Grand Theft Auto: Iran

History has always been a supple and fertile breeding ground for video games. World War II has been milked so hard that there may not be a single battle left that has not been digitally recreated in some form, while other genres like the Wild West seem to be released in waves. Some games have even been set in more publically sensitive time periods, like during the Vietnam War or some of the most recent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this may be a first.

Video game director Navid Khonsari has plans to do something a little different with gaming, by creating a game based on the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The game will delve into the historical and fictional — but realistic — emotional toll felt by Iranians of the time, and allow you to jump between multiple characters and experience the Revolution from very different viewpoints. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the controversy beginning as the public blindly rages against a game set in Iran, which may cast the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini in a favorable light while casting the American backed Shah’s regime as oppressive. In an interview with CNN, Khonsari claimed that his game — which is titled 1979 — will stick to its tag line “There are no good guys.”

Obviously, the Middle East in general and Iran in particular are sensitive subjects for many Americans. 1979 wasn’t so long ago that the Iranian hostage crisis has been forgotten, and people with outlets do love to take moral stands against things that they may not understand. So whenever this game is published, expect to hear plenty of heated rhetoric about it as numerous talking head experts on TV claim the game will rot the brains of kids and turn them into militant psychos despite those same “experts” never having even seen the game. But Khonsari is no stranger the controversy.

Khosari has spent years in the video game industry working on some of the most popular and ground breaking games ever made — as well as some of the most controversial. As cinematic director for Grand Theft Auto 3, he knows what it means to have the scrutiny of the outspoken on him. He also acted in the same capacity for GTA: Vice City, GTA: San Andreas, Bully, two Max Payne games, Red Dead Revolver as well as any Rockstar game developed between 2001 and 2005. He then went on to form his own company with his wife, Vassiliki, called iNKstories, which acted as cinematic consultant on the recent titles Alan Wake and Homefront.

“People who might not be completely familiar with the game world look at fancy graphics and polished gameplay and say ‘this is cutting edge,’ ” Khonsari told CNN. “But from what I’ve seen, it’s still quite basic. Very much a checkers mentality — red against black, good against evil. I’m interested in having good and evil within the same character, and for you to experience both. I think that’s true to life, and I think you can design a game around that, too.”

INKstories is currently in the development phase for 1979. No publisher has been announced, but that is not uncommon for new, non-franchise titles from independent developers. Khonsari describes the game, which is in the early stages, as an open-world, sandbox-style game that follows the major historical events of the Iranian Revolution, which the Iranian-born Khonsari, 41, lived through. As a child, Khonsari and his family were Iranian citizens when the revolution broke out. He witnessed firsthand many of the events before his family fled to Canada following the fall of the Shah, and subsequent formation of the theocracy that rules Iran to this day.

Iran: 1979

The year 1979 was a tumultuous one for Iran and by extension the world, but many Western gamers may not be aware of the story. It’s not exactly taught in most American high schools. The “Iranian Hostage Crisis” may ring bells with many, but as the years pass, the details have begun to fade.

As early as 1977, demonstrations against the American-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had begun, which led to civil resistance. The protests began as a reaction to the seen “westernization” of Iran by many who saw Pahlavi’s government as little more than a puppet regime, controlled by America. The Shah was also seen as heading an oppressive and corrupt regime who were so obsessed with stemming the tide of Communist influences, that it was nearly oblivious to the rise of pro-Democracy and pro-Islamic forces within Iran. Throughout 1978, the protests turned into strikes and demonstrations that threatened to lead to chaos.

In January of 1979, the Shah fled to Egypt, where he was granted asylum and would remain until his death the following year. His retreat from Iran left a power vacuum. The far wealthier and more modern forces still loyal to the Shah remained in place, and faced a populist uprising that began as a fairly secular movement, but was soon dominated by the religious groups that would eventually name Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Supreme Leader of a new Theocratic government. By April of 1979, the fighting was concluded, and Iran became an Islamic Republic. By December a new theocratic constitution had been approved.

Within a year, Iran and Iraq would be at war for close to a decade, but the year 1979 forever changed Iran, and with it the world.

Open world gameplay in a closed society

As for the game, it will place players in the middle of the uprisings, with no true good guys or bad guys to align yourself with. The choices you make will have consequences, and if Khonsari can pull it off, it should give gamers a better understanding of the events that took place during 1979 in Iran.

“I want people to understand the incredible moral ambiguity of this story, that this was a country with many different ideas and beliefs,” Khonsari said. “Growing up in Iran when I did, I saw Iranians in the greatest light, and I saw them in the worst light.”

From the first moment you will face difficult decisions as you are given three options of how to enter Iran: As part of a U.S. special forces team flown in via helicopter, via Iraq with Saddam Hussein’s army or with the Taliban across the Afghanistan border. You can almost hear the politicians warming up to denounce this game.

Fans of the EA game Medal of Honor will remember the controversy surrounding the inclusion of the Taliban as one of the online playable teams in the competitive multiplayer modes. While the ability to play as the Taliban in a current war, against Allied forces was probably at the very least tasteless, many politicians went so far as to suggest that the inclusion of the Taliban could lead some gamers to actually join the real Taliban. This was the extreme of the argument, but EA relented and renamed the enemy teams.

Once you have selected your method of egress, the game becomes more akin to a typical third-person shooter. But rather than jumping into a gunfight, your first challenges will be more puzzle based. If you begin as the translator, you will face linguistic-based puzzles as you use your translating skills to speak Farsi. Your goal will then be to help rescue the American hostages.

“But once you get into Iran, you’re no longer the translator,” Khonsari said. “You take the role of a student demonstrator who was opposed the shah. You’ve kicked the shah out, but you’re unhappy with some of these fanatical elements you see rising up.

“So the game changes, and now your mission is to get this small military group to Tehran, but nonviolently, clandestinely. You want the American hostages out of Iran because you want the country to focus on rebuilding itself, and you’ve heard all these rumors about a war with Iraq coming.”

As you jump between characters, you will be faced with moral choices in the way you approach the rescue of the American hostages. You can attempt stealth, or try to bribe your way in. If that isn’t your style, you can lead an assault on the building, or try to convince others to help. Alternatively, you may find yourself trying to prevent an attack to free the hostages.

“Not everyone you meet is going to be helpful,” he said. “There are going to be aspects of bribery, making exchanges and turning a blind eye to really bad stuff so you can get the job done.

“Maybe, in order to get the group there, you need to sacrifice some stragglers and let them get captured so the others can get away. And then you’ll have some extreme choices to make when you get to Tehran: Are you going to invade the embassy, guns blazing, to try to get the hostages back? Or are you going to try to protect the embassy from the Americans?”

Khonsari also said that there is a multiplayer component to the game that will combine shootouts and combat with decision making.

The future of gaming may begin in the past

If the game is a success, 1979 will act as the first of a series of games set during some of history’s more interesting  “gray” times, where there is not necessarily a right or wrong, just varying shades.

“(This is) the first installment of a franchise where the games will be named after years in which there were CIA operations within certain countries,” he said. “1979 is the first one because it’s closest to my heart and I know the story the best. After that, we want to explore what took place in Panama with (Manuel) Noriega, and Libya back in the ’70s and ’80s with (Moammar) Gadhafi.”

The game is still in the early stages of development, so it might be a few years before the game is actually on store shelves. But when it is close to release, expect to hear more about this game—and the certain controversy that will be attached to it. But if Khonsari can pull it off, 1979 may be the first of a new breed of game.  

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