I had a pretty good public education. I only realized how good it was when I went to college. There I met people from all around the country and realized how much they hadn’t been taught. I was then further surprised by how much the teachers had to go over to make sure that all their students knew the basics of science, sociology, and the humanities. I bring this up because all during my education, both lower and higher, I learned jack shit about the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Anything I did know about it, I learned from American pop culture — already not a good starting place — and that was mostly broad, ambiguous strokes about its effect on the 1980 presidential election or how it affected our political relations in the Middle East. I knew that I knew little. I didn’t know how little until now, and yet, having played 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, I don’t feel anymore informed on the matter.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a Telltale style adventure game. It is such a Telltale style adventure game that the only difference to the formula is the replacement of the Q key with the left mouse button during quick time events. The game puts you in the position of making difficult choices, both major and minor, before showing what percentage of other players made those same choices at the end of the game. It features dialogue trees alongside a timer that counts down the seconds that you have to choose your response. The game’s scenes are divided into scripted narrative sections and exploration sections.
The one other additional feature is the camera. Reza, the character that you play, is an aspiring photojournalist and thus always has his trusty camera on hand. During the game, you can press a button to bring it up to look more closely at a set piece. You wait for the two half circles to line up in the center before taking a picture. The closer that the half circles are to the center, the more in-focus the shot will be. All the shots mimic famous photographs taken during the revolution, and the game will show both versions side-by-side in a menu. Alongside them is a description explaining the role that whatever the subject of the photo played during the revolution. These descriptions are mostly factoids that add texture to the proceedings, but add little depth to understanding the complexities of the events.
That’s a pretty good summation of the game as a whole. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is at its best when it is conveying the atmosphere of being in the Tehran streets. Standing on a rooftop, looking down, and taking photos of the crowds gives a sense of scale to the protests. Later, when you join those same people on the streets, walking down the short roads looking at all of the game’s little vignettes just waiting to be photographed, you get a sense of the energy and frustration that accompanied the situation that the Iranian people must have been living in. If nothing else, the fact that the game manages to give an Iranian perspective (or, at least, a perspective that feels Iranian) is something rare, not just in games, but in western media in general.
While playing the game, I hear the chants and slogans that American media frames as scary and dangerous to our way of life. However, here, listening to the America bashing, the rhetoric sounds legitimate. I get caught up in that fervor. As the conversations and encounters continue, America is almost not used as a proper noun, but as a metonym for the source of the people’s troubles. America, the country, feels like a distant figure in this fight. Most of the people on the ground just want the Shah and his secret police, SAVAK, gone.
But the real brilliance of these moments is in showing us the different factions that make up the protests. In America, the Iranian Revolution is framed as the Shah vs. the Ayatollah. In the game, these protests are those that took place prior to the Ayatollah’s rise as supreme leader. Everyone in the streets wants the Shah gone, and almost none of them can agree on who or what is going to replace him. You have clerics, liberal democrats, anarchists, communists, and fundamentalists all marching side-by-side, all the while bickering with one another. The greatest success of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is in painting in broad brush strokes, forming a completely different picture of what was going on at the time, one that replaces the picture constructed by the influence of American media.
Still though, I feel that the actual story of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a bit of a let down, as it muddies the waters of fact and fiction. The events of the two days of protest leading up to the infamous Black Friday are subsumed by the game’s framing story.
Several years after the Ayatollah took control, Reza is interred at the infamous Evin prison, all the while being interrogated about the events of those protests. The developers try to do something with this premise by showing the consequences of some of your choices made during those events as well as by making Reza face his brother, a supporter of the Shah once upon a time. However, it feels like these moments came from a different story than the one being told in the flashbacks.
The whole premise of how the game is telling its story is trying to turn the experience into something like a boilerplate thriller, complete with complex webs of intrigue, shifting loyalties and unexpected revelations. It tries to strengthen this narrative by peppering in historical facts that make the story sound plausible, which is further complicated by the developers having said a lot of the story is a composite of the experiences of many people that lived through these times. However, as is the case with most composite narratives, the compounding of events in the story stretches that narrative’s credibility.
The developers have said that 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is not an episodic game, but have also said that Reza and his friends have many more stories to tell. If that were the case, I would have liked them to build towards a story about political prisons and undermined ideologies. Putting both the ideals of the revolution side-by-side with its eventual black results may create a strong contrast, but it also leads to a bigger problem. The game is at its best when I felt like I was in the middle of those protests or taking a quiet moment to pray. I felt a part of the era. The frame story and much of heightened moments of action felt divided from that reality. Too many things happen at once in this game, and ultimately, I wasn’t sure where truth ended and fiction began.