Usually, it's the characters in the video games themselves that have the code names. Agent 47. Solid Snake. The Illusive Man. But, here in real life, a young Iranian artist working on a game has fled his homeland and hides his identity, all so he can do the thing he's always dreamed of.
He's going by Mr. Phoenix now and he's helping to make 1979 Revolution, an altogether different kind of video game. One that dredges up an ugly moment in history, when the revolution that was supposed to free Iran from oppression wound up ushering in an even worse regime. And, because the political descendants of that regime think that creator Navid Khonsari is a spy, a young man helping bring 1979 Revolution to life left everything he's ever known behind to make sure his family stays safe.
Phoenix never thought he'd be a part of the video games that he grew up playing. A few years ago, he was in the Iranian military and found out that Khonsari was part of the creative team that worked on the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto games. One shot-in-the-dark Facebook message put Phoenix and Khonsari in touch. Bonding over their shared heritage, the two started collaborating on a graphic novel together. Then Khonsari started assembling the crew that would be the documentary-cum-video game, bringing Phoenix along for the ride. Suddenly, the former soldier was working inside the medium he'd admired from afar for so long.
Mr. Phoenix: "I left so much behind. My family and my friends... everything I knew until that moment in my life is still in Iran."
"I started working professionally when I was 17," Phoenix said, in an e-mail exchange mediated by Khonsari. "I wanted to become an animator and thought that was the closest I was going to get to working on games, as there was no gaming industry in Iran to support that kind of work. I yearned to work on video games; I love them and dreamed of working on them…I just didn't think it was possible."
But it eventually dawned on him that a game like 1979 Revolution would change his life in more sinister ways. The ephemeral nature of the Iranian government's thought policing means that Phoenix doesn't exactly know if he's being targeted. Nevertheless, he didn't want to risk being wrong. After all, in these kinds of scenarios, you never know that you're a person of interest until it's too late. "I'm not sure if anyone is coming after me," Phoenix said. "But I need to be cautious not only for my own safety, but also for that of my family. Also, Navid was written about and if they associated me with him it could be trouble for my family."
Phoenix isn't the only one on the 1979 team to use a pseudonym, either. The game's animation director and one of Revolution's writers go by The Iceman and Navee Sande, respectively, so as to avoid any possible repercussions related to their involvement. "I left so much behind," Phoenix said. "My family and friends… everything I knew until that moment in my life is still in Iran." Khonsari's last visits with family happened far away from Tehran, the capital city where he grew up before coming to the United States.
Khonsari: "... I was 10 years old when all of that was going on. I thought it was cool having a tank roll down the street! But I didn't understand why it was happening..."
All of this drama swirls around a game that isn't done yet and that came up short in a Kickstarter campaign. But, despite the toll that the process has already take on the team's personal lives, Khonsari says that he's going to soldier on. Response from the Iranian-Americans who've heard about 1979 can be characterized as curious but skeptical. "Some of them are interested in what side we're coming down on," Khonsari told me. "Is it pro-America? Pro-monarchy? To be honest, I was 10 years old when all of that was going on. I thought it was cool having a tank roll down the street! But I didn't understand why that was happening and this game is an effort to share what I've come to understand about that moment and how it affected people's lives."
Unlike the vast majority of video games, 1979 is based on real events. Khonsari is planning to use that element as an important feature of the experience. When players guide young photojournalist Reza to take a picture of a protest, they'll get a picture of an actual photograph documenting the events portrayed in the game. Recordings of the cassette tapes used to disseminate information during the 1979 upheaval will be another real-world element woven into the game, letting players hear how propaganda and counter-propaganda tried to win hearts and minds.
And the consequences of the actual regime change will impacts the game's characters, too. Players will be introduced to Bibi, a female leader of the revolutionary movement. "Women got screwed the most in the revolution," Khonsari says. "They fought and died for change and, when that change happened, they wound up having no rights." As future episodes of 1979 Revolution come out—three multi-episode seasons are planned—you'll see how those repercussions play out in Bibi's life.
Despite the fact that the game's Kickstarter campaign came up short, Khonsari still believes his team can deliver the first episode by this spring/summer. He says that investors who've been intrigued by the reports on the game and its premise are interested in helping fund 1979 Revolution. People who want to lend their dollars to the effort can still contribute at the game's website.
As for Mr. Phoenix, he doesn't know when it'll be safe to go home again. "There was no space for growth or to further my life experience," Phoenix said. "Don't get me wrong: there are many artists in Iran who are thriving and I have much respect for them. For me, it was about experiencing the world beyond Iran. My hope for this game is that people will learn what happened and have greater understanding for all people. From learning about their experience in the game, they might be more compassionate rather than dismissive."
Maybe one day, he'll be able to attach his real name to the work he's doing now. Until then, he'll be working far away from the country he's helping make a game about.