Is it possible to keep your virtues in a time of crisis? Do you succumb to your innate anger in a snap decision, or stay defiant in the face of certain death? Who do you trust in a time where everyone is untrustworthy? Welcome to the questions you have to answer, sometimes in a few seconds, in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.
Following in the footsteps of Telltale Games, indie developer iNK Stories offers something different, something grounded in harsh reality instead of focusing on zombies or Handsome Jack. Partially spearheaded by iNK Stories founder Navid Khonsari, an Iranian-Canadian former Rockstar Games developer, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a very personal project, one that Khonsari has dubbed a “vérité game,” an interactive documentary based on real life stories and anecdotes from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The premise itself is promising, and has not been without controversy- Khonsari and most of his production team were banned from ever entering Iran for example, making the game have real-life consequences for its own developers.
It has been a long development process to get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday released. After a failed Kickstarter, iNK Stories was able to finally get the product finished, and the result is a game that is fantastic to play if you value what iNK Stories is trying to do. Considering the game has real-world implications for Khonsari and his team, it makes the content of 1979 Revolution even more intriguing, and that content is ultimately more important than how the game plays.
The plot is simple. After the playable character, Reza Shirazi, is captured by the Islamic Republic of Iran, we see a series of flashbacks that show the beginnings of Reza’s drive towards a revolution in a politically charged, tension filled climate. His friends, cousins, and even family all have an opinion on the situation, as the relatively peaceful protests slowly devolve into violent incursions as the game progresses.
The primary mechanic of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a mix of the Telltale Games design of choice and consequence, combined with photography. Reza being an amateur photographer is a perfect framing device that not only drives a few moments of the plot but provides an excuse through gameplay to showcase the docu-drama aspects of 1979 Revolution. Throughout the game, you get to snap photographs that recreate real-life pictures of the revolution, right down to the camera angles and subject matter. Each photo is accompanied with a short description of what its significance is, followed by a tab where you can read more information if you choose.
Unlike other games that present historical representations, 1979 Revolution doesn’t hit you over the head with a clear objective. The real revolution was a land of confusion; various factions from the Mujahedeen to communists all vied for control, offering shaky alliances against the Western-backed monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Pahlavi. Throughout the game, you see the different factions in action, their motivations, and desires, along with plenty of tidbits on Iranian culture, cuisine, and historical anecdotes to help flesh out your understanding of the world you are in.
For many, this might be the first time they see what Iran was once, as today they are firmly in the camp of the “other” to most Westerners because of current day politics. Even the game doesn’t mince this relationship, as a strong anti-western sentiment is expressed by the majority of the characters due to the historical relationship between the Shah and the U.S. This has caused a few to accuse 1979 Revolution of being a propaganda-focused game. However, unlike real propagandist titles like America’s Army or Ethnic Cleansing, the unfiltered honesty of the events is completely divorced from an overt political statement; any statement made is ultimately chosen by the player. So the game is engaging without being forced while simultaneously offering a chance for tangential learning on behalf of the player.
As a teacher and a historian, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is already a must have, giving players a historical lens to participate in real life events. But what about as a gamer? While the historical information is accurate and the use of photography makes obtaining information a choice by the player, the hairline fracture for the game is on the technical level. iNK Stories clearly did the best they could for the title, but the lack of polish is noticeable throughout the adventure- poor movement and hit detection, some game clipping, even the repeated use of assets in large crowd shots becomes a bit jarring at times.
It also has a problem with content. Much of the game is played at a brisk pace, and despite boasting nineteen chapters, can be completed in two to three hours in one single playthrough. Much of that time is spent taking photographs, talking to NPCs, and going through the adventure repertoire of pointing and clicking random objects. Sometimes it seems directionless; one moment in particular has you electing to look at home movies of Reza and his family before the revolution begins. It is a good character moment, showing the family before ideological and political ideals start to fracture them, but can easily be seen as superfluous to the more obvious, big ticket choices you face in the game.
It comes across as filler in a game that is very lean to begin with- but thankfully the strength of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is playing it multiple times. Big choices are rife with tension, do you throw a rock at the police, or take pictures of them? Can you save the life of a man stabbed on the streets? Who do you choose out of a group of men that is a traitor among your cause, when there is little evidence to go on? The violence in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is scarce but effective; with torture, blood and bullets used sparingly to enhance the tension that underpins the entire experience.
Each big ticket decision more or less redeems the game experience, offering a moral choice that allows for a decent amount of replay value. In the Telltale tradition, choices and dialogue are on a limited timer and have consequences that the game reveals in graphic detail. It also depicts all the characters in a sense of ambiguity, even hinting at Reza committing atrocities as the revolution progresses, which highlights the moral underpinnings of even a good character going to the extreme for their beliefs. Couple this with strong vocal performances by some Iranian-born actors and actresses, in particular Bobby Nederi as Reza and Navid Negahban in a chilling performance as Asadollah Lajevardi, the warden interrogating and torturing Reza; and you have a well-acted, well-paced thriller thrown in the mix of this docu-drama framework.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a fantastic first part of what I hope will turn into a short, Telltale style series by iNKStories. It is clear that the message of 1979 Revolution is one of personal honesty; like a good historian they present the facts before formulating a conclusion, like a good game, it allows the players to fill in the blanks to that conclusion, shaping the character and drive of Reza throughout the experience. iNK Stories has not mentioned if a second part is on the horizon, but I hope the story continues, despite the game itself showing its seams at times.
The game was played for close to three hours to completion. A code was provided by the developers for this review.
Part historical documentary, part video game, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a solid foundation for a tension-filled story grounded in the reality of a confusing time.