This is my first time in Iran – the streets are heaving with mustachioed men and women in flares, above the squawks of megaphones and chanting crowds, boom-boxes are playing illegally obtained copies of speeches by Khomeini and Shariatmadari that collide with the sound of heavy-metal in the air. There is a profound sense that something important is taking place; something that will shape not only the history of Iran for the foreseeable future, but have global repercussions. In an atmosphere like this, how can you help but want to set everything down? The camera in my hand ticks like a machine gun.
I have been studying Persian at Oxford for almost three years now, but for all my spilled tears and trials I cannot get a visa to Iran. Over the years, before and after I started my degree, I’ve tried to exploit any other way in I’ve had: films, novels, poems, and several times my own body weight in my grandmother’s food, to get a flavour of what it would be like to just walk around in Tehran or Isfahan, but 1979 Revolution: Black Friday grants me a whole lot more – the chance to walk around in Iran, in the months and days leading up to the revolution.
Like many entering the game’s immersive environment, your character – the photographer Reza – is a relative stranger to the flare up of revolutionary activity, so there’s plenty of room for unashamed curiosity and confusion. Plunged into the complex political environment in the wake of the fire at Cinema Rex of August 1978 you have the choice to shape your own destiny and, to a degree, that of the revolution, through your pictures. It’s a well-crafted conceit through which the developers are able to introduce you to various elements of Iranian history and culture.
The gameplay is a little clunky, sure, and movement and graphics can be a little heavy, but it’s clear that these criteria weren’t at the top of the list when it came to putting together 1979 Revolution. Instead, you the player are able to take an engaging and delicately crafted crash-course in Iran’s twentieth century history.
The focus is definitely on creating a representative image of the game’s subject matter; much of the action is delivered through cinematic cut scenes, with your choice of response to key questions shaping your path. Every picture you take is matched by a real equivalent from the period and attached to a description that allows you the chance to learn a little more. Picking up a tape, you can listen in Persian or English to a long extract from the very same speeches that resonated through people’s ears at the time, or come face to face with some of the Revolution’s most notorious characters, like Asadollah Lajevardi, the Butcher of Evin prison.
This heap of broken images, from Iranian tea etiquette to quotations from classical Persian poetry, begins to somehow coalesce. It is so often the case with games that represent the Middle East that corners are cut when it comes to accuracy; horror shows where Arabic is lazily dubbed over with Persian or offensively guttural gibberish and abjad script is written back-to-font are all too common. In the many opportunities that 1979 Revolution gives you to freely explore, you can hear snapshots of Persian dialogue and scan the full backdrop of posters, shop-signs, and newspapers around you and the world around you is faithfully distinct and humanised.
The image is in no sense simplified, either. Communists, Secularists, Khomeinists all cross your path, and Iran’s relationship with the west is shown within the complex context of hundreds of years of interaction and intervention. Islam, for a very refreshing and relieving change, is represented as a constituent part of everyday life and identity, with the player invited to engage in prayer and peruse diagrams that walk you through ritual ablutions or wudu, rather than being the means of distinguishing your potential adversary.
Gaming is so often shrugged off (somewhat ignorantly) as a poor influence on millennials that makes us into violent, car stealing, good-for-nothings. With the JCPOA coming into force at the beginning of this year and Iran an on-going subject of discussion and controversy in the months leading up to the US presidential elections, this game, despite a slow start in sales on the gaming platform ‘Steam’, seeks to create complexity and empathy and present a fairer view of where Iran stands today in relation to the world around it.
Despite its cosmetic flaws, then, I hope this game finds a genuinely popular audience, particularly in Europe and the US; perhaps it’ll do some work to turn the tide of dehumanisation and ignorance that shape the pictures of the Middle East, Iran, and Islam that come through our own, sometimes blurry, lenses. In the mean time, I’ll continue to convince myself that it’s sufficient revision for collections!