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_Interview with Navid & Vassiliki Khonsari

Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari discuss their upcoming documentary game 1979 Revolution.

Deniz Tortum interviewed Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari, the creators of 1979 Revolution Game. Short chapters from the game were presented at Sundance New Frontier 2015 and the game will be released mid 2015.

DENIZ: Could you briefly describe yourselves and the work?

VASSILIKI: My name is Vassiliki Khonsari. I’m part of 1979 Revolution, the game. My background is in visual anthropology and documentary filmmaking. I had various experiences working on games, especially teaming with Navid Khonsari but never like this.

1979, really, is our opportunity to take the best of AAA games [mainstream games with high budgets] and the best of documentary and pull them together and create this immersive narrative experience, where critical decisions are crucial.

NAVID: I’m Navid Khonsari. My background is quite varied and probably, because of that, I’ve been able to work and create 1979 Revolution with Bessie.

I started off as a filmmaker. Then, migrated over to being a Cinematic Director on the Grand Theft Auto’s franchise in the PS2 generation, as well as a number of other games while I worked as Head of Production and Cinematic Director at Rockstar. I met Bessie when we went out and created  a couple of feature documentaries.

1979 Revolution, as I said, is a hybrid of our professional experiences and my personal experience of growing up in Iran and having lived and experienced the 1979 Revolution in Iran. What was interesting was that when we first started thinking about this idea, we went to do what everybody else does, we googled it, see who else is doing this. We’re really surprised that nobody had, actually, ventured in making games based on real world events. That’s what really got me excited. Not only breaking into new ground but seeing that we could actually not just make a game, but create a new genre.

We set forth on doing that. We realized that there’s some major things that we have to respect about gaming, that we have to stay within those confines. We also recognized that there were certain elements of documentary filmmaking that we want to take and bring in to gaming. Then, also, [we] recognized that we need to have something that’s going to resonate with people. That comes more from a deeper narrative.

We put the three of those together and what we came up with was 1979, a deep, immersive, personal narrative where you get to make critical choices and lead a young man through the passion and the hope for change of a revolution. The player experiences his trajectory, which falls in line with the revolution. That’s where the historical element comes, the documentary element comes in. The player experiences it by not just through pictures and interviews as references but, actually, by being embedded it to the experience.

Finally, the gaming elements aside from the narrative, that eye-hand coordination… If you did it well and you did it on a touchscreen, you should be able to engage people to, also, get that little bit of a smile on their face or shake their head when they’re trying to remove glass during the urban triage scenario or pick up a rock and try to break the glass just to distract soldiers so your fellow students can get away.

It’s really been just a big mashup of all of these things brought together. I feel the reason we are gaining the momentum that we have is that our experience combined together that’s really bringing the success of this project. I come from games that have been very commercially successful and now we’re embracing content that’s usually documentary focused. Most of the times, the people from nonprofits, NGOs have these great stories but they have a tough time going to the other way, to the gaming. The support from Sundance has been that they believe that we might be one of the vehicles that can bring these two worlds together.

DENIZ: Probably one of the tensions in 1979 game is the tension between entertainment and the documentary aspect. I think you talked about Grand Theft Auto being an educational experience for kids in Iran. Could you talk more about that?

NAVID: I’m at Games for Change so everyone was nonprofit, NGO. I said: “How many of you think Grand Theft Auto is an educational game?” Literally, it was nothing, crickets. It’s just quiet. Then I said, “Well, it is.” When I said that, people really turned around and opened up and listened.

I explained to them my situation where I’ve gone to Iran and I’ve gone to these pretty remote villages. I’m the only person of Iranian background that’s been credited in the Grand Theft Auto games. Of course, people had heard that you’re going to a small village, you’re already an outsider. They find out your name. They look it up and they’re like, oh my God. I have all these kids coming to me and not just children but teenagers and people in their early 20s.

What I got back from this was that they actually learned about freedom and democracy. Because they said, America must be a pretty amazing place if you can just hop in your car, listen to music, drive around, and just go around and do what you do. They understood that you could do all the violent acts, the gangster acts as I like to call it, but at the same time, they also knew that you could go around in San Andreas and go eat and you can go work out. This was, for them, unbelievable. This was not education but groundbreaking.

VASSILIKI: It was exporting culture and understanding of someone else’s experience.

NAVID: Not educating people but providing people the understanding of choice. That you could choose to do these things. Combine with the fact that I do believe that it’s foolish to not think that every game is actually educational. If you fail, you have to learn how to do the steps properly in order to succeed.

We should make educational games that are educational like how to read, how to write but we should also understand that the process of learning should not be limited to just that.

VASSILIKI: Right. What it does say isn’t necessarily that you should be learning from Call of Duty or you should be because that’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is that the potential for this medium is really boundless. The limitations that audiences or publishers put on them are just those imposed limitations. If you start breaking down those walls and bring content, that substance and meaningful decisions and meaningful content, you can really start making interesting things that can have echoing impact globally for people.

DENIZ: With the 1979 game, what is your approach to the story and who’s your audience? Is it the Western audience? What are you trying to accomplish by telling the story in a game format?

NAVID: Well, the story has been told on multiple other formats. What we wanted to do was not tell these very macro views of these events. We wanted to get micro. We wanted to get you to personally experience the revolution but not just experience the historical highlights of the revolution but actually engage with the dynamics of the different factions that existed in Iran. To deal with people who are wealthy and people who are poor. To deal with people who are educated and who are uneducated. To people who are religious and not religious. Bring those elements in there because that’s what’s actually going to provide a richer context and, hopefully, then create a greater sense of understanding.

VASSILIKI: 1979 Revolution is designed for everyone, cross generational and globally. We’re going to translate the game into seven languages. We feel there is something in this game for everyone.

NAVID: In the west, it’s opening eyes of people, who didn’t even know about the revolution or didn’t know about the implications of the revolution or only know Iran as Islamic religious people who wear turbans, to see what Iran was. It also opens up eyes in that way to the flip side, to other areas of the world like, for example, the Middle East. Where they, actually, for the first time, see representation of themselves as not just a character to shoot so that you can advance.

More importantly, the reason we embrace the 1979 Revolution is that it’s a historical story. A historical story that’s unique to Iran but the trajectory of revolutions is universal. That you could apply the French Revolution from hundreds of years ago to the Arab Spring. That is interesting for people who are interested in history, in politics, and in the region.

VASSILIKI: Just to simplify, our mission with this game is to create an entertaining, engaging experience that ultimately brings substance and meaning. We want to unlock empathy in people. We feel like through the interactivity of this gameplay, we can create a substantive experience that can evoke empathy and put you in the shoes of someone where you, otherwise, would have no reason to be in their world.

NAVID: We realized that if we create this new genre, that we have many obstacles ahead of us. 1979 Iranian Revolution might not necessarily jump out as the most commercial title to go into. As a result, we made sure that we focused on entertaining you, engaging you as a gamer. Making sure that we bring all the high production and fidelity that we see in these AAA titles to our game so that we can compete at the same level. That we can draw as many eyeballs to it. That once they actually experience it they’re like, oh my God, this looks amazing. Then we can hook them. Then they can actually go on and become advocates for not only the game but the genre. That they want to see more and more experiences like this.

DENIZ: You mentioned Arab Spring… Why do you think it is important to make this game right now? Do you think it is a way to show people in what ways a revolution can go or how it can be hijacked?

VASSILIKI: Absolutely. It’s an extremely sobering reminder of the intricacies and the factors that play into these mass mobilizations and revolutions, which change the phase of countries and people. In particular, the Iranian Revolution … We’ve worked with so many different scholars. We have very high standard for the historical accuracy and the integrity of what we want to present in this game. One of the scholars we’ve been working with is Jack Goldstone, who studies patterns of revolution.

One of the key drives of the storyline is to reflect these universal patterns of revolution. We want to show not only the hardship but the ecstasy in brotherhood that exist, that really solidifies this mass mobilizations. Once they’ve defeated their common goal, then this brotherhood disintegrates and all of these desperate political groups fight each other. These are all very important things, from a bird’s eye view, to learn and know and to be aware of.

But then there’s also the very personal and intimate perspective. We did an interview with Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir in Homeland, and is one of the main talents in the game. He talks about how as a 16 year old boy on the streets in Iran at the time, they wanted to impress the older boys. That’s why they get involved. These are very humanistic elements, that are major forces in creating what’s actually happening on the streets, that is often left out when people are representing history.

DENIZ: You think there’s a huge space in video games for all the subtleties?

VASSILIKI: Absolutely. When you’re creating a character driven, personal narrative, that is wonderful opportunity.

NAVID: They become an extension of, really, the exploration experience. You could choose to, if you like. If you don’t, you don’t have to but it’s there for you.

DENIZ: Ian Bogost, a game scholar, writes about videogames and documentary. He talks about procedural reality. If you implement the dynamics of certain circumstances, a player can go through the experience and gain knowledge about how that particular event or system works. You say that you are also looking for the patterns in revolutions and you are trying to put the users through that pattern. I am wondering about how you designed the interactivity, what are the interactions? What can you choose? Depending on your choices, do you end up in the same place or do your choices change the story?

NAVID: We stayed true to the overall history of the events that take place, but the choices that you make can branch. We might not have hundreds of endings, but there’s definitely branching that goes in different directions that has an impact on you emotionally. Because you see how people are now receiving and receptive to your choices, but it will actually have an impact on the story.

DENIZ: So on the personal level, you can change the story but not on the historical one, right?


DENIZ: How do you think empathy works in this game? Related to that, why did you choose to do a third person game?

VASSILIKI: The empathy as it will be like a slow burn experience of getting closer and closer to engaging with the characters. Ultimately, some of the decisions in life are not all great decisions. That’s one of the ways in which we’re trying to build the reality and the empathy is you will be in someone’s shoes and force to make the lesser of two evils in decisions, and force to decide who to trust, and force to make judgments with people. We feel these really force players to access deeper places within themselves other than basic eye-hand coordination mechanisms.

DENIZ: Those are the game structure champions like better moral choice in the game?

NAVID: No. We don’t champion at anything. That, we leave it to you. If we did that, we will be actually …

VASSILIKI: Defeating our own purpose.

DENIZ: How did it feel to come to the gaming world from the documentary world? Again, doing this documentary story but in a completely different medium, did you bring anything from the documentary film background?

VASSILIKI: Absolutely. The way we approach making this game was exactly the way you would approach making a documentary. We have gone through so many books and reference materials. We have conducted lots of interviews and collaborated with academics because we didn’t want to rely on secondary sources. We tried to create primary sources of information with our research process. That’s been one major element.

At first, it was frustrating because it was hard to figure out how to traditionally integrate some of these documentary elements. As a documentarian, you can fall into these very traditional traps. Werner Herzog talks about how he takes liberties with artistic ideas in his documentaries. He says, “I’m not an accountant of the truth.” I believe that’s relevant to what we’re doing here. We are not accountants of the truth, we are trying to capture a greater truth here. Within doing that, we’ve realized that we’ve had to veer away from some of the more traditional documentary ways of presenting stuff.

The other frustration existed in the gaming world because the gaming world is very much stuck in their own traditional way of doing things, just as much as the documentary film world is as well. That’s been frustrating in trying to elbow your way through developing things in a different way, not just resting on the conventions of what have already been done.

DENIZ: What do you think about 3D environments and computer generated images representing reality? I remember you talking about motion capture, that definitely adds definite realism to the moments of the characters. I also really like that you stay away from photorealism. You’re not trying to make it look as real as possible so the player has to take that leap in order to get into the reality of the game.

VASSILIKI: We want to liberate documentary and liberate games and realized that just because it doesn’t look exactly like a picture of a person, doesn’t mean that there’s not a greater truth getting revealed here.

NAVID: We’ll be doing ourselves a disservice if we actually try to go for the real. Because the fact that, then, that’s what people will be looking at and that’s not really the point. Technology has been pushing games to the forefront, as it has films and so forth, which is photoreal, super action, super visual effects. Those are great for certain subject matters that they cover but they shouldn’t be the standard.

In the end, yes, it’s a documentary and, yes, it’s a game but it’s also an art form. I wanted to embrace that art for that. I love the concept art that we have done. I didn’t need to make it more a higher fidelity of it but I also love motion capture because I feel like the motion is what you’re going to connect with, saying ‘that’s real’.

Also, if the world is actually a few degree separated from realism, then maybe the content will be a little bit more digestible and won’t feel like we were trying to bang you over the head too much with this is the real world, this is a real game, this is real documentary, this what really happens. The audience will be more accepting to it. It was a conscious decision from the beginning, to go down that path.

DENIZ: People are saying that this is a genre-defining game and it seems like it has a strong future. What do you think about this?

VASSILIKI: It’s been close to four years since the initial idea. We’re really excited about the possibilities. We’ve worked very hard at creating this pipeline. We feel like it can only get stronger. We’re excited about relaying all sorts of content through this pipeline.

NAVID: Currently, we’re going to be looking into taking what we’ve created, which is also for lack of a better term, an engine. Liberate that engine by saying, “I know the Iranian Revolution but maybe somebody else … We really love the American Culture Revolution of 1969 or we’re interested in what took place in Bosnia.” I don’t know anything about that. What we do is we say, “Well, we know how to do the design element of it. We’ve nailed that down. The architecture has been created. Now, it’s about reaching out to collaborators and other creators, writers, scholars, academics, people who live through that experience. Draw them together, create the script that’s going to fit that and then, just put that in.

The true way that this thing can succeed is, for us, to obviously get it to the market and have a splash. Then, also, to liberate it by actually putting out there and inviting other collaborators to embrace it and making it more than just one subject matter but make it a genre. The way you can do that is by having multiple titles out there.

DENIZ: By engine, do you mean a game template?

NAVID: A game template, exactly. Yeah, that’s a better word. A game design. A new approach to game design that brings all of the things that we’ve tested to put in there and say, “This is how you do it.” That you have to tell a personal story. You have to tell a world story. You have to make it fun and engaging and entertaining. Those three things put together.

DENIZ: I’m coming from a film background and I’m still struggling with the idea of authorship in games. The voice of the filmmaker can be manifested through editing, framing… Where do you think the voice of the author stands in games?

NAVID: The author is a combination of the world that you created, elements of gameplay that you put in there, the story and the narrative that’s there, and the world that you’ve embraced. It’s truly a combination of being a film writer, a documentarian, and a game director.

For us, it’s more the author comes in and saying that there is no black, there is no white, and that there’s shades of gray. People who could be incredibly kind and generous to you in a time there’s chaos on the streets can shut the door on you. There’s people you’ve always considered to be a horrible person can actually show you signs of kindness. The author’s voice is: Look at the humanity in this particular scene, and I’ve created that humanity.

VASSILIKI: It’s not a literal idea of authorship.

DENIZ: Would you like to talk a bit about the response in Iran?

NAVID: Sure. The response in Iran covers both ends of the spectrum. The population has been extremely supportive. In fact, we get endless amount of e-mails and responses on Facebook and Twitter from people at Iran, asking when the game is going to come out.

On the flip side, myself, I was written up as creating an American propaganda in a conservative newspaper in Iran. Obviously, they hadn’t seen anything about the game. The knee jerk reaction is somebody’s making a game about Iran in the West. It’s not going to show us in a good light.

I’m excited to get the game out because I truly believe that it could be a unifying factor for the government and for the population. Because the experience that we’re putting out there is truthful. It’s actually showing the revolution for what it was. The fact that people from different backgrounds came together.

VASSILIKI: We expect extreme reactions from everyone. We’ve seen glimpses of that from the right community in the US and the conservative …

DENIZ: How was the reaction from the right community in the US?

VASSILIKI: Some people are very uncomfortable about the idea of young Americans putting themselves in the shoes of any Iranian. There’s a lot of fear out there for the other and different things, and particularly, sensitivity with the Middle East. That highlights why it’s so important to make this game.

DENIZ: Are you also planning to release it in Iran?

NAVID: We’re going to put it in Farsi. Our goal is to release it in Iran. How we go about that is …

VASSILIKI: It’ll probably be pirated.

NAVID: It’ll be pirated. The idea will be to find somebody that wants to sell the game in Iran, a vendor that wants to help with the digital distribution, that can do it internally. Then, for us, to actually say that we look towards providing them not only with the profit but we would actually take a certain amount of the sales of the game and directly put it into supporting the indie game movement in Iran.

That is something that I’m very interested in. I believe there’s a lot of talent in Iran. Obviously, repercussions of the economic embargo has limited these guys to be able to work on games, to be able to get the advisors and those experienced people in game to provide them with direction; and a lack of ability to get stuff out to the market.

I would love to see the game be picked up by somebody in Iran, who decides to sell it but with the goal of making sure that we actually give back to the community there so that they can start making their own games as well.

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