best foot forward so we decided to hold off but we are going beta in three weeks.

Niko: Thank you very much for this interview, it was a pleasure talking to you!

Navid: Thank you, take care!

This article was originally published in Finnish at Peli Legacy.

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