The Revolution Will Be Photographed in ‘1979 Revolution: Black Friday’
No one is innocent, and truth is a myth, in this engaging but flawed video game
The interrogator leans over Reza. “My name is Assadollah Lajevardi,” he says.
Reza is bloody and bruised. Scratches on his face, ropes across his wrists. The room is the non-descript gray of torture chambers everywhere. This is Iran’s Evin Prison — a building that’s easy to enter, but impossible to leave.
“Now,” Lajevardi says, “what is my name?”
Reza begins to repeat the name back to his interrogator but Lajevardi backhands him before he finishes. “Reza,” his tormentor says. “Why can’t you show me the decency of remembering my name? My name is Assadollah Lajevardi … but here in Evin they call me Hajj Agha. Now, what is my name?”
Reza stays silent in protest and Agha kicks him. He asks again. And again Reza says nothing. Agha raises his foot over and over, bringing the heel down on Reza’s ribs and face. It’s over in seconds. Agha kicks Reza to death.
I’m only five minutes into the video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday and I’ve already lost because I don’t understand the rules.
That’s kind of the point.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday tells the story of Iran’s tumultuous transition from a monarchy to an Islamic republic through the eyes of photographer Reza Shirazi. Reza is a college student from a middle-class family. At first, he just wants to document the chaos, but soon he’s drawn into the revolution and swept along in the tide of violence and ideology.
The game begins at the ending and works backward. It’s 1980 and Reza is developing photographs with a fellow revolutionary when the Islamic republic’s goons raid his studio. He’s arrested and transported to Evin prison to suffer under the hands of Agha.
The game bounces between Agha interrogating Reza and the revolution of 1979. Before his arrest and before the revolution, Reza was just a college student in Germany who’d come back home to Iran to visit.
His vacation turns serious when Iran erupts in violence. The people want the shah to go but not everyone agrees what should come next. Reza is a blank slate. He’s not driven by ideology. He only wants to take pictures. But the choices the player makes may change that.
1979 Revolution is a good game but not a great one. It’s too uneven, rushed and clunky to be anything other than a curiosity. Which is a shame because the game has some great elements. They just don’t come together to make a compelling whole.
It plays like the modern adventure games The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands. Players have a small measure of control over the Reza as he moves through the streets taking photos and talking to people, but those controls are terrible — like, as bad as in the original Resident Evil.
In a neat turn, when Reza captures an important photograph the game shows players the actual historical photograph the developers used for inspiration. These moments are cool but the poor controls hamper it. I often felt as if I were steering a boat on a sightseeing tour.
The game shines during conversations. The voice actors do an incredible job breathing life into Reza and the characters he meets. Playing the game, I was often asked to make decisions under a time limit and with little information. I often didn’t know the difference between right or wrong or even what the game wanted me to do. It wasn’t so much about conflicting sets of priorities as it was a lack of context and information.
But that, in a way, is brilliant. It captures the heady, fast-moving, ever-shifting chaos of revolution.
One of these moments happens close the game’s midpoint, when the revolutionary leadership asks Reza to root out a mole inside the organization. When a crisis erupts, the leaders force Reza to make a fast decision. I hadn’t had anywhere near enough time to investigate, but the game still forced me to make a choice.
I have no idea if I made the right choice or if there’s even a right choice to make. 1979 Revolution is a strange mix of optimism and ideology. Communists push against the Tudeh who fight the Mujahedeen who argue with the students. Ideologies mix and push against each other until you’re not sure where you stand.
This is most masterfully on display during the interrogation sequences. Agha presses Reza for answers to questions that I, the player, have no idea how to answer. In those moments, I make choices at random, since I know that Agha punishes silence with death.
1979 Revolution is a labor of love. Navid Khonsari is the mind behind the game. The former Rockstar Games developer worked on the Grand Theft Auto series before turning his talents to the revolution.
Khonsari’s family fled Iran when he a child and the experience stuck with him. He’s been working on the game for years and Iran labeled him a spy for his efforts. He launched an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for the game a few years ago and it’s a testament to his drive that he still managed to finish it.
There’s a lot to love in 1979 Revolution but also a lot to hate. It’s fascinating to walk through the streets of Tehran and see the sights and sounds of a revolution we in the West so poorly understand. The story and voice acting are incredible, but the poor controls, unpolished design and abrupt ending hold it back.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is available on Steam and GOG.