Imagine you're being interrogated. Not in a country where you're allowed a phone call and legal representation, but in a place where you have no rights and torture is used routinely to extract information. You are a political prisoner, you have no control and every decision could change your life. It's harrowing, intense and real – exactly how iNK Stories creator Navid Khonsari wants you to feel. Based on real experiences, Khonsari's 1979 Revolution: Black Friday demonstrates how gaming enables us to empathise and tell powerful real world stories.
ACMI: 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is such a powerful game. What was the inspiration for creating the game?
Navid Khonsari: I left Iran because of the 1979 Revolution and I wanted to make the game to address that and give a voice to Iranians about what was taking place there. We posed the question – can we humanise what took place and do that through an interactive experience by allowing players to step in the shoes of somebody who has experienced the revolution?
A: Can you run us through the narrative of the game?
NK: Reza is an 18 year old man who has come back home from his first year of college. The Revolution on the streets of Iran has been brewing for six months.
He's an aspiring photographer and so he navigates the streets to see what's going on. His best friend is involved and he also comes across his cousin who is a member of the Mujahideen faction who are looking to take this revolution to the next level. So it's a combination of his experience navigating the streets as well as navigating his morality.
He gets pulled in different ways from his brother, who is in the military and his parents are really worried about him. The different political factions are quite varied from religious to super socialist to ones that are ones led by artists. So he's just got to figure it out and it’s no different than when we throw a player in there. So you’re at the same level of him; as he's trying to figure it out you're figuring it out.
A: The interrogation scenes were terrifying. I tried to cooperate with the interrogator but it didn’t stop the torture.
NK: A part of the deal with interrogations is that you don't know why you're there or if you know why you're there your interrogator isn't letting in on what they want out of you. If that was an easy enough process they'd just ask you and if you felt obliged to not be tortured you'd be like OK well here's the information and you're done. But that's not the relationship. So there's an interesting cat and mouse game that's taking place. Then there's all these layers and psychological experimentation being done on you.
We see multiple people in the end admit guilt to something that they hadn't done. We wanted to get you to understand that experience that you might be right; you might be just; you might be honest; but that's not necessarily a part of the game that's being played on behalf of the interrogator and you.
A: How much research did you do? How did you pull together the stories for the game?
NK: We did an immense amount of research. When you take this kind of a bold step of trying to bring real world experiences to a digital game there is an endless amount of areas where you could fail. People out there are looking at you very much with a critical eye to see if you will fail. So we did over 40 interviews with people that experienced the Revolution. Obviously growing up in Iran I had a greater access to people. Once we started the interview process, we started getting people donating anonymously other information like books for us read or articles which we would have never come across. So we started having people actually contributing all kind of materials.
We partnered up with French photographer Michel Setboud, who was in Iran during that time and we were able to get access to his pictures. That combined with straight research in terms of endless books and figuring out factually what was taking place; we started creating the bed for what this narrative experience would be. We also listened to a lot of recordings from the different political leaders at the time. In fact in the game you'll be able to exchange actual recordings on cassettes of Ayatollah Khomeini. What's interesting and the fact that we have this historical perspective is that you have this religious leader, who from abroad, before he comes back comes to Iran, he talked about how he believes in the rights for women and in the separation of church and state. It's his words. It's his recordings from that time period. You could see, in many ways, Iranians are no different than almost any citizen of the world.
There are certain elements that were political turning points. There was a fire that took place in a movie theatre called Cinema Rex and over 400 people perished in that fire. There was a huge calling for people to rise up against the Shah because it was claimed that it was caused by his soldiers. So we definitely make sure that we target those major turning points.
A: Why did you decide on a game/documentary hybrid medium to tell the story?
NK: Documentaries have done a great job covering this subject matter. We've got an endless number of books about it. It had never been done as a game. This medium is actually an incredible way to get people to understand the experience. It just stays with people a lot longer. It’s much stronger emotionally that what you get from a film about an interrogation.
So for us it was a combination that it hadn't been done in this medium and we recognised that the medium is really really powerful and is absolutely underutilised other than for pure entertainment. So we aimed to create something that's as entertaining as Grand Theft Auto but provides the same kind of empathy that you get from some of the greatest documentaries.
A: Has there been any backlash to the game?
NK: When the project went into development there was an article in a conservative newspaper Iran where they claimed that I was an American spy creating propaganda, which is unfortunate because I'm not a spy. I can't keep my mouth shut (laughs). It's unfortunate because the story that we actually told is very truthful. In fact we were respectful to the Islamic faction that was a part of the revolution.
The game got banned in Iran, but we translated the game into Farsi and provided it to Iranians for free so that they could have access to it.
We were really fortunate we had a number of amazing artists that came on board. All of them were Iranian and all of them refused to get credited on the game because they were worried about the repercussions that would happen to their families back in Iran. So it was a passion project for many people that were involved.
I think now is the time when we actually need to dig in and double down on telling these stories and pushing harder against an archaic way of thinking that's trying to separate us rather than bringing us closer together. I think the one thing that we always talk about at iNK Studio is that from the skies you don't see any borders and there's only one race the human race. Anybody else who tries to tell you differently has their own agenda plan. We call them the gatekeepers we consider ourselves the gatecrashers. So we're very much committed to pushing not just the Iranian story, which is the first story that I knew, but also other stories about other groups of people and other experiences.
For us it's really incredible to see how it's rolled out, the accolades it's getting and how it's being embraced by people.
A: What do you envisage for the future of interactive games?
NK:As more and more people start playing and engaging with these interactive experiences there's going to be a demand for more diverse and more meaningful content. There are so many possibilities of using this in education. 1979 is in schools across the U.S. and Canada, which is incredible. The engagement level is just so much more than traditional methods used in education; not that those should be pushed aside but elements like history where you can actually experience it is perfect as a game.
I'm working with a group of Yale University to help kids with ADHD as a digital prescription instead of drugs. That is a really exciting approach. So there are really interesting possibilities for this medium.