Developed by iNK Stories and set during the Iranian Revolution against the Shah, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday has a narrative focus that places it somewhere between Life is Strange and Heavy Rain. It combines scenes that allow for exploration and photography with quick time events that ratchet up the tension, while the snappy dialogue rarely gives you much time to consider your responses. The game forces you to make moral decisions and form allegiances in a complex and rapidly escalating situation.
The result is a game with some thrilling moments and an incredible sense of context. The plot centers around Reza Shirazi, a striving photojournalist returning to Tehran after studying abroad in Germany. Reza recaps events leading up to the Black Friday massacre in 1978 while sitting in an interrogation chamber in prison in 1980, and it’s an effective framing device that clarifies the stakes for the people at the heart of the revolution. The earlier chapters are naively optimistic, and every return to the present reminds you that there is no happy ending.
Yet despite the grim outcome, 1979 Revolution is not a bleak game, nor does it wallow in tragedy or misery. There is violence, but it speaks to historical accuracy and civil angst rather than a desire for death and destruction, and the various characters’ reactions to events give the game much of its nuance, demonstrating that the Iranian people are not a monolithic force with a cast pulled from many different walks of life. Reza’s brother Hossein is a member of a despised secret police force. Their cousin Ali is an explicitly violent revolutionary, while Reza’s friends Bibi and Babak advocate for a more peaceful form of protest. There are communists, Muslim theocrats, and democratic republicans all angling to fill the void that would follow the Shah’s removal from power, and the debate plays out in real time as characters ask Reza to choose a side. The arguments can be a little blunt – it’s undergraduate political discourse – but most of the characters are young idealists in their early twenties so the idealism is appropriate.
In any case, the game isn’t trying to suggest that any one perspective is right as much as it’s trying to establish that they all coexist within Iranian society, just as they do everywhere else in the world. In 1978, people in Iran liked disco. They dressed like extras on Miami Vice. They read the same theorists as political science students in Germany and Canada and the US. They were regular people with regular concerns trying to do what they thought was best for the future of their country.
They were also imperfect, and suffered the same fears and insecurities as activists around the world. That’s what makes Revolution so fascinating. The game doesn’t take sides, and instead shows you why the various characters believe what they believe. Then it steps back and lets you judge accordingly. The game’s primary goal is to educate, to make the player understand that these are peaceful human beings with complex lives and not terrorists to be killed in another game starring photocopied American soldiers.
It accomplishes that goal through its narrative and through a notebook that provides brief, easily digestible stories about the culture and people of Iran. It makes Revolution an excellent piece of interactive history. I learned things about Iranian day-to-day life that I’d never have learned through other Western media, including the news media that too often dismisses the Middle East as an unknowable other. The game desperately wants to humanize Iranian people and Iranian culture, and in that regard it’s an unmitigated success.
Unfortunately, Revolution doesn’t hold up quite as well as a game. The biggest problem is the pacing, which pairs long, meandering strolls with unforgiving quick time events that make it difficult to know what the game expects from you as the player. There are scenes that seem to draw on everything from LA Noire to Trauma Center, and there are a lot of inputs that feel entirely unnecessary, extra button clicks added simply because games are supposed to make you press more buttons.
There is logic to the structure. The tonal whiplash from mundane family arguments to violent political suppression is as jarring for the people in the game as it is for the player. The balance just feels off, and the mechanical confusion eventually bleeds into the characters. Whereas Life is Strange fleshed out Max’s inner life in a way that encouraged introspection, Revolution doesn’t give you enough information about Reza as a character. He’s a blank slate, which gives you more input into his personality but feels odd considering most of the supporting cast are friends and family he’s known his entire life. The game has to insert exposition where the relationships suggest that none should be necessary, and it often undercuts the emotional weight of your decisions.
The narrative also feels unfinished, ending abruptly on something dangerously close to a cliffhanger. It has enough closure to skate by without too much letdown, but it when the credits roll it seems like there’s a lot of story still waiting to be told.
Yet even if the execution leaves something to be desired, 1979 Revolution does what it sets out to do and brings an admirable level of compassion to its subject matter. The narrative is gripping despite the uneven pacing, while the quick time events deliver some genuinely wrenching moments and the rapid dialogue trees create dramatic conflict as you attempt to navigate through a minefield of competing ideologies.
However, the moments that truly make the game are the subtler moments that reveal the softer side of Iranian culture. There’s a sequence in Reza’s house in which you’re able to watch home videos of Reza’s family, and they offer a glimpse into the joy and celebration that defined these people’s lives in more peaceful times. Video games too often have little interest in the Middle East as anything more than a battleground, and it’s refreshing to see a game that understands that ordinary civilians live in that part of the world. 1979 Revolution isn’t perfect, but it is a story about people instead of stereotypes, and that’s something we need more of in the medium.