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PAX West 2016 – ‘1979 Revolution: Black Friday’

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PAX West 2016 is now behind us, but many memories are still to be shared from the gargantuan gaming convention. While performing a tour of duty around the show floor, I managed to secure an interview with Sam Burin and Navid Khonsari, a couple developers who were behind the creation of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday is an interactive documentary regarding the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. During the game, the player follows the life of a photojournalist during the revolution and is forced to make difficult decisions in order to survive.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday is currently available on Steam, GoG, the App Store, and their website.

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Michael: So, first tell me about iNK Stories. How did the party get started, so to speak?

Sam: We’re based out of Brooklyn, NY. Our Studio’s mantra at the beginning was “stories dictates the medium.” The studio has been around for 10 years, and a large portion of those 10 years has been spent making documentaries and other transmedia art forms. Telling real-life interesting stories in new edgy ways using the means of storytelling, whether it is interactivity or VR or whatever the story dictating the form that we use to color. So 1979 Revolution was the next stage of that: to combine documentary with immersive interactive entertaining gameplay.

Michael: Give the short pitch of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. You just asked me recently what I know about the game. I think I’ve got the basics. Story driven game about the Iranian Revolution. Give us the official pitch.

Sam: So 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is an action adventure game set in Iran during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. In the game, you are playing as a young photojournalist named Reza who’s just come home from being abroad for a year in Germany. He’s Iranian, and he comes back home to find his country in a state of turmoil. His friends are on one side and his family is on another side; he’s being torn in different directions, and through Reza as a surrogate, you as a player are making a series of philosophical or moral choices playing the game. What kind of revolutionary am I going to be? Am I a pacifist? Am I Malcolm X? Am I Martin Luther King? Who do I align myself with? What is my philosophy of revolution? And you’re playing as a photojournalist; throughout the game, you’re taking a series of photos and you are documenting the events of the revolution and it is really the journey of the observer becoming a participant. It is the story of the Iranian Revolution from the eyes of the everyday Iranians who lived there.

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Michael: Do you think this game would have been viable 10 years ago? How do you think the prevalence of story-driven games such as Telltale’s games helped vault 1979 Revolution into the success it is going through currently?

Sam: I’ve been talking about this in the past day at PAX, and I think even 5 years ago we couldn’t have made this game, and I think it is a convergence of two things: the first, which you touched on, is obviously the tone and audience for gaming have changed drastically. Because of adventure games and because of the opening up of what it means to be a gamer and like games, that has opened itself beyond communities that previously existed. People crave experiences like this is what we’ve seen. Gaming press, consumers, people have been excited even because we announced the game. They just love the idea of a game like this and being able to experience this in a game form. And the other side of it, which is in the past five years as well, is that the technology has gotten good enough that a team like us, an independent studio, which is eight people to make a cinematic 3D game that’s fully motion captured, fully voice acted…all these real assets we put in the game..it’s still kind of insanity now but it would have been ludicrous 5 years ago. We made the game in the Unity engine and making it in Unity helped us so much, being able to develop the game and cut down. Even our roles. I’m a producer on the project but I was also responsible for the editing of the game. Helping with development and story outlining, so all of us wear 100 different hats during the production of the game, and that’s the nature of independent production, and that’s something you can do now that you couldn’t even do five years ago. It’s an exciting thing.

Michael: What makes developing a documentary-style game like 1979 Revolution different from developing a more traditional genre? How do you imagine it is different?

Sam: It’s a good question, because the nature of storytelling and the nature of developing a story..the first place most people start is with research; they’re reading, they’re looking at visual reference or watching movies develop the look and feel of the project, and for this because we were basing this on a real world experience and stuff that happened, we had this treasure trove of resources, like photos, videos, cassette tapes, letters, stories…we did over 70 interviews before we even started production of the game to develop the characters. The characters are an amalgamation of the different interviews we did and are a combination of a lot of different experiences that actually happened. So the great thing about real world storytelling..it is kind of ironic, but you almost have a story already because you already have an outline and you have all these resources you can take from and put into the game. And this was our mantra..to not even make this a fictional experience, but to make this “living the real.” Play the real, so to speak. In this world, we develop the story out of actual stories of people who experienced the revolution. So as opposed to a more fictional game mechanic, we were luckily able to walk into it with this huge pile of things. We had to figure out what we didn’t want to use in the game because we had so much we could use in the game, so that was the hard part.

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Michael: I know the Iranian Revolution is a topic that, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly covered very often in U.S. history classes. What have you been doing to raise awareness of the event to people who are less knowledgeable about this historical event?

Sam: It’s an interesting conundrum because the pitch of the game to some people sounds intriguing but to other people, it might sound equally off-putting; you might be thinking “Oh it’s an educational experience” or “history is boring.” Our primary mode of marketing was to show the entertainment factor of the game. This is primarily a story. At the core of any gaming experience, you want to tell the story of the characters and of the experience, and all the other stuff is window dressing and it’s additional stuff made in the world. It’s funny because we’re an indie studio, this is an original IP; we’re not making a game based on a TV show or movie or a book or whatever, so the revolution itself became our brand. Even the name 1979 Revolution gave people an idea that for most indie games don’t even have an idea of what this is, so it became our rallying cry, a title, a document of this event that you can play. So a big part of it has been showing people this game, seeing people discover it online, people finding out through the news, and finding it through friends playing the game. Luckily the game’s been out for about four months on Steam now and we’ve seen the continual momentum of people tweeting at us, emailing us being like “I just played it. Awesome game. Recommending it to my friends,” stuff like that. So as that continues, that indie game word of mouth is super important. We’ve been fortunate enough to have people [who are] advocates who are playing the game and telling other people about it and that’s a big help towards getting more people to discover it.

Michael: What was the motivation for making the protagonist a photojournalist instead of any other profession?

Sam: I think it ended up being a very smart choice on our part because the role of a journalist is, by nature, torn between two extremes which are that of the observer and that of the participant. So in this game, especially since it is the Iranian Revolution, we’re giving the game to a mostly Western Audience – our three largest countries buying the game are the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Canada, [as well as] a bunch of countries in Europe scattered down the list – so the largest demographic playing this game is not Iranians but mostly people who have no experience of the revolution, no context to it, so making Reza as a character who is a fish out of water, for you as a player to discover this year and be brought into it, and have other characters talking about it and letting you discover it as someone who hasn’t been there for awhile was a good choice, and making you a photographer gives you the option to choose what your perspective on the revolution is going to be. It also gives a degree of tension in that you are removed from your friends or family a bit because you feel like you have to have a political point of view and obviously throughout the course of events throughout the game, you’re forced into making these tough choices to define what character you are going to be in the future.

Michael: If someone were to complete this game, and say “I really want to learn more about the Iranian Revolution and more about what happened, what the consequences were, how this shaped everything,” what would you direct them to in regards to the different source material to learn more?

At this point, Navid Khonsari, director of 1979 Revolution, appeared at the booth and jumped in to answer this question.

Navid: We did a fair amount of research that pulled a lot of stuff up. I think something that’s digestible and obviously that’s been quite successful is the two graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 1 and 2. Actually, there’s a great book called All the Shah’s Men by Steven Kinzer which gives you a nice kind of insight, and actually, strangely enough, Guests of the Ayatollah by the guy who wrote Killing Pablo, Michael Bowden. Those are interesting because they are kind of on the fringe of what we do, which provides factual information but almost like an insight that allows you to be in the shoes of those who are experiencing it where this is going on around them.

Navid reintroduced himself and then provided some background about himself.

Navid: I grew up in Iran so there are a lot of elements to this game that are personal to me. The home movies, for example, is stuff that my grandfather shot so it was nice to get that into the whole experience.

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Michael: Can you elaborate on that a bit more? How were you able to implement stuff from your own experiences into the game?

Navid: I think the seed that led for us to create this experience is that when it comes to history and politics, people just want to draw black and white lines, and I was 10 years old and I experienced this first hand and all I saw was initially emotion; people thinking they could change the world, and that emotion eventually turning to chaos as violence ensued and my own personal experience as a child that we brought to this, which is totally free of politics but true to the wave of what took place, and then elements like the photos that you’ll see in here, home movies, and the house, the relationship with the parents…those are all really a combination of my own experiences and experiences of not just family members but the people that we interviewed and I do think that in any medium, when you put a bit of yourself into it, you take that risk, you put yourself on that thin wire, and you put it in there, it could go horribly wrong but almost always people embrace and be respectful and love you because they appreciate the fact that you are actually putting something personally out there.

 

1979 Revolution: Black Friday is currently available on Steam, GoG, the App Store, and their website.

At some point, Michael found video games, and has never looked back. Video games are something Michael knows well, and he was told to stick by things that he knows well. Michael also knows writing, podcasting, and analysis quite well, so we really have a lovely storm going on here.

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