This article originally appeared on GARAGE.
While protests in Iran intensify and civilian warfare in Syria rages on, the Western world has little understanding of these places' everyday realities. Now iNK Stories, a “story innovation studio” based in New York and LA, is looking to alleviate that ignorance by applying frontier technologies to choose-your-own adventure style narratives. With their hybrid virtual reality experience-cum-installation HERO, which premiered recently as part of Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program, and their video game, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, iNK Stories has carved out two very different paths towards a more empathetic understanding of contemporary conflict.
The Middle East is not new territory for technological properties; Call of Duty and its ilk have long capitalized on the region’s unrest as a setting for mindless shoot-’em-ups in desert landscapes. These games rely on the Middle East and its people as a monolithic other and an easy enemy. HERO and 1979 Revolution do the opposite: HERO combines VR with a sculptural installation to recreate the scenario of a bombing raid on a Syrian town square; 1979 Revolution uses the Iranian Revolution as a setting to pose moral questions about the nature of personal involvement during periods of political strife.
While both projects risk finger-wagging moral judgement, neither performs it. iNK Stories cofounder Vassiliki Khonsari described the projects to GARAGE as “looking for the questions that stimulate people to think about possibilities," hence the use of branching, interactive narratives. The studio is interested in viewers and players negotiating options in real time as they’re faced with increasingly harrowing circumstances.
Unlike games like Grand Theft Auto, which presents an open world, iNK Stories’ projects create, she explained, “key moments in the narrative where you have opportunities for action or inaction.” Wary of propaganda, Khonsari and her team are not assigning a negative or positive morality to the options presented; She instead described the experiences as “giving people frames and windows they can go towards.”
HERO was partially inspired by Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s harrowing VR work CARNE y ARENA, now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and incorporates multi-sensory elements into an experience based on civilian life in Syria. Users find themselves in a bombed-out virtual space that is mirrored by the built installation they inhabit IRL. Once another bomb explodes, the user is forced to decide whether to respond to cries for help or shy away. Finally, they interact with a character represented by a real performer in the installation, experiencing a real human connection.
The iNK Stories team has characterized HERO as an opportunity to expand its "tool set” by integrating VR technology into actual space. The Syrian conflict marks a new era of civilian warfare, and to address it, Khonsari explained that her team “created an experience that is haptic, one that requires physical participation.”
The studio’s aim here is two-fold. First, they want to raise awareness about the horrifying realities of conflict and, second, they intend to communicate a message about the power of human connection even in our darkest hour. Published by Starbreeze Studios (a game development company known for blockbuster immersive projects like The Mummy Prodigium Strike), HERO will be seen across the globe in the coming months.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday won numerous awards and a BAFTA nomination when it first appeared, and is coming soon to PS4 and Xbox One (it's already available on Google Play, GOG, Steam, and the Apple App Store). The game places a player-protagonist in the shoes of Reza, a photojournalist, at the commencement of the Iranian Revolution. While many technological properties based on ethical questions around issues like incarceration and abortion are upsetting, 1979 Revolution is actually fun; it draws players in and invites repeated participation.
Reza is prompted through action and dialogue to make difficult ethical and emotional decisions about his participation in the struggle. The character was partially inspired by the great Iranian photojournalist Michel Setboun, whose black-and-white shots of the era appear throughout the narrative. Reza and his compatriots, who include friends and family, are mash-ups of people interviewed by the iNK Stories team, and reflect differing sociopolitical beliefs. The player is given four options to respond to each prompt, and each answer requires careful decision-making.
Khonsari described 1979 Revolution as an experience that catalyzes identification with an alien situation: “A photojournalist or any sort of journalist could find themselves in this kind of quandry, because they need to know what's going on, and they can or can’t become participants depending on how much doing so aligns with their beliefs. This seemed like a great entry point.” Through its real-world setting, the game asks big questions about human behavior that are both ideological and deeply personal. Making these more affecting still is the believably fluid nature of Reza’s relationships; his cousin pushes him towards more radical action, for example, and their ongoing connection is impacted by his answer.
1979 Revolution is banned as propaganda in Iran, but outside of the Islamic Republic it is readily available in seven different languages. In HERO and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, the iNK Stories team is developing a future for VR and gaming that incorporates play but goes well beyond it, provoking questions about ethical responsibility in real life and real time.