By Sarah Laskow
Tehran, September 1978. Black Friday. You’re young and reckless, a photographer in the middle of a protest against the shah. Your friend is beckoning you toward the front of the crowd. You try to force your way through a group of people. You want to be at the center of the action. Then the soldiers begin shooting.
Navid Khonsari is developing a video game about the Iranian Revolution, and he needs it to be exciting. You have to watch who you trust and how you talk to people—your family, the woman in charge of the revolutionary headquarters, the storekeepers who sell lemon and cheesecloth to protect your face from teargas.
“The line should be, ‘Oh, I played this sick game, where I was throwing rocks at these soldiers, and then I had to navigate the crowd once the soldiers started shooting,’” Khonsari says. “And then, ‘Oh, and it was about the Iranian Revolution, which was kind of crazy.’ ”
Khonsari knows how crazy games are made. For five years at Rockstar Games, he contributed to blockbuster titles in the Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto series, some of the bestselling games in the world. As a cinematic director—working on storyboards, directing voice actors, and shooting motion-capture scenes—he made games feel more like movies. Now, he has gone indie with his own company, iNK Stories, and his job is closer to a game designer’s—creating a sweeping vision for his new game, Revolution 1979, and finding the right people (and the money) to execute it. He thinks that games can do more than entertain, and he’s not shy about his role in making that happen. “What I’m creating is the template for how future generations are going to be engaging with history,” he says.
Khonsari, now 44, was 10 years old when his family fled Iran. They landed in Canada, where his father once studied medicine and Khonsari and one of his brothers had been born. The family settled in a small city north of Toronto, but Khonsari’s peers weren’t exactly warm and cuddly to the only Iranian they’d ever met. The new kid’s lack of English didn’t help. But pop culture did—Khonsari was fluent in Star Wars, video games, and comics. He grew up on Tintin, loved Marvel’s philosophical Silver Surfer, and later started reading the subversive work of Daniel Clowes as well as Art Spiegelman’s genre-transcending Maus.
Soon enough, he started writing stories of his own—comic books and movie scripts, which led him to film school. Not long after moving to New York City, Khonsari did a test shoot for Grand Theft Auto III, was hired to direct voice-overs for Max Payne, and, for half a decade, had a hand in every blockbuster Rockstar produced. Though he’s worked on games with huge budgets, Khonsari has a soft spot for quirky stories: His first project after Rockstar was Pindemonium, a documentary film released in 2008 about introverted, obsessive collectors of Olympic pins. He met his wife, Bessie, a filmmaker, while working on the movie; she became “co-everything on it.” Their next project together was her documentary film, Pulling John, about competitive arm wrestlers. Today, they live in Brooklyn with their two daughters, and while Khonsari tends to want to do “big, big, big grand things,” he says Bessie (who’s a collaborator on the new game too) “really appreciates the subtlety in the emotional journey of characters and putting that at the forefront.”
With 1979, they’re aiming to hit both notes. To create the game, Khonsari has been researching the revolution history as if he were making a documentary—by interviewing people from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much of his research comes by way of his own family, including cousins who were in college during the revolution and relatives still living in Iran. He’s also enlisting academic and political experts, like the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour. Still a history major at heart, Khonsari says he is interested in moments of sweeping change—not just dates but stories from people’s personal experiences. His own experiences color the game too, and the one that most strongly influences it is his sense that most people don’t understand the real diversity of Iranian political opinions. “Someone like my grandmother, who lived in Iran, prayed three times a day and never ate bacon … she never wanted a theocracy,” he says.
When a player begins the game, he or she will get a quick run-through of the history of the revolution. But Khonsari is also working on building rich historical detail into the world that players will navigate. The main character is a photojournalist, and players can take pictures in the game and compare them with real shots of historical events. If they want to, they’ll be able to walk around an Iranian house, check out what’s on the walls, and turn on the TV and see Iranian TV shows. This exploration isn’t required to get through the game. But it’s there for people who are curious, and Khonsari thinks it could give players a sense of the revolution’s history, much like The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now taught a younger generation about the Vietnam War.
Although making the game educational comes second to making it fun, Khonsari wants players to understand that Iran has a deep history, with independent women and a secular life. “For us to be able to put in different types of stories, that’s the icing on the cake,” Khonsari says.
“It’s a very different animal; it’s very forward thinking,” says Asi Burak, president of the nonprofit Games for Change. “This game starts saying: This is a viable medium to say something smart. That’s not obvious to everyone.” And, Burak says, it makes the job of producing 1979 an uphill battle.
Games like this one often get plenty of good press, but the real challenge is grabbing the attention of actual gamers—and funders. 1979’s Kickstarter campaign didn’t meet its $395,000 goal late last year, but Khonsari says it helped attract potential investors. (And the success of the movie Argo, set during the Iranian hostage crisis, hasn’t hurt: It proves that there’s a mainstream appetite for stories from this era.) He is currently working on developing these leads and asking fans of the Kickstarter campaign to continue to donate through PayPal. “This is meant to be a mass-appeal project,” he says. “I’m still playing games, and I’m in my forties. I love being a gangster; I love taking out aliens. But I started getting fascinated with what would happen if you could engage people within a real experience but make it entertaining—make it a game.” The goal is to release the game’s first installment this summer. When that happens, Khonsari’s own gaming revolution will be alive and well.