1979 Revolution: Black Friday

1979 Revolution: Black Friday was an odd game for me. I can’t outright dismiss iNK Stories’ rendition of the titular Iranian Revolution (in which the Shah was overthrown and ultimately replaced with a theocratic republic). In fact, I have absolutely no desire to do so. Yet as I continued to play 1979 Revolution, my problems with it piled up to the point where I could no longer ignore them. To be more specific, the game finds itself caught between its desire to inform the player of these events and its desire to craft a compelling story from them. Although it chooses to solve this problem by relaying information to the player through narrative, 1979 Revolution would ultimately be better served presenting itself as more of a documentary. The solution it opts for ultimately creates several other problems it’s unable to solve.

Before I continue any further, however, I want to emphasize just how much I respect the game’s account of the Revolution itself. It defies easy interpretation. Yes, the game captures the the violence and turbulence that define the Revolution in Western eyes (it would be hard to ignore that), but it also captures so much more than that. There’s the youthful idealism, the dissatisfaction with the Shah’s prosperity, the important role religious faith played in spurning the protests, the calls for nonviolent resistance à la contemporary protest movements, and so much more than than I could cover within this space.

388320_20160408191611_1Needless to say, 1979 Revolution offers an incredibly detailed picture of these events. In its efforts to inform the player, the game will expose you to as many facets of Iranian culture as it possibly can. And when the main narrative doesn’t provide enough space to properly teach you, a database entry will pop up to expound on the history or cultural significance of something as minor as a children’s book. For me, It got to the point where even after doing some light prep work to prepare myself for this game, I came out of it more informed about Iranian culture/history than I was going into it. In that regard, 1979 Revolution fits very neatly alongside other documentary games like Never Alone and The Cat in the Coup.

Or at least that’s what the intent was. Where 1979 Revolution confidently presents its views of the Iranian Revolution, it stumbles quite a bit when it comes to the story it wants to tell within that revolution. Most of that comes from its attempts to emulate a Hollywood style of storytelling, which leads to a lot of the problems video games have when trying to capture that style: wooden puppet acting, overly dramatic moments, etc. However, I’m more concerned with the particular problems that arise when applying that framework to a game like this. For as much as the Revolution resists easy interpretation, the story is far too ready to give into it, depicting very clear heroes fighting against very clear villains. We’re urged into seeing things like this: shots are framed cinematically as opposed to photographically, and music will swell up or die down depending on whatever mood the game wishes to convey. The game wants to impress upon us the gravity of what’s to follow, but the opposite happens. The world we’re seeing takes on a feeling of unreality, creating a distance between yourself and the story that the game just can’t work with.

This tension is much easier to spot when you’re playing the game. Connecting you to the Revolution’s events is a young photojournalist named Reza, so naturally a lot of the game revolves around taking photographs. It’s a clever way for the game to have its cake and eat it, too: viewing history through a camera makes you hyper-aware of the perspective from which you’re experiencing these events without overstating your involvement in them. After all, the only thing Reza ever does (or at least the only thing he should do) is watch from the sidelines and take pictures of what’s happening. And as the player, it’s all you do, too. You’re not so much shaping history by creating new photos from scratch as much as you are learning about key moments from the Revolution by recreating its key moments. Thus 1979 Revolution uses photography to demonstrate that by observing, we shape and create history, even when we’re not directly involved in it.

388320_20160409160114_1Which is why I find it so strange to see the game borrowing so much from The Walking Dead (the tense action moments, the plethora of choices, all the reminders that “[Person] won’t forget this”, etc.). On one level, that formula emphasizes human drama above all else, which I’m unsure is the right choice for representing broad social forces like these. But on a much deeper level, it also idolizes the human ability to affect the world around you. You’re constantly pressured into making a choice or taking a stance on something. Dodge this punch, pick that suspect, select a slogan to represent yourself, choose what to say now because what you’re about to do matters. Although some of these moments retain their impact (the aforementioned suspect scene being a prime example), the message is repeated often enough that you’re likely to become numb to it. How much can my choices matter when they’re all of the gravest import? And to what extent can I change the world when the beginning of the game (being interrogated about your involvement in the Revolution) implicitly tells me these events are already determined?

What I find most worrying, though, is what this “drive the action forward” mentality means for 1979 Revolution’s ethos. How many people were there like Reza, whose actions, no matter how insignificant, directly shaped this historic event? I doubt there were many. A lot of the people involved with the Revolution were those disempowered by the Shah’s policies. Their collective ability to affect change might have been strong, but as individuals, that ability would have been more limited. Yet that’s not what the game represents. Instead, the game will often present a series of choices when Reza’s about to enter a conversation so they can decide what he’s going to say. Or to put it another way, you’re being told that everything Reza says will have a noticeable impact on the world around him. So rather than embed you in the action as it was intended, those choices ultimately serve to remove you from it.

In fact, I want to examine Reza’s character a little more, because he very clearly follows a hero arc. All the beats are there: he initially refuses the call to action because he doesn’t want to choose sides. In time, though, he becomes a person whom the fate of many rests upon. He’s marked as a special individual who represents not the voice of the average person experiencing the Revolution firsthand, but a privileged voice who possesses a degree of freedom to choose how he navigates moment in history. Again, he’s removed from the events around him in a way that many other characters aren’t, betraying the immediacy and reality of the situation that the game would otherwise impress upon you.

388320_20160408183751_1Of course, were you to remove the hero arc altogether, there’d still be important barriers for Reza to overcome. Judging by his trip to Germany prior to the events of the story, he comes from a relatively well-off family. Considering the individual members of that family only solidifies it. No matter which side of the Revolution comes out victorious, Reza’s family offers him connections to both: the government through his brother Houssein (a member of the secret police) and his cousin Ali (a revolutionary who advocates for change through violence). If iNK Stories’ goal was to give the player unfettered freedom to navigate these scenarios as they please, then positioning Reza like this was a smart decision. However, if their goal was to depict him as an average everyman (as the hero arc implies and as the game needs him to be), then their success is not as clear cut.

Again, I wish to reiterate how much I want to see more games like this being made. In its best moments, 1979 Revolution shows us the potential video games have to explore weighty subjects that games have otherwise left untouched. Yet it also shows us how video game traditions like exalting the player and making them the center of the story can hold those subjects back. If we’re going to see more games like 1979 Revolution, then we need to see a greater willingness to question video game conventions; to ask if the practices associated with this genre are really suited for the goals we have in mind. Otherwise, we risk falling of short of what we could have accomplished.


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