Navid Khonsari was 10 years old when the Iranian Revolution began.
"My grandfather actually took me out to walk in the early parts of the revolution," he says, recalling tanks rolling through streets and protesters filling the air with chants. Khonsari eventually fled with his family to Canada. But the revolution continues to influence his life: The 44-year-old is putting his memories into a new video game called 1979 Revolution, which transports players directly inside the Iranian conflict.
Khonsari has a deep pedigree in the gaming world, having directed multiple games in the Grand Theft Auto franchise as well as the first two Max Payne games, but he says creating this game is different—it's personal.
The central character in the game is a young man named Reza who is neither political nor religious, but inspired by the atmosphere of change. The gameplay, which is similar to Grand Theft Auto, includes guiding characters through scenarios like rescuing friends by throwing rocks at soldiers. If your rocks hit the soldiers, you get arrested. If your rocks are just thrown near the soldiers, you provide just enough of a distraction for your friends to escape.
Khonsari recognizes that turning players into participants in a revolution creates some ethical challenges, but he says that's the point. "Traditionally in games morality is very black and white," he says. "There’s a good guy and a bad guy, but life often happens in that gray area. There are good people who are put into positions to do bad things ... I think it’s the moment that determines how we act."
While 1979 Revolution is designed to be fun, the larger goal is to create a more nuanced interactive entertainment experience than what's currently available in gaming. "We’re excited to be at the forefront, bringing more mature content to gaming," says Khonsari's wife Vassiliki, a producer on the game and cofounder of iNK Stories, the New York-based creative agency that is developing the game. "And by mature, not just shoot-em-up, sex, guns, violence. Mature in terms of sophisticated concepts."
"Gaming is traditionally just seen as frivolous entertainment," Navid Khonsari said. "This goes beyond that and tries to engage you in real life and real stories."
It's not yet clear whether video gaming's audience is ready to grow up that quickly. The Kickstarter campaign to fund 1979 Revolution fell short in mid December. In response, iNK Stories launched another campaign on a dedicated website and raised over $100,000 in the first 24 hours.
"I am not looking to succeed at a Kickstarter campaign," Khonsari says, "I'm looking to succeed at starting a new game."
1979 Revolution is expected to be released in the summer of 2014.