MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Iranian video game director Navid Khonsari has worked on blockbusters including Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and Max Payne. All are violent and aggressive games set in fictional cities. But for the past two years, he and a small team, including some fellow Iranians, have been working on something very different, a documentary game about the 1979 Iranian Revolution. NPR's Alan Yu has the story.
ALAN YU, BYLINE: Navid Khonsari knows this is not obvious video game material.
NAVID KHONSARI: Traditionally, controversy is not something that game publishers want to embrace. And obviously, Iran Revolution has got controversy written all over it. So it fell on my shoulders that if I want to make this game, I have to do it myself.
YU: The game, 1979 Revolution, puts the player inside the Iran of the late 1970s.
(SOUNDBITE FROM GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's going on up there?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Looks like they are blocking the entrance to the bazaar.
KHONSARI: You play as Reza, a young man who's taken to the streets, excited by the spirit of change and the possibility of being able to change not only their country but the world.
YU: Reza starts taking pictures.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay. You got what we needed. Let's go home.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But I need to get down there, capture it from the streets.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Things are heating up. You're gonna get us killed.
YU: He becomes a revolutionary against the Shah and an enemy of the state, though not a religious radical. Like most Iranians at the time, he was stuck in the middle. 1979 Revolution is still an action/adventure game and it looks a bit like Grand Theft Auto III, but the action is different.
KHONSARI: My opinion is that if I had conflict thrown at me, I'm not gonna pick up a gun and charge soldiers. I'm gonna try to get to safety and I'm gonna try to find the closest people to me and get them to safety.
YU: You help the wounded, sneak around to take pictures, and smuggle banned cassette tapes. The game creators interviewed Iranians and used original photos and audio to make sure they get things right. One of those interviewees and a voice actor for the game is also named Navid. Navid Negahban is a star on the TV show "Homeland." He was a high school student in Iran in 1979.
NAVID NEGAHBAN: When Navid gave me the script and I read it, some of the storylines, I mean, the things that's happening, the way that the guy's getting shot, the way that the whole story moves forward, it was very close to home. I mean, it brought back memories.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO GAME 1979 REVOLUTION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) is illegal. You are (unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We do not fear you. Put down your weapons and join us.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is your final...
YU: This is the chaotic world you have to navigate. It's full of moral dilemmas. At one point, you have to decide if you save your cousin or your friend. How do you deal with spies in your group? It's a personal story for the game makers but they know what's most important is, will people actually play it and have fun?
Professor Ian Bogost studies video games at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He says this kind of documentary game has not been commercially successful in the past.
IAN BOGOST: Unless we actually have many examples of documentary games that people really play, the genre in general and the specific examples can't be considered successful.
YU: But Bogost also points out it's not fair to compare 1979 Revolution to a game like Grand Theft Auto, just like it's not fair to compare a documentary film to a Hollywood blockbuster. Game creator Navid Khonsari is crowd-funding the project on Kickstarter. He has also invested his own time and money, but the financial risk is not his only concern. He is worried about what could happen if he were to visit friends and family in Iran.
KHONSARI: I was deemed a spy by the conservative newspapers in Iran. What kind of weight does that hold? You know, I'm not ready to test that right now, to be totally honest with you.
YU: For now, he's staying away. Three other Iranian artists working on the game are remaining anonymous but if all goes well, they hope to have the game ready next year. Alan Yu, NPR News.