Hot Docs ’15: “Docugame” aims for the mainstream

During Hot Docs' industry conference, Navid Khonsari outlined the production process behind 1979 Revolution (pictured), a documentary-style video game about the Iranian revolution.
April 30, 2015

A video game set amidst the chaos of the Iranian Revolution is making a play for the commercial gaming market.

Due for release this summer, 1979 Revolution (pictured) is an episodic video game with the look and feel of Grand Theft Auto but the emotional intimacy of a feature documentary. It has been generating buzz for the better part of four years, winning advance praise from The New Yorker and Mashable, among other publications, as a watershed moment for documentary-like gaming experiences.

After stops at Sundance in January and SXSW in March, the game’s creator, Navid Khonsari of Brooklyn-based INK Studios, was at the Hot Docs Industry Conference in Toronto this week to tout 1979 Revolution as the first commercially-minded attempt to produce and market an action/adventure video game that is based on historical events.

During the talk “Videogames + Docs = Future,” Khonsari had no qualms in stating his primary goal with 1979 Revolution: to entertain.

Whereas documentary or socially-conscious video games tend to be relegated to the educational section, the developer not only drew on his personal experiences–his family left Iran for Canada during the upheaval—in conceiving the project, but also the five years he spent as a director for Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne producer Rock Star Games.

The game is designed to give players an empathetic view into a politically complex historical event that strained relations between the United States and Iran for the better part of four decades.

“The idea of good guys and bad guys is over,” Khonsari said during an on-stage chat with POV Digital executive producer Adnaan Waseyon Tuesday (April 28). “What’s truly being celebrated is smart design.”

1979 Revolution uses a Choose Your Own Adventure­-style structure to place players in the shoes of Reza, a young Tehran-based photojournalist who is swept up in the revolution that resulted in the country’s U.S.-backed Shah being overthrown and replaced with an Islamic republic led by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The fictionalized story is divided into three seasons comprising three episodes. The first begins on “Black Friday” in September, 1978 when the military opened fire on demonstrators protesting the Shah’s rule, killing several people.

“We took a look at the market and saw an opportunity. No one was telling this story,” he said. “I could get you to experience the revolution and understand that what you’ve experienced over the last 35 years in the news… is accurate but it only represents one sliver of the revolution.”

1979 Revolution was produced through INK Studios, the company he founded with his wife Vassiliki Khonsari not long after leaving Rock Star. The shop’s output reflects a belief that story should dictate medium and so INK produces films, docs, video games and graphic novels, all of which converge in 1979 Revolution.

To design the game, Khonsari drew upon his experiences directing motion capture, and working with voice actors and art directors from his days at Rock Star, which he joined in 2001.

navid khonsari (left) and pov digital's adnaan waseyon at hot docs.

Navid Khonsari (left) and POV Digital’s Adnaan Waseyon at Hot Docs. Photo by David Spowart.

He worked on the first 3D iteration of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Grand Theft Auto III, which was released for Sony’s PlayStation 2 consoles in 2001. Although it went on to become the highest-selling game of that year and spurred one of the most notoriously violent video game franchises of all time, it was produced in a 10-foot by 10-foot studio with three voice actors.

Compare that to 1979 Revolution, which was produced with a cast of 10 voice actors, including Homeland‘s Navid Negahban, and shot in a motion-capture studio comparable to what was used for Lord of the Rings, albeit on a “modest budget,” Khonsari said.

The game also incorporates more than 40 interviews with academics and experts on the revolution, as well as archival photography and video that pops up when Reza snaps a photo of a protester or a riot, for example. Other photography was used to research period details, such as graffiti walls, that are replicated in the game play.

Financing took two years to secure and primarily came from equity investors, but he also received support from the Sundance Institute. Khonsari told the Hot Docs crowd that he undertook a Kickstarter campaign to raise US$395,000 that ultimately fell short of its ambitious goal by just under $100,000, but succeeded in attracting press attention after Kickstarter designated it Editor’s Choice.

“The press we generated with that campaign allowed us in six months to get the project financed,” he said.

After getting the greenlight in July for episode one, Khonsari spent three months in pre-production and developing concept art, and two months prototyping.

Episodes two and three have been drawn up and seasons two and three will touch on the hostage crisis and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. The episodic structure was chosen to mirror the way consumers play games, which Khonsari likened to TV binge-watching.

Noting that 90% of the people who played Grand Theft Auto did not finish the games despite the $180 million its makers pumped into marketing, Khonsari said 1979 Revolution‘s episodes will clock in at two hours. It will be available across all platforms and in seven languages including English, Arabic and Farsi.

Eventually, he hopes to template the game to create experiences based on other historical events such as the Cuban revolution, the French revolution or the recent protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore.

“The design would be much different,” he said of a potential Ferguson iteration that could incorporate mobile phone footage shot by protesters. “You could piece together the story so it doesn’t become a choice thing where there is a right or wrong.”

Ultimately, he believes gaming and cinema will merge, rendering the word “game” irrelevant. For that to happen, an emphasis on storytelling will have to wrest the gaming world’s attention away from one-dimensional shooter games.

“Stories have been continually undervalued as an interactive experience because they’re being matched up with people who are focused on one aspect of the software,” said Khonsari. “The key to success is, don’t think of your project as a game—think of it as an experience.”

Watch a video segment by The Guardian on 1979 Revolution below:

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