Reza sits, hands bound, in a dingy interrogation room. A single overhead light illuminates his face, bruised and bloodied by the soldiers who raided his safe house. On the table in front of him sits a tape recorder and a folder whose contents may condemn him — and those he loves — to die.
A man with a gravelly voice, the only other person in the room, offers Reza a cup of tea, but it feels less like an offer than a threat. "Your tea is getting cold," the man says almost as soon as he places it on the table.
Will Reza drink from the cup, or knock it to the floor in defiance?
The choice is yours. It's one of many decisions players are forced to make in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a new video game that puts players in the middle of the Iranian Revolution. Using actual events, people, and places, the game presents an opportunity to explore and experience the complex forces that drove the revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in the new Islamic Republic.
Players take on the persona of Reza Shirazi, an aspiring photojournalist who gets swept up in the unfolding revolution in September 1978. From the day when he first photographs protesters from a Tehran rooftop until he finds himself imprisoned in 1980, players must make choices that affect the way the story plays out as the game progresses. Do you drink the tea? Your decision will have consequences.
The interrogation is set in Iran's notorious Evin Prison, long known for holding political prisoners. (Recently, Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post was held in Evin on trumped-up espionage charges; he was released earlier this year.) In the aftermath of the revolution, prisoners were regularly tortured and thousands were put to death, many reportedly at the hands of Asadollah Lajevardi, who served as the prison's warden for several years in the 1980s.
It is Lajevardi, terrifying even as a video game character, who serves Reza the tea and proceeds to interrogate him.
Maintaining historical accuracy in the game was important, says director, co-writer, and co-creator Navid Khonsari. He and his team conducted more than 40 interviews with Iranians who lived through the revolution — several of the people involved in the making of the game, including Khonsari, lived through it as well — and Reza's fictional story is based in part on those real-life accounts. Many of the scenes that players photograph with Reza's camera in the course of the game are inspired by the pictures of French photojournalist Michel Setboun, who was in Iran at the time of the revolution.
The player's photos — often displayed in a game menu alongside Setboun's — are accompanied by explanations of what's happening in the pictures. The result is a quick but wide-ranging education on 1970s Iran, touching on everything from Iranian-built Paykan cars to the illicit cassette tapes that were used to spread the messages of exiled religious leaders and intellectuals.
But for Khonsari, staying true to history was not the most important aspect of 1979 Revolution.
"No one would give a shit about it if you didn't make a great game," he said. "I would love first and foremost for people to be entertained and engaged…. But hopefully the secondary element of what we put out there is starting a conversation. We're not looking to create world peace. We're looking to create some empathy and less judgment so we can actually start working toward a more positive outcome."
Though Khonsari was born in Montreal in 1970, he spent the first 10 years of his life in Iran. He talks of his memories of the revolution in the same breath as his memories of watching Star Wars and enjoying the pop culture of the time. Khonsari, who calls pop culture "the true international language we all talk," infuses the game with it — a revolutionary friend of Reza's jokes about John Travolta and disco, and Reza has the opportunity to pick up a magazine whose cover features Googoosh, an extremely popular singer and actress who remained in Iran for two decades after the revolution even though as a woman she was no longer allowed to perform.
Khonsari's recollections of the revolution are what one might expect of a young boy — interest and excitement at seeing people and military vehicles in the streets. But his father, a surgeon, decided to move the family back to Canada as the new regime came to power.
"The US hostages were being detained, the revolution was over, schools were shut down for cleansing from Western influences, and the war with Iraq was brewing," Khonsari recounted. "My father, having three sons, was kind of like, 'It's time to get the hell out of here.' His concern was not what had happened, but what would be coming up. The darkest days in Iran came after the revolution."
Khonsari eventually became a game developer, working at Rockstar Games in the early 2000s on several titles in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. The games are infamous for their violence, but they're also admired for their creative and engaging storytelling. Though 1979 Revolution features violence, it is an interactive story-driven game, and Khonsari says the quality of the game's performances is the most direct link to his work on GTA.
Actors in 1979 Revolution — all are Iranian, most are Iranian-Americans — include Navid Negahban, who played the terrorist Abu Nazir in the show Homeland, and Farshad Farahat, perhaps best known for his performance as an Iranian revolutionary in the Oscar-winning 2012 film Argo.
Farahat was born in Iran in November 1978. At the time, the shah had imposed curfews, so his parents had to navigate checkpoints as his father explained to armed soldiers that his mother needed to get to a hospital. Farahat's family left Iran in 1986, but he has been able to return, and believes one lesson players may take away from the game is a lesson Iranians learned thanks to the revolution.
"I was in Iran during the 2009 protests, and one thing the Iranian people have learned is that they will not have another violent revolution," Farahat said. "The great thing about the game as opposed to a film is it puts you in the revolution and you get to make decisions and see the results. Do you pick the violent or non-violent way?"
The game, which is being released Tuesday for Mac and PC, has faced several setbacks. First announced in 2011, it endured a failed 2013 Kickstarter campaign and a release date that was repeatedly pushed back. Khonsari was labeled a spy by Iranian newspapers, and an Iranian working on art for the game was forced to flee the country. Nevertheless, Khonsari is optimistic about how it will be received in his former home.
"In Iran we should be embraced even by the right because we're telling a truthful story," he said. "We're not demonizing anyone, because we're not pointing fingers at who is a good guy in the political structure and who's a bad guy. We're not trying to change history. We're telling the history of the people."
Follow Ky Henderson on Twitter: @kyhenderson