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Get caught up in the Iranian revolution in ‘1979’

An image from “1979 Revolution: Black Friday.”
inkStories
An image from “1979 Revolution: Black Friday.”

I’ve had my eye on “1979 Revolution: Black Friday” for a while. In 2014, I interviewed Navid Khonsari, the game’s Canadian-Iranian creator, about his desire to pull off an unlikely feat: a fun, deep, playable adventure game about Iran’s 1979 revolution, in which the US-installed shah was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The game came out in April, and I’m pleased to report that Khonsari and his studio, inkStories, mostly pulled it off. There are some rough edges, but “1979” definitely nudges narrative-driven gaming forward.

As the game’s promo materials put it, “1979 Revolution: Black Friday” brings players “into the brooding world of a nation on the verge of collapse. Play as Reza, an aspiring photojournalist, and make life and death decisions as you survive the gritty streets of Iran in the late 1970s.”

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Those streets, as well as the various interior settings, are lovingly rendered. The developers put a lot of effort into re-creating the Tehran of that era, and they do a nice job of capturing the pre-revolutionary sense that things are about to either get better or go entirely to hell. There are all sorts of nice touches — at one point, you can even watch what appear to be real-life home movies. Photographs rendered in-game are presented with images of their real-life counterparts.

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A lot of “1979” involves wandering around various settings, talking to people, and making heady choices as the revolution unfolds: Do you throw that rock at the soldiers? Agree to use your photographs to help the revolutionaries?

Overall, “1979” does a pretty good job driving home the impossible choices faced by some of the people caught up in the revolution. There’s often a superficial aspect to the ways video games present moral choices, but that isn’t true here: There’s rarely a “good” or “bad” option, just a persistent, appropriate sense of menace that whatever choice you make will end up hurting you or someone you love. And the game’s narrative structure — I don’t want to give anything away, but it flips between the revolution and the post-revolutionary in-game “present” — renders the consequences of your choices fairly starkly.

That said, here and there the game forces its hand. At one point, for example, you encounter the headquarters of one branch of the revolutionary movement and are asked to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. But Reza is brand new to this setting — why would he be asked? The plot hole is only stretched further when he is forced to implicate one of the revolutionaries there as the perpetrator of an assassination attempt. Again, why would Reza be trusted, as a newcomer, with such a grave task?

Some of the seams also show, technology-wise. One of the challenges of creating cinematic interactive fiction is that to give players some level of control, you need to give up the tight editing of noninteractive film. In “1979,” sometimes I would make a dialogue choice and characters would either talk over each other or an awkward silence would ensue. I also wanted more control over the camera angles. Finally, the voice-acting, while mostly solid, drove me crazy once in a while. While I understand the need for a game geared to an American audience to be recorded mostly in English — though there’s Farsi sprinkled throughout — some of the voice actors just sounded way too American.

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Overall, though, “1979” does a nice job of turning an explosive moment in history into a playable game. If you want, you can learn a lot about the revolution through the in-game encyclopedia or by fully exploring all the settings and conversations. But most importantly, the story pulls you through, and you want to find out more about the fate of Reza and his revolutionary compatriots. The game works as a game.

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