You probably haven’t played one of the most important games of the year yet.
Released quietly this past summer, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday documents the violent and tumultuous Iranian revolution of that year. It’s a game that is as much a documentary of record as it is an entertaining narrative experience. Ink Stories founder Navid Khonsari says the indie developer is trying to invent a new genre with 1979, one that combines the thoughtful research of documentary film with the interactive possibilities that video games offer. By all accounts, they have succeeded.
In a crowded room full of tangled wires, glowing screens, and remarkable video games nominated for various IndieCade awards, Navid walked me through the approach Ink Studios took with 1979, its long road toward completion, and some of the game’s achievements post-launch.
Tell me a little about who you are and what your role was in the development of 1979.
My name is Navid Khonsari. I’m one of the founders of Ink Stories, which is a studio based out of New York. We are a collaborative group of documentary filmmakers, comic book writers, and certainly game designers. My job on this particular game has been to write, design, and direct the game – with the help of many other people. I grew up in Iran, so I was able to bring a lot of personal elements to it. More than anything else, myself and my partner Bessie really spearheaded a new genre in gaming which is based on real-world events and using the adventure game template to help drive that narrative.
This game was initially announced as a project several years ago. You’re ex-Rockstar, right?
Yeah. I was at Rockstar for six years. I was the cinematic director on the GTA franchise, Max Payne, all the way up to Alan Wake and Homefront. I’ve had the incredible honor and privilege of working on these things at a very high level as the director.
I was able to bring that kind of material to the experience for this game, because I knew this was such a hard subject matter that I would need that production value for it to get over that hump rather than just get isolated and put in the corner.
So, was Ink Stories started with this project in mind?
I always wanted to make this subject matter into a game. Because I knew that I had an insight that would give me an advantage over somebody randomly trying to pick any kind of historical moment to make into a game. Having said that, once I started seeing the industry have a backlash towards people trying to cover real world content, I felt like it was an important hurdle to get over. I embraced it for that reason.
There have already been documentaries and books done on this subject. The fact is that times have changed, and films and books just don’t have the same impact that a video game has. A video game is a true interaction that allows you live in the shoes of a person for that day if you’re doing that kind of subject matter.
So many games right now are based on fiction and fantasy and so forth. I see an amazing opportunity for us to do real world events, because it resonates. That’s where the water cooler conversation starts. It breaks down these ideas that we’re getting, especially now from these five-minute news clips that we see on Facebook or other news outlets, and that becomes the assessment of these groups of people.
This game allows you to jump in so that when you come across the subject matter – the game takes place in 1979, but the nuclear talks have been going on recently, and Iran was part of the presidential debate on Monday. This game allows people to go, “Hey, you know what, I see the polarization element of Iran. I see how the people are different from the government, and I see how the government has an agenda there. But I also see how the people are suffering, so maybe we should reduce the sanctions, but we need to keep our eyes on their nuclear intentions.” You can get that because you’ve experienced it in the game. It’s not that everybody is a cleric or wearing a veil and wants to burn down the United States.
It reminds me of the game Never Alone, not directly, but as a genre of cultural histories.
Yeah. That was based very much on the cultural advisors and experts they brought in, and it legitimized that culture and based the game in real cultural stories. It’s a wonderful game. That material was able to seep through in a platformer.
For us, the bigger challenge was trying to get that kind of information through a narrative experience. I feel like that resonates more. We’re not trying to just open people’s eyes to a new culture; we’re looking at it actually having an impact going forward. I’m really happy to say that this game is now being used by the United Nations. Next month it is going to be in a major paper by UNESCO. It will be the first game to be used for conflict resolutions.
Can you talk about some of the challenges of making the game?
The challenge in making it was not that uncommon from a lot of indie games. We had limited resources and huge aspirations. But we’ve also hit some interesting roadblocks. The game got banned in Iran. That was obvious a demographic that we wanted to reach. People don’t necessarily know what we’re trying to do. So, we have a two-tiered education approach. One is what we’re actually trying to do and one is the actual story itself. Even though our metacritic has us in the top 20 games of this year and we have an incredible amount of good will from people, the challenge has been to get discovered. Most people are surprised to realize that the game is out.
I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize it was out either.
Yeah. We have to figure out how to overcome that.
But this is actually not very unusual when you’re pioneering something. You have to recognize that you need a couple of projects to chum the waters. 1979 could actually have a greater impact next year once we come out with our next title.
I also think this title is going to have legs. As people discover it, because it is so important and does touch on a subject matter that no other games are doing, it will obviously be something you can return to at any point.
It’s nice to also see it being adopted by schools. It is being brought in and paired with curriculum. So, that’s incredible. We are now localizing it in several languages, including Farsi, Turkish, and Russian. The goal is, those are the regions that are currently going through this political strife. Russia and Turkey, in particular. So, if you can actually make the game so people can experience it while they are experiencing similar things in the real world, then you can have some serious impact. It’s incredible for us to be at the forefront of pushing this.
And you self-published?
Yeah. We do everything. I came from Rockstar, man, and everything was done internally at Rockstar. It’s a good way to approach it.
Should we have gotten a publisher onboard? Yeah.
Would we have had to make an endless amount of compromises on the content? Absolutely.
It’s important to be true to ourselves, and with the track record out there of political stuff not necessarily doing well, it became something that we had to do ourselves. It hasn’t been easy.
Did you ever consider smaller publishers like Devolver or Curve?
No. I mean, we’re on Steam. We’re on GOG. And now we’re with 11 bit Studios, the guys behind This War of Mine, a fantastic game. We’ve aligned ourselves with them. This localization should breathe new life into the game.
We were expecting a lot more from iOS, but I can see the political element of it did not put us in a favorable position with Apple’s editorial. We’ve been getting endless amounts of accolades, so it’s kind of like, “Hang on a second . . .” It’s funny that that is one of the hurdles that we need to get over. But we expected it.
Once people know about the game, it’s done. Our retention is ridiculous. We’re crushing a lot of other games. All we have to do is get people to try it. So, in the future, we may approach the next build by giving away the first five or ten minutes for free.
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