The Spy Next Door: Navid Khonsari

The former Grand Theft Auto cinematic director was branded a spy by an Iranian newspaper for his latest indie title. This is the story of 1979 Revolution


Navid KhonsariNavid KhonsariNavid Khonsari is taking more than just a professional risk with his new game. Years after leaving Rockstar Games, where he worked as a director on multiple shoot-‘em-up titles in the Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne series, Khonsari is aiming to bring players closer to real-life action. His upcoming episodic game, 1979 Revolution, puts users in the midst of the Iranian revolt, a political movement that resulted in the overthrow of one shah and installation of the controversial Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Viewed from the perspective of a neutral photographer drawn to the action, the historically accurate game has the ambitious aim of giving players a firsthand view of the experiences and choices made by everyday Iranians who lived through the conflict. It’s not easy. On top of battling the typical design-finance-marketing trifecta of challenges all indie developers face, Khonsari is also tasked with the not-so-simple problem of reducing a massive, religiously charged political conflict down to an unbiased and playable story, as well as convincing the general public that emotionally sensitive events can be appropriate fodder for a game. 

Get In Media: You were living in Iran during the revolution. Would you mind speaking to your personal experiences within that conflict and what led to you to make a game about it?

Navid Khonsari: I grew up in Iran and had a very, very regular childhood at the time. Loving family surrounded me all the time. We had wonderful trips up into the mountains, parks, playing, holidays, beach life, skiing. Everything that most kids get to experience with their family, I had. Then in 1978, the country started going through a change and a number of events, perfectly synchronized, led to the streets being filled with people who believed in the possibility of change, in being [able] to overthrow a shah who they never believed, many, was a legitimate king but, more importantly, probably, the infrastructure that was underneath him that had continually kept any real opposition at bay through arrests, imprisonment, and torture.

The country at that time was economically thriving. There was also a huge disparity economically between those who were in the top and the rest of the nation. While there were attempts at education and laying down an infrastructure, many were weary of the power and influence of the United States. … All of this together started bringing about disruptive elements, but it wasn’t really disruption, it was the belief of change and it was led by students as any revolution is. They took to the streets and many decided to put aside their political differences to come together as one group, as one force. …

1979 Revolution

… I started seeing the impact of that in our school and, more importantly, started seeing it on the streets and [in] my parents’ concern for safety as things started ramping up. But I was 10 years old. I was a boy. I lived in an apartment building. I could look out the top floor window [to] see these massive crowds. For the first time, I started seeing trucks filled with soldiers and tanks and helicopters. I was too young to understand the actual impact of what was taking place, but I was taking everything in, almost as if I didn’t want to miss anything, and my grandfather, I think, recognized that and wanted me to witness what was taking place. During one of the protests—the protests for a long time were nonviolent protests—he took me out and I walked along in a protest and was able to experience and see firsthand the passion and the hope in people’s eyes, as well as anger and the frustration in others. I was able to get a good well-rounded view, at least through a 10-year-old’s eyes, of what was taking place.

The aftermath of the revolution, obviously I left the country, as did many other people. 1979 is really an accumulation not just of my experiences as a young man or as a young boy at the time, but also the experiences of those who have left and those who stayed behind and of those who believed in the possibility of change and having that change actually not only not happen but make them into victims, victims of a regime that brought the darkest days to Iran. Not because of political differences with the shah, but with a war that killed over 1 million people, with women seeing their rights being taken away, with universities being shut down, the economy plummeting, and mass executions of any political opposition. I think it’s fair to say that when you come together to have a revolution and make change, those are the last things that you want. Unfortunately, that’s what kind of played out. 1979 is me having a direct connection to that moment, but it’s also me having a direct connection to a number of different stories from people with a number of different backgrounds who are impacted by this event.

GIM: In doing press for this, an Iranian newspaper picked it up as American propaganda. You were actually branded a spy for this game. Is that accurate?

NK: Yeah. I did some press on this game and it was picked up. The press was viewed by Kayhan, which is a conservative newspaper … in Iran. I don’t think they really delved into it, but they basically, in a very short article that was put online, called me a spy making American propaganda because I think they just assumed that me living here and telling the story about the 1979 revolution, that it would be told with a slant and with a view that would not be necessarily showing the revolution or the people behind it in a positive light. Obviously, that’s not my intention at all, but at the same time, the Iranian judicial system … tends to, let’s just say, have a little less clarity of what is right and what is wrong and where the justice is. I’m not about to risk, not my life, but also who I have as a family by going back to Iran.

GIM: Have there been other political challenges in making this game?

NK: Absolutely. I think the biggest challenge when you’re trying to tell a story that has such hot-topic issues as the 1979 revolution is people come out of the woodwork to try to figure out what side, who you’re trying to portray. Are you trying to be pro the monarchy? Are you trying to be pro the Islamic revolution? Are you pro-America? Are you anti-America? … Other issues have been, “Is this really a topic appropriate to make a video game out of?”

We’ve definitely had people question it, but nobody is going to ask me these questions if I’m making Angry Birds, and that’s fine. What we’re trying to do here [is] not just make a game about the 1979 revolution. What we’re trying to do is define a new genre and that forces us to ask questions. … What is so amazing about video games and that engaging factor? [Can we] actually bring real world elements to it? In our opinion, the audience is hungry for that…

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GIM: This game, or at least parts of it, is very emotionally challenging. I’m thinking specifically about the levels where your character is trying to help injured victims and you just can’t do it. Have you done any testing to see if players respond to the type of challenge that you just simply can’t win and that is emotionally gut-wrenching at the same time?

NK: What we noticed with scenes where people were doing everything right and yet the outcome was not necessarily done in a typical style of a game that you’ve achieved your mission, we actually found people responded to it quite positively because the next scene was immediately following up. That person doesn’t live and yet it doesn’t really make that much of a difference because you’re literally right in the middle of everything and you need to try to figure out what the next step is for you or for him. My cousin gets shot, I try to do whatever I can, and he passes away. There’s nothing I can change about that, but then the next thing that comes into my mind is, what am I going to do now? Am I going to leave him here? The next challenge that comes about pushes you and tests you.

I think people also recognize that because we’re doing it in an episodic format, because we’re so heavily based in narrative, the essence of the experience is for you to go through the episode and not just get stuck on one level where you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until you defeat the enemy or whatever the situation might be. I think that it’s a different way to approach games. … I have no doubt that we’ll probably lose some people who are hardcore gamers and want to just have that experience, but I also think that we’re going to hopefully open it up to a much larger group of people who are attracted to this kind of experience because they might not be what the world considers core gamers but they want to do something on their tablet aside from watching or just reading online. This creates a combination of reading, watching, and playing.

GIM: For new developers who want to move into this documentary style of game making [Navid refers to it as “verité games”], what do you recommend they do to get started?

NK: Tell them not to do it. They’re crazy. Go get a job [laughs]. Look, I believe that if you want to do verité games, if you want to do a story, it doesn’t have to be like 1979. It could be much more simple. What’s the story that you want to embrace? There was a game done … it was about childhood cancer. It was about [the developer’s] own experience. I think that’s just as strong. I think that a game like The Stanley Parable is an amazing game. It’s just as strong. …

… It’s really about your conviction. It’s about recognizing what is the end emotion or the end experience that you want people to have and then working from that backward to what you’ve got. For me, the big thing with 1979 was I wanted to tell truly an engaging and immersive narrative and I couldn’t think of a more exciting world to be a part of than one where a revolution is taking place. The other thing I recognized with doing this about Iran [was] that the rest of the world, really anybody under the age of 35, only knows Iran from what they’ve seen since [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini come into power. There has been a real focus by both the government as well as the media to portray these two sides, the West and the Middle West, as so diversely different, and I think I’m trying to pull back the sheets and pull back the layers and show really the similarity that existed when I was growing up there and that these worlds weren’t as far apart as they’ve drifted to be now. For people to see young men talking about the good points and the bad points of heavy metal versus disco, young women wearing the latest fashions, people talking about not just politics within Iran but discussing the viability and the possibility of Communism and the impact of Marxism. These were all the things that were taking place, but everything that I just explained to you, I could say was 1969 in America. The idea is to make what people think is unfamiliar familiar.

Black Friday, the first episode of 1979 Revolution, takes to the streets in spring 2015. 

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