Game Director Shifts From 'Grand Theft Auto' To Iranian Revolution

Dec 13, 2013
Originally published on December 13, 2013 5:56 pm

Navid Khonsari worked on blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and Max Payne. These are all violent and aggressive games, set in fictional cities where you shoot your enemies. But for the past two years Khonsari, a video game director, has led a small team, some of them fellow Iranians, working on something very different — a documentary game about the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

It looks like Grand Theft Auto, but instead of just shooting back, you help the wounded, sneak around to take pictures and smuggle banned cassette tapes. After all, this is based on the real world.

"If I had conflict thrown at me in this particular situation, I'm not going to pick up a gun and charge soldiers, I'm going to try to get to safety and I'm going to try to find the closest people to me and get them to safety," Khonsari says. "Traditionally, controversy is not something that game publishers want to embrace, and obviously Iran, revolution and so forth, has got controversy written all over it. So it fell on my shoulders that if I want to make this game, I have to do it myself."

The game 1979 Revolution puts the player back inside the Iran of the late 1970s. You play as Reza, a young man who's excited by the revolution and the possibility of changing Iran, which was previously ruled by the Shah. Reza becomes a revolutionary against the Shah and an enemy of the state, though not a religious radical. Like most Iranians at the time, Reza was stuck in the middle.

To make sure the game gets things right, the creators interviewed Iranians and used original photos and audio from that time. One of those interviewees and a voice actor for the game is Navid Negahban, a star who plays the terrorist Abu Nazir on the acclaimed TV drama Homeland.

"When Navid gave me the script and I read it, some of the storylines, the things that's happening, the way the guy's getting shot, the way that the whole story moves forward, it was very close to home," Negahban says. "[It] brought back memories."

Negahban was a high school student in Iran in 1979. He hadn't picked a side, and was curious about what was happening. A sequence in the game basically mirrors what he lived through.

He recalls walking with other anti-Shah demonstrators towards soldiers and tanks barricading the streets. The soldiers aimed their rifles at the crowd.

"The captain, or whoever was at the top of the tank, he ordered the soldiers to open fire," Negahban says. "And some of the soldiers resisted, they didn't want to do it, and they were giving warning shots."

The soldiers eventually shot into the crowd. Some of the demonstrators fell, but the others all charged forward. Eventually they reached the tank, pulled the captain down and beat him up.

"At the end, it was very gruesome. They tore him apart," Negahban says.

This is the chaotic world you have to navigate in the game; it's full of moral dilemmas. At one point, you have to decide whether to save your cousin, or your friend. How do you deal with spies in your group? Do you support the revolution you believe in, or your skeptical family members?

Although it's a personal story for them, the game makers know what's most important is that people actually play the game and have fun.

People have made "documentary games" like this about conflicts including Afghanistan, Libya and South Korea, but they haven't been commercial successes, says Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"It's just not a magic bullet ... . You're not going to have a single game that gets everyone interested in one moment in history that they've never heard of before," Bogost says. "Unless we actually have many examples of documentary games that people really play, then the genre in general and the specific examples in particular can't be considered successful."

But Bogost also points out it's not fair to compare 1979 Revolution to a game like Grand Theft Auto, just like it's not fair to compare a documentary film to a Hollywood blockbuster. He says this game is worth consideration, particularly in a medium like video games that could do with more diverse subject matter.

And some say this is exactly the time to look back on that moment in history. Fathali Moghaddam also experienced the revolution first hand, and he's now a psychology professor at Georgetown University.

"If you look at the Middle East region and near east region at the moment, there's no doubt that there is an Islamic resurgence and that the Iranian revolution [in] 1979 was a huge trigger point," Moghaddam says. But he also points out there are multiple versions of what exactly happened.

"So it's a game that's going to raise more questions than it answers, but that's often the best type of historical examination," he says.

Game creator Navid Khonsari is crowdfunding the project on Kickstarter. He's invested his own time and money over the past two years, and he plans to keep working on the game even if he doesn't reach the goal of $395,000. But the financial risk is not his only concern.

"I was deemed a spy by the conservative newspapers in Iran. What kind of weight does that hold? You know, I'm not ready to test that right now to be totally honest with you," Khonsari says.

For now, he's staying away, even though he still has friends and family in Iran. Three other Iranian artists working on the game are remaining anonymous to prevent repercussions. But, if it goes well, they hope to have the game ready next year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Iranian video game director Navid Khonsari has worked on blockbusters including Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and Max Payne. All are violent and aggressive games set in fictional cities. But for the past two years, he and a small team, including some fellow Iranians, have been working on something very different, a documentary game about the 1979 Iranian Revolution. NPR's Alan Yu has the story.

ALAN YU, BYLINE: Navid Khonsari knows this is not obvious video game material.

NAVID KHONSARI: Traditionally, controversy is not something that game publishers want to embrace. And obviously, Iran Revolution has got controversy written all over it. So it fell on my shoulders that if I want to make this game, I have to do it myself.

YU: The game, 1979 Revolution, puts the player inside the Iran of the late 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE FROM GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)

KHONSARI: You play as Reza, a young man who's taken to the streets, excited by the spirit of change and the possibility of being able to change not only their country but the world.

YU: Reza starts taking pictures.

(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)

YU: He becomes a revolutionary against the Shah and an enemy of the state, though not a religious radical. Like most Iranians at the time, he was stuck in the middle. 1979 Revolution is still an action/adventure game and it looks a bit like Grand Theft Auto III, but the action is different.

KHONSARI: My opinion is that if I had conflict thrown at me, I'm not gonna pick up a gun and charge soldiers. I'm gonna try to get to safety and I'm gonna try to find the closest people to me and get them to safety.

YU: You help the wounded, sneak around to take pictures, and smuggle banned cassette tapes. The game creators interviewed Iranians and used original photos and audio to make sure they get things right. One of those interviewees and a voice actor for the game is also named Navid. Navid Negahban is a star on the TV show "Homeland." He was a high school student in Iran in 1979.

NAVID NEGAHBAN: When Navid gave me the script and I read it, some of the storylines, I mean, the things that's happening, the way that the guy's getting shot, the way that the whole story moves forward, it was very close to home. I mean, it brought back memories.

(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)

YU: This is the chaotic world you have to navigate. It's full of moral dilemmas. At one point, you have to decide if you save your cousin or your friend. How do you deal with spies in your group? It's a personal story for the game makers but they know what's most important is, will people actually play it and have fun?

Professor Ian Bogost studies video games at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He says this kind of documentary game has not been commercially successful in the past.

IAN BOGOST: Unless we actually have many examples of documentary games that people really play, the genre in general and the specific examples can't be considered successful.

YU: But Bogost also points out it's not fair to compare 1979 Revolution to a game like Grand Theft Auto, just like it's not fair to compare a documentary film to a Hollywood blockbuster. Game creator Navid Khonsari is crowd-funding the project on Kickstarter. He has also invested his own time and money, but the financial risk is not his only concern. He is worried about what could happen if he were to visit friends and family in Iran.

KHONSARI: I was deemed a spy by the conservative newspapers in Iran. What kind of weight does that hold? You know, I'm not ready to test that right now, to be totally honest with you.

YU: For now, he's staying away. Three other Iranian artists working on the game are remaining anonymous but if all goes well, they hope to have the game ready next year. Alan Yu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.