The sound of distant screams fills the air. I am already battered and bruised, sitting in an interrogation cell with my hands bound. The man who is questioning me holds a cattle prod. Part of me knows I won’t leave this place alive—and part of me will do anything I can to survive just one more minute.
This is 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, an action/adventure game in which the player takes on the role of Reza Shirazi, a photojournalist whose involvement in the Iranian revolution is told through flashbacks during interrogation. The photographs you take and the people you meet unlock pieces of the history of the revolution.
You can hear speeches from Ayatollah Khomeini in exile, read the pamphlets that were distributed in the streets, and see newspaper accounts of the events. Most importantly, you talk to people—you learn why they make the choices they do, and in many cases discover that they have no real choices at all. Navid Khonsari, the creator of 1979 Revolution, has been accused of espionage in Iran for the act of creating this faithful documentation of the revolution and its aftermath, so that the game itself represents the act of dangerous witness that it portrays.
Through Reza’s eyes you experience the panic of trying to flee a safehouse being raided, the agony of finding yourself torn apart by conflicted loyalties, the danger of a peaceful protest turned riot, the despair of losing a beloved friend. The choices you make determine the fates of your friends and family—but there’s no “right” way to move through the conflict from which no one escapes unscathed.
Large portions of the game are animations varied with “walking simulation,” as you uncover different bits of culture and history that contribute to a deeper understanding of the game’s setting. But the most effective parts are perhaps the panicky action sequences and hurried dialogue choices, when a split second means the difference between life and death.
Reza is a revolutionary, but his greatest weapon is his camera. He is not a hardened fighter, nor does he passionately espouse any particular ideology. Around him communists, Islamic loyalists devoted to Khomeini, peaceful protesters, and those following more violent ideologies argue. Those opposed to the Shah’s regime formed a huge cross-section of the Iranian people, and fully ten percent of the population participated in the protests leading up to the revolution.
In some ways, Iran is a particularly easy “in” for Americans to understand some part of Middle Eastern history. That’s because under the influence of the westernized Shah, the people of Iran seem very familiar to us—when Reza looks at his father’s home movies from the sixties, with big cars, women in bathing suits, and fun dance parties, they could be the home movies of any American family from the period.
But just outside these idyllic vignettes, the secret police are murdering innocent people; women are punished for wearing the hijab of their Islamic faith; dramatic income inequality means horrifying poverty lurks around every corner. The Shah’s Iran may look familiar, but the passion of the revolutionaries is in no way irrational or foolish. It’s easy to understand both Reza’s involvement in the revolution and his hesitation to go against family loyalties.
Studies have found that readers of psychologically nuanced literary fiction experience gains in their capacity for empathy, and it’s not hard to believe that playing a game like 1979 Revolution could have the same effect. A study from North Carolina State University has found that, when playing some kind of roleplaying game, almost everyone roleplays to some extent. The rogue will choose to sneak, the bard will choose to charm, the barbarian will choose to fight. Through the same kind of identification that fictional narrative offers, games can take us inside someone else’s head.
And 1979 Revolution takes us to a place where our empathy is being tested even today—the interrogation cell. Donald Trump, in his campaign for the Republican nomination, has said that he would approve waterboarding and thinks “we should go much stronger,” and that he would order the capture and perhaps death of the innocent families of suspected terrorists.
And when I consider that, it’s not the thought of Reza, beaten and fearful, that consumes my mind. It’s the thought of that man with the cattle prod. The United States Armed Forces are not merely an institution—they are a collection of people, men and women for whom I have the greatest respect. Yet if they were forced to follow the orders of a leader like Trump, they would be no more human than that “Butcher of Evin” who threatens Reza’s brother to make him betray his friends.
I want better for those men and women than the mindless cruelty of a Khomeini or a Trump. They deserve better. And the antidote to inhumane brutality is very simple: it’s empathy. It’s Reza’s camera, and it’s Khonsari’s game—it’s the dangerous witness that makes us step outside ourselves and see the humanity in others, and ourselves.