What does it take to be accused of espionage? For Navid Khonsari, all he had to do was start making a game about his homeland.
If you've been waiting to hear more about 1979—the game that Khonsari's been developing about the socio-cultural turmoil surrounding the Iranian Revolution—you may have noticed that things have been quiet for a while. There's a reason for that.
"When word got out about the game, it got picked up by the conservative newspaper in Iran and I got written up as a spy," Khonsari relates. "They're basically saying that I'm making propaganda. So, as a result, I can't go back to Iran now. It really sucks because I've got some family there, including elderly relations."
"The main artist that worked on all of the main 1979 concept art—I work with only Iranians on that part because I want to be true to the material—he's now fled the country as a result. We haven't even released anything yet. But you're guilty just as a result of your affiliation."
This guilt-by-association will sound familiar to folks aware of political prisoner Amir Hekmati, who remains behind bars in Iran for helping work on war games that drew from reality. But Khonsari isn't letting this almost-exile stop him from setting up a development studio in Toronto and trying to secure additional rounds of funding. Inspired by how Grand Theft Auto opened up a window to the world for Iranian gamers, his ultimate goal is to create games that show how politics and war impact the lives of everyday people across the globe.
At last week's Games for Change conference, he revealed details of the kind of experience he wants to deliver with 1979. Players will be controlling an Iranian-born protagonist who's lived in America. "The character's parents are professors at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He attends school there and eventually winds up in foreign service circles and as part of Operation Eagle Claw." Eagle Claw was the codename for the U.S Military mission that tried to free the American diplomats being held hostage. It failed to do so and left eight American soldiers dead when two helicopters crashed into each other.
"[The American military] actually took a number of Iranians with them so that they could be the guys driving the trucks when they were transporting the hostages to the helicopters. So the main character is one of those guys. He's going there as a driver, as an interpreter and partially as a political strategist."
Khonsari's quick to point out that 1979's hero isn't a soldier. "He's not picking up a gun and kicking ass. But he has been trained, though, so he can protect himself." Expect hand-to-hand combat and stealth as some of the gameplay elements but there's no over-arching motivation to complete any world-saving missions. All the character wants is to get out of Iran. As players try various escape methods, they'll travel the land and learn about the sociopolitical texture and forces in opposition to the Ayatollah Khomeni.
Khonsari says players will get glimpses at life in late 1970s Iran from different vantage points. He wants the game to show players what it's like to have to cover up if you're a woman in a fundamentalist Muslim regime, what the tensions of being constantly monitored by social police might feel like and even what might be driving the extreme anti-American sentiment of a Mojahedeen party member.
1979's foundation comes from wanting a different perspective and Khonsari also wants the game to start off on a divergent platform, too. Khonsari believes that tablets like the iPad are the place where the next evolution of games will be happening, partially because they've become attractive to a growing audience from different walks of life. Khonsari envisions using such devices' voice recognition to access gated locations in the game, where players will have to convincingly read a line in Farsi back to the game to pass a checkpoint.
Chair Entertainment's hit Infinity Blade franchise serves an inspiration for the kind of dazzle Khonsari wants for 1979. However, he wants to offer the game for free with paid content in the form of side missions and additional graphic novel content that delves deeper into the characters you meet in passing in the game.
"You might run into a guy who's basically sneaking people across the Afghanistan/Iran border and then you do a mission together," Khonsari explains. "But then he goes out and gets arrested. What happens to him when he gets arrested and the continuation of the story will get told in a digital graphic novel. And all of those will be based on actual historical events."
There's huge ambition driving 1979 and that ambition comes from Khonsari's belief that mainstream commercial games have a great way of getting their message across, but their stories lack depth. "They're weak content," he states. "Audiences are sick of pseudo-worlds; they want real-world places and stories. The things I learned at Rockstar have not left me. I'm trying to carry those lessons on in slightly different ways. So, it's about creating a level of detail and using it to drive the story and the gameplay."
And Khonsari doesn't just want to make one game about the political flashpoints of his homeland, either. Through iNK Stories, he's hoping to use this documentary-style template for tentatively-titled follow-ups 1982 El Salvador, 1988 Panama, 1992 Liberia and 1995 Bosnia. The plan is to have all these games come from personal experience.
"The idea is to get professional writers and journalists from those countries who are wanting to tell their stories. We're a start-up developer. It's not like we've got tons of dough. So we're appealing to this storytelling urge. People will go to the umpteenth level to try to do that, so we want to give them a platform."
I asked Khonsari if he thought that making political video games set in Iran or other countries might be met by disinterest by American consumers. "I would say that trolls and space marines you see in so many games are more foreign, right?," he laughs. "But the concept of being a hero, of rising to the challenge isn't. A quest for freedom, a quest for your own personal freedom, overcoming adversity… those are all part of an American idea. They're universal themes, really, and I think that video games can show the pursuit of those ideas in a world that looks more like the one we live in."