A smart and exciting blend of character-driven adventure and documentary-style educational game.
Capturing the complexity of the Iranian revolution is hard to do in just two hours, but 1979 Revolution: Black Friday makes a noble and ultimately effective attempt. Thanks to an interesting cast of characters, impressive performances, and a respectful mix of drama and Telltale Games-style quick-time event action, 1979 Revolution kept me hooked all the way through and even managed to deliver an engaging history lesson along the way.
The hope, passion, danger, secrecy, and tragedy of the real Iranian revolution makes it a fascinating time and place to set a story and 1979 Revolution manages to hit on all these points in its short, but sweet two hours. It’s set just days before the tragic turning point in the revolution known as the Black Friday massacre, which left several dozens of civilians dead in Tehran’s Jaleh Square after the army opened fire on a crowd.
A period as tragic as it is severely misunderstood.
As dissatisfaction with the Western-backed Pahlavi dynasty grew, more and more Iranians had begun taking to the streets in protest. People from all walks of life and political backgrounds joined in street demonstrations: leftists and communists, nationalists, Mujahideen, students, and more. All had different ideas for the future of Iran, but most agreed on one thing: the Shah must go. The eventual declaration of martial law and several other factors made for a period in Iran’s history that was as tragic as it is severely misunderstood in the present day.
By placing such a bloody fate just over the horizon, 1979 Revolution maintained a constant sense of dread as I navigated Reza, a likable young photographer, through the streets of Tehran. Roped into a diverse circle of revolutionaries by his close friend, Babak, Reza finds himself in the midst of the revolution’s most impassioned demonstrations and the sharp men and women at the forefront. His initial caution and confusion is your own as you learn to diligently navigate the heated politics and dangers of the country’s civil unrest, an adventure that drew me in with the amount of careful detail put into the people and places.
I loved seeing the heart and soul of Iran, even during this tumultuous time, on full display.
From the lone, banner-waving protester atop the pedestal where the Shah’s statue once stood, to the mass of praying figures in the middle of a deserted street, the spirit of the revolution is rendered with much-appreciated respect for the time and place. That’s true even when certain elements were clearly condensed down for the sake of encompassing as much of the historical event as possible, like representing every prominent political party with a single character, or packing a single city street with examples of protest both pacifistic and more riotous.
The Future of Iran
Despite that, I loved seeing the heart and soul of Iran, even during this tumultuous time, on full display. Half my family hails from Iran and experienced the revolution first hand, so my personal attachment to the events represented in 1979 Revolution is strong. I felt chills watching the opening credits, which juxtaposes live-action footage from the revolution against innocent home movies and in-game footage. In an opening chapter, I even recognized the bank where my grandfather used to work in Tehran – to see that kind of representation, no matter how mundane, in a medium where my culture and the Middle East at large are usually portrayed as desert war zones, was touching. But 1979 Revolution doesn’t just get credit for exploring uncommon subject matter. It’s the care and respect with which it treats its subjects that truly make it shine.
A personal connection to or prior knowledge of the events explored here aren’t required to appreciate 1979 Revolution’s story or historical backdrop, thanks to the way we’re introduced to it. The photographer role is an obvious, but smart way to drop us into the middle of a complicated conflict without demanding we brush up on our history first, and that’s a convenience 1979 Revolution uses to great effect.
1979 isn’t afraid to dive deep into the heart of the revolution’s most emotional and horrific aspects.
From a city rooftop I used my camera to zoom in on a crowded street, tracing my shot over the dense gathering of civilians until the focus ring turned green. Some points of interest were less clear than others, which made locating some key photo opportunities feel like pixel hunting. But because of the amount going on in each scene, I felt compelled to look at and zoom in on as much as I could anyway, stumbling upon most of these shots incidentally. After snapping my first picture, a similar photo – a real one this time – appeared next to mine, accompanied by a caption explaining how half a million protesters marched through Tehran in September 1978.
I shot more photos of striking oil workers, a homeless mother, people waving signs in support of a pro-democratic Ayatollah – each with some interesting historical or cultural fact to go along with it. Key encounters with certain characters or points of interest, from people distributing political speeches on the streets to posters of Iranian pop stars, also add extra bits of information to a handy booklet in the pause menu. If you take a few moments to read it, 1979 can deliver loads of enriching material without bombarding you with it.
Truth in Fiction
This documentary-style game doesn’t just seek to educate, though. 1979 isn’t afraid to dive deep into the heart of the revolution’s most emotional and horrific aspects, making for a great story lead by even greater characters. But as you navigate the spirited protests, secret political meetups, and unpredictable military interventions of the revolution, 1979 maintains a respectful blend of drama and action. Even with gruesome first aid mini-games, quick-time events that depict Reza fleeing from tear gas in a crowded street, and harsh interrogation sequences set in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, the violence of the revolution is never glorified or sensationalized.
Smart, nuanced writing, along with some powerful performances bring even the most minor characters to life.
During all of this excitement (good and bad), you also get to make plenty of choices, ranging in importance from mundane to life or death. In an early chapter, I was given the option to fight or talk down a pro-communist revolutionary, angered by the prospect of a religious Mullah leading Iran. In another chapter, I had to choose whether to throw a rock at the soldiers violently arresting Babak’s friends or go the pacifist route. Later, I could confront or avoid questioning from student revolutionaries on whether or not Reza’s brother was really part of the SAVAK, the Shah’s infamous secret police. While compelling in the moment, many of these seemingly important decisions end up feeling inconsequential in the long run, especially in light of the rather abrupt cliffhanger ending. If 1979 Revolution receives a follow-up game, I look forward to seeing some of its loose ends tied up.
The linearity of its tale isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 1979 has a story it wants to tell, and while it doesn’t let you stray too far from the path, it does tell its story well, successfully building drama and tension in other ways. Smart, nuanced writing, along with some powerful performances bring even the most minor characters to life. 1979 can look visually rough at times, with awkwardly animated background NPCs and too many duplicate character models, threatening to pull me out of the moment as I explored this digital replication of Tehran’s streets.
…a ton of heart and surprising amounts of honesty.
It ended up being the strong performances that carried the story, allowing me to look past some of 1979’s more unpolished elements and indulge in what it does well, one of which is bringing a ton of heart and surprising amounts of honesty to each character. From the optimistic revolutionaries who believe in peaceful protest to an ex-Mujahideen with more violent tendencies, 1979 never once shies away from showing the good, the bad, and the ugly in everyone. It might never go too deep into the specific politics of each party, but the web of clashing character motivations and distinct personalities on display were enough to illustrate how complex and multilayered the revolution really was. This is an event that reshaped Iran forever, one with effects still being felt today, worldwide, and 1979 Revolution does it justice both on a fictional storytelling level and an educational one.