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How a former Rockstar developer is leading a revolution in gaming

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When Navid Khonsari left Rockstar Games after working as the cinematic director on several Grand Theft Auto titles, he was sure he wouldn't make another video game. Instead, he returned to his first love, documentary filmmaking and, in the process, stumbled upon the creation of 1979 Revolution. "A culmination of doing games, falling in love with narrative storytelling and now this new fascination with documentary really became the seed for 1979," he says. "That combined with my personal experience of growing up in Iran and experiencing the revolution firsthand."

'1979 Revolution' creator Navid Khonsari.

The titular revolution Khonsari's referencing is that of the 1979 youth-led uprising in Iran that saw the overthrow of the previous monarchic regime and the rise of a theocratic one under Ruhollah Khomeini. It's a deeply personal event for Khonsari, who, though born in Montreal, was raised for the first 10 years of his life in Iran before returning to Canada again with his family in 1980. Once back in North America, however, it became apparent to Khonsari that media representation of his fellow Iranians didn't quite match up with the reality he lived.

"I think our goal is, if I can put you in the shoes of someone else who's experienced that [revolution], I think you're gonna see the world is a lot more gray than black and white," says Khonsari.

To do that, Khonsari, along with his wife and co-producing partner Vassiliki Khonsari, interviewed over 50 scholars well-versed in that particular bit of history, as well as the dynamics of revolution; collaborated with photojournalists to gather about 1,500 archival photos; and culled audio recordings, including those of Khomeini's speeches from France, for use in the game.

"If I can put you in the shoes of someone else who's experienced that [revolution], I think you're gonna see the world is a lot more gray than black and white."

That well-researched documentary element of 1979 surfaces in gameplay through several different forms. In one, the player is tasked with choosing whether to fight or take pictures of a protest (actual historical photos are then shown alongside the virtual ones). In another, the player is put through a brutal interrogation and given several dialogue options, though all eventually lead to the same outcome. "That was actually intentionally done because with the research we had been doing on interrogations, the only way that an interrogation can proceed is to have the person being interrogated lay down their guard and submit," Khonsari explains. It's also done to foster a sense of empathy, as Khonsari hopes the player will draw a close association with the avatar based on in-game choices.

A Sundance attendee plays '1979 Revolution' at the New Frontier exhibit.

"I think there's this amazing possibility of having a story that can have a social impact; that can reach people beyond gamers," Khonsari says of 1979 Revolution. "I'm not interested in just attracting gamers. I'm interested in attracting everybody because I think that once people actually engage with it, this whole title of 'gamer' will just dissolve."

That desire to reach outside of the typical gamer pool also somewhat informed the game's format and art style. If you think 1979 Revolution bears a strong resemblance to one of Telltale Games' titles (e.g., The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us), well that's intentional. Khonsari admits the studio was a major influence on his game as it follows a similar episodic structure and will hopefully attract the same 30-something demographic. 1979 will run for one "season" comprised of three downloadable episodes, each retailing for about $5.99, though Khonsari says that price could change slightly.

"The goal was to actually create a new platform that will allow us to do other historical stories that come in."

And it's just the first of many seasons to come from Khonsari's small development studio Ink Stories, each designed to cover a different historical period or event. Though work is still underway on polishing 1979 -- the game only went into production at the tail end of last summer -- the next installment could tackle the American Cultural Revolution of the late '60s, a period Khonsari believes has direct parallels to our current cultural landscape; and the Cuban Revolution.

"The goal was to actually create a new platform that will allow us to do other historical stories that come in. ... I'm also really interested in what we could do that would be maybe a shorter experience. Let's say 30 minutes, where you're actually doing something on Ferguson [Missouri] and releasing it a month or two months later," says Khonsari.

Though 1979 Revolution was primarily developed by a team of 20 developers, Khonsari and his wife also received crucial guidance from the Sundance Film Institute's New Frontier Story Lab, a workshop that focuses on experimental storytelling. Khonsari says the lab brought together advisors from various backgrounds, including 20th Century Fox's Futurist Ted Schilowitz, the writer and showrunner of The Affair, the creative director of Eve Online and even the head of New York University's drama department.

The workshop, though demanding, was critical to 1979's narrative development as Khonsari concedes that "having people who don't know anything about games ask, 'Why would this character do this?'" strengthened the overall experience.

Mannequins in protest at the '1979 Revolution' installation.

The end result is a game Khonsari believes will be accessible for all audiences; there's no barrier to entry, no complex control scheme as 1979 is a mobile game. "If you know how to swipe on your iPhone or Android to just get in through the security, you're going to be able to play this game," he says. When it's released in late spring, don't be surprised to also see console versions made available. Khonsari's targeting a cross-platform release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, though he wasn't sure about a Wii U version.

And it's entirely possible players could be enjoying 1979 in virtual reality as well. Khonsari's team is developing a version of the game tailored for the eventual retail release of the Oculus Rift, and maybe even Sony's Project Morpheus.

Whatever platform it lands on, Khonsari's confident 1979 will resonate with audiences. "This is a hybrid of a TV episode. It's a hybrid of a good AAA video game. It's a hybrid of a documentary. It's a hybrid of a photo journal. All of this stuff is brought together ... in one lump sum."

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