Revolution games drop players into crises of truly historic proportions.
iNK Stories, a New York–based multimedia company, offers an immersive historical experience in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Video games have the power to transport players to new interactive worlds, and with advances in technology, those worlds are becoming increasingly realistic. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has taken gamers to pivotal points in history; the Call of Duty series has gone into the trenches of a variety of major wars — past, present and possible futures — and many games, including Rockstar’s behemoth Grand Theft Auto and more recently The Division, depict renowned cities in startling detail. Despite the availability and means of portraying well-known places, people and things, rarely does a video game drop players inside historical events — at least not entirely factual incidents.
With the constantly proliferating appeal of games in mainstream culture, the experiences they provide could very well be used as digital-age history texts, yet few big-budget game studios capitalize on the medium in an educational and insightful manner. While that isn’t incredibly surprising since the main objective for games is to entertain, and many perceive educational topics like history to be boring, there are innovators out there eager to build textbooks of sorts.
For example, iNK Stories is stimulating conversation about an integral aspect of world history that is often misunderstood or overlooked by a large segment of the population. Their 1979 Revolution: Black Friday allows players to enter the eyes of Reza, photojournalist and conflicted citizen of Iran, as he learns of both sides of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The game chronicles the Black Friday massacre that claimed the lives of 86 people. It accurately represents the growing hysteria and propaganda at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and makes frequent mention of the Cinema Rex Fire as a catalyst for the growing turmoil that boiled over in the streets through nonviolent protests and violent outbursts.
I had the opportunity to talk with iNK Stories Studio Head and Cocreator of 1979, Vassiliki Khonsari, about the development of the game, its inspirations and aspirations and how it goes to extraordinary lengths to tell an equally precise and riveting tale of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday Cocreator and Studio Head Vassiliki Khonsari. Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Sundance
“1979 Revolution follows the actual trajectory of the real events between 1978-1980 while the character’s narrative is shaped by the player’s own choices,” she says.
Using the narrative-branching mechanic, the game is shaped by player choice in dialogue. Some players will be swayed by the rhetoric of the 1979 Iranian Revolution while others may remain loyal to the Shah. No matter the choice, the player sees both sides of the battle and how one man’s decisions can affect the narrative procession. In this way, every chosen response and consequential action signifies greater purpose and meaning; the consequences of a single mind at work are captured admirably. A revolution starts with one and gradually builds through influencing others.
A revolution starts with one and gradually builds through influencing others.
“We wanted to not only represent the main action but also the surrounding social scene that also shaped the events and the aftermath. Our mission was to get the personal perspective of the events from diverse demographics, including kids and elderly people as well as those from different political, ideological, economic and religious backgrounds,” Knonsari says. “Our environments, art, characters, photographs, stock footage, graffiti, speech recordings used in the game are all either the actual / original assets or they are used to be specific references.”
Through the eyes of Reza, the game utilizes his occupation as a means to tell a story. When a photograph is snapped, the actual photo it is based on is shown with a written caption chronicling the background and importance of the scene.
In-Game Screenshot and Real Life Photograph
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was a turning point for contemporary Iran, but it is often hard to understand for people who aren’t from the area or directly connected to the revolution. An exhaustively complex lineage can sometimes distort truths, which the team at iNK Stories was cautious of throughout development. “The nuanced perspective of the ‘experience,’ the humanity, inside the 1979 Iranian Revolution is more about revealing the larger ‘truths’ of the revolution.”
She goes on to say, “Our vision in making 1979 is to entertain wide audiences with impact-forward, edgy, real stories told through games. We are passionate about sharing the real stories of people, in events that shape history — and not just regurgitating the dates and times and top-down events of what this dictator did, which becomes very abstract very quickly and therefore disengaging unless you are a superfan.”
“We are passionate about sharing the real stories of people, in events that shape history.”
— Vassiliki Khonsari
While a huge portion of the development team has personal and familial ties to Iran, they took a nuanced approach in order to appeal not simply to citizens of Iran but to a worldwide audience. Still, the game has current Iranians in mind “as an opportunity to confront what the collateral damage became — divided families, loss of human rights, devastating loss of women’s rights, a major exodus from Iran — and yet for others marked a political and religious triumph in the formation of the Islamic State.”
Naturally, depicting a controversial historical event such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution can be met with controversy. Some Iranian journalists have ironically marked this game that attempts to deconstruct propaganda as propaganda itself. Navid Knonsari (formerly of Rockstar Games), the other cocreator and Vassiliki’s husband, has been afraid to reenter Iran after the game’s release earlier this year, and some of the staff who worked on the game have, out of safety concerns, taken on aliases to denote their ties to the game. While the game takes liberties with names, as many of their sources presumably spoke under the condition of anonymity, the character models walking the streets of Iran, as Khonsari notes, “are amalgamations of real people we interviewed — a collection of stories projected onto a character.”
Through the Conduit Lens of Reza
iNK Stories is a pioneer of games that embody historical snapshots of important events. There has been a slow shift in what is “accepted” in game making as interest has multiplied, and in turn, we are seeing an increase in the number of people playing and talking about games as a serious medium.
Vassiliki Knonsari says, “The game industry ultimately follows the trajectory of software design, which is to build a game around a mechanic, which lends to the rinse-and-repeat reskinning of stories and not taking risks with the stories told.” However, she is optimistic for the future of games as a serious medium. “The current times are very hopeful as creativity in content is rewarded. We at iNK are excited for developers to take more risks and push the content to meet growing sophistication of audiences.”
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is an important game for many reasons. There’s an engaging story here that can substitute for the traditional classroom text. It’s a story that avoids biases in a subject that is subjectively biased to most degrees. Perhaps most of all, 1979 Revolution is a game that shows the power of games as thought-provoking and vital experiences.