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Reza Shirazi is a young Iranian photojournalist who returns from studying abroad to a Tehran that is far different from the one he left. It’s 1978, just as the Iranian Revolution (otherwise called the 1979 or Islamic Revolution) is gathering momentum, and Reza’s home country is in turmoil. Protestors have taken to the streets to oppose their ruler, the Western-backed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Shah’s reaction to these demonstrations would lead to the 1979 Revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists today.
Black Friday, the first episode of iNK Stories’ 1979 Revolution, follows the early months of the Revolution. It brings players into the heart of the struggle between the forces of the Shah and the internecine revolutionary factions who oppose his government. iNK’s portrayal of Reza, as dramatic as it is, isn’t unusual. It’s the story of an average Iranian of a certain generation doing his best to navigate the chaos of a significant historic moment. Through the few hours of conversation, exploration, and tough decision-making that makes up Black Friday, the player is urged to understand exactly how difficult this kind of balancing act can be.
The Iranian Revolution is one of the most important events of the 20th century. The massive changes it brought to the nation sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East—and the rest of the world—that are still felt today. Its model of a popular, largely nonviolent uprising against ineffectual, post-colonial dictators (and the installment of new, Islamist politicians) is echoed, too, in the Arab Spring movements of 2010-2011, which greatly altered the makeup of nations like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, and others. Trying to understand such a momentous period isn’t easy (especially in light of the decades of strict censorship laws stifling Iranian people’s own accounts). But Black Friday takes the sensible approach of doing so by centering its depiction of the Revolution on the highly personal form of a fictionalized memoir.
Protagonist Reza, as an Iranian grown apart from his changing nation, functions as an audience surrogate. He’s capable of asking questions about the Revolution that naturally allow those around him to furnish essential details about the politics and culture of late ‘70s Iran. Occasionally these moments are a little clumsy, the characters shoehorning explanations of their grievances toward, say, the CIA-trained SAVAK secret police into otherwise natural dialogue. But for the most part Reza’s naïveté works well as an entry point to a complicated time and place.
More importantly, Black Friday’s pseudo-memoir format functions as an effective way to reflect the drama inherent to living through a tumultuous revolution. Though he may be a fictional character, Reza’s personal story is drawn from real people. Inventing his relationships and allowing the player to guide his reactions through conversational choices lets iNK Stories contextualize the impersonal details of a history lesson through a relatable character.
Read as a series of facts, historical events lose their human element. Important dates and names run together, failing to impart the emotional and ideological stakes that inspire citizens to risk their lives to overthrow a government. Through the eyes of a character like Reza, the Iranian Revolution becomes a matter of life and death. While reacquainting himself with Tehran, he gets pulled into the protests by friends and family. Before long Reza realizes that it’s impossible for him to remain a passive observer and he finds himself embroiled in the machinations of the various groups spurring on the uprising.
Black Friday’s plot shows the revolution eating itself before it has accomplished its goals. The various factions—communists, secularists and Islamists, plus the sub cells within these groups—fight against one another over whose vision should shape the new Iran. Communicating each group’s viewpoints could easily turn into informational overload, but the reason these factions exist is because they represent the various needs of the Iranian people. Interacting with them as individual characters makes their politics relatable.
When Reza first meets a representative of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, he understands his calls for violent opposition by hearing about the beatings of peaceful protestors. The communist Tudeh Party supporter’s collectivist stance makes sense when he explains the long history of Western imperialism that has destroyed economic opportunities for the average Iranian citizen.
The contradictions of Iranian identity present in these characters’ political leanings is explored through a chapter about Reza’s family life. His wealthy parents are wary of a revolution that could upset their stability, though they’re old enough to remember, too, the tantalizing promise of a truly independent Iran that prior uprisings nearly established. His older brother is a SAVAK agent, loyal to the Shah and, of course, opposed to Reza’s newfound interest in the revolutionaries. He’s unable to accept the popular changes coming to his nation. He understands why someone like his brother is attracted to the revolutionary cause, but he’s completely opposed to its progress.
None of Reza’s family members are exposition-spouting talking heads. Instead, they’re emotionally resonant reminders of what many Iranians of a certain class would’ve felt about what seems like a straightforwardly necessary revolution. That these different views coexist in a single family shows how conflicted the country was—and would remain—in imagining its ideal future.
By the time the titular Black Friday massacre, in which the shooting of demonstrators guarantees an uncompromising future for the Revolution, occurs, the game has managed to make its historical portrayal feel completely personal. The cast of characters the player has come to know through Black Friday’s story are drastically affected by the massacre. The drama afforded by the game’s storytelling style no longer allows the audience to remain impartial observers of a nation’s history, but forces them instead to feel the pain and frustration of a people longing to take control over their homeland.
The upcoming continuation of 1979 Revolution promises to further what’s already been accomplished in Black Friday. Though we already know the outcome of the Iranian Revolution, seeing the emotional texture of its course explored through the viewpoint of Reza Shirazi will offer a level of insight that a simple recitation of this history can’t match. Notoriously harsh censorship laws have made personalized accounts of Iran’s recent history far too rare. For audiences hoping to gain a better understanding of the events that made the nation what is it, iNK Stories is doing valuable work.
The developers of 1979 Revolution don’t know when the next episode will come out—or if it will at all—but they did tell me that they have plenty more stories to tell.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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