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Developer aims to create game about Iran’s 1979 revolution

“1979: Revolution.”

Navid Khonsari

“1979: Revolution.”

Based on the note Navid Khonsari posted to Kickstarter after the fund-raising deadline for his video game had passed, you would have thought the effort had been a resounding success.

It’s a brief, energetic missive, almost entirely positive, which barely even mentions the fact that the company came $90,000 short of its $395,000 goal for the upcoming game “1979 Revolution.” And because of Kickstarter’s rules about meeting funding targets, that means the 44-year-old developer and his team wouldn’t receive anything from the effort.

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After thanking backers three times, Khonsari explained that he was “moved” and “humbled,” mentioned the impressive media coverage the game had received from outlets like The New Yorker and NPR, and announced with “renewed enthusiasm” that the company would be moving its crowd-funding efforts to a new website.

When I spoke with him on the phone about a month later, he was singing much the same tune. “I don’t really give a [expletive] about having a successful Kickstarter,” he said. “I care more importantly about making a great game.”

It’s an infectious, aggressively positive attitude, and it’s probably a healthy one to have, given the challenge of what Khonsari is attempting: creating a fun, sophisticated game about Iran’s 1979 revolution — and a mainstream game at that. (For those who are a few years removed from their last history class: In 1979 the US-backed Shah of Iran, installed after the CIA helped overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, was himself overthrown in favor of Ayatollah Khomeni and his fervent brand of revolutionary Islam — an ideology that still echoes in Iran and affects US-Iranian relations.)

It’s a personal subject for the Iranian-born Khonsari, and one that he’s well-equipped to build a video game around, given not just his personal history, but his professional credentials: In the past, he worked on “Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City” and “Max Payne,” and he is bringing some of the talent from these games on board to work on “1979 Revolution.”

Unlike the games Khonsari has worked on in the past, “1979 Revolution” will not be about shooting. Rather, he described it as an “adventure game with critical decision-making and with elements of action that include stealth.” Players will be controlling Reza, a young Iranian photojournalist caught amidst the revolutionary fervor. Reza joins the revolt, but is later betrayed by the new regime. Sometimes he has to sneak past soldiers, sometimes he writes political graffiti, throws rocks, or helps out injured protesters. But just like in real life, he has little to gain from facing down soldiers head-on.

Khonsari described the game as an ‘adventure game with critical decision-making and with elements of action that include stealth.’

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Khonsari also said that unlike “GTA III” and “Max Payne,” both of which frequently and gleefully borrowed many genre elements from past crime and noir films, this time around “We’re not playing an homage. We’re truly creating an original story based on actual events, rather than an homage to ‘Scarface’ or ‘Boys n the Hood.’ ”

Much of the preliminary creative work for “1979 Revolution” has already been done, and Khonsari said that the plan is to release it episodically. There will be something like three seasons, each consisting of three episodes that will each take about two hours to play through.

It’s a very interesting concept, and given the creative firepower Khonsari seems to be drawing to his team, there’s reason to be hopeful that the final product will be polished. That said, there are two main questions that could affect whether “1979 Revolution” becomes a commercial and critical success.

The first is a tough one not only for Khonsari, but for any developer looking to make a game where story comes first: Can he integrate the gameplay elements enough so that “1979 Revolution” is a full-blown game, with all the complexity that implies, rather than something closer to an interactive film? This isn’t a concern in a title like “GTA III” or “Max Payne,” because while both of these games do have stories with memorable moments (particularly “Max Payne,” which took noir to impressively horrific new depths), they simply aren’t, at their hearts, story-driven. Both games have you shooting, and shooting, and shooting some more. Both games revel in letting the player rack up huge body counts in creative, obscenely destructive ways. In other words, the story doesn’t get in the way of the bang-bang-bang fun.

Khonsari, to his credit, is attempting something much more subtle in “1979 Revolution,” but with his higher aspirations comes the challenge of walking a tough game-development tightrope, falling neither to one side (storytelling eats gameplay), nor to the other (gameplay eats storytelling).

The second question is what sort of market exists for this kind of game. It’s geared at an American audience, after all. So are there enough Americans who will buy an episodic game that takes a nuanced, sophisticated look at a revolution that many either don’t understand or understand only in the sense that it introduced a new and scary enemy? Khonsari could produce a brilliant game full of rich characterization, moral intelligence, and historical insight, only to find out Americans aren’t quite ready for such a product.

Whatever happens, it’s good to see a developer with such mainstream roots take an interesting, calculated risk.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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