In 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, the streets of Tehran are combustive, resistance smoldering from tensely linked groups that share a dissatisfaction with the Shah. The game, released this month after years of development, asks players to pick their side in the uprising: nonviolence or physical resistance. As a young photographer named Reza, your greatest tool of rebellion is your camera, which can prove just as deadly as any weapon.
Created by the New York-based Ink Stories with a team of mostly Iranian developers, 1979 Revolution was first announced back in 2011. Led by Iranian-Canadian game developer Navid Khonsari, who has previously worked with Rockstar Games on titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series, the game had some high hurdles to completion. Khonsari told Kotaku in 2012 that after the game’s announcement, he was accused of being a spy by a conservative Iranian paper, which meant he couldn’t return to Iran. Another collaborator fled the country.
1979 Revolution employs some Grand Theft Auto-spirited exploration and dodging bullets, but on the whole it’s very much a character-driven interactive story. Helped by some strong voice acting, the narrative uses flashbacks to follow Reza’s involvement with the resistance, while returning to his current place in an interrogation chair in the infamous Evin Prison. You’re faced with quickly choosing how you interact with characters, and the choices aren’t always clear-cut between right and wrong, especially with complicated relationships like a brother who is a police officer, and a cousin who carries a protective gun to peaceful rallies. Should you drink the tea offered by your interrogator? Should you throw rocks at a protest with your cousin, or stay passive with your childhood friend? Will you leave your dead friend with a poem or a photo ID?
Throughout the game, you photograph pivotal scenes, each of which pops up to compare your image to an actual photograph from the era of the Iranian Revolution, many by Michel Setboun. Later, those same images can implicate those involved. I couldn’t quite get a handle on the 1970s camera controls, and every single shot turned out blurry, which didn’t seem to impact the plot, just added some frustration to the game.
The choices you make supposedly impact how characters relate during the game, but after experimenting with the actions, it seems to always conclude with the same bleak outcome. The Western-backed Shah was replaced by another tyrant, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Reza’s fate remains ominously vague. 1979 Revolution feels like it should be the beginning of a larger story, and hopefully it will just be the start of Ink Stories’ work on this era. For a game that only takes a couple of hours, they manage to fit in a lot of history without being didactic, from the burning of the Cinema Rex to the culminating Black Friday massacre. And, a rarity for video games, they sensitively portray the motives behind violence, from all sides.