One of the masterminds behind the sprawling Grand Theft Auto series is trying to push video games into the history books — not in terms of sales, but rather for subject matter.
First up: The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi may not seem like a director's first choice for a backdrop, but the event is dear to Iranian-born Navid Khonsari. That's why his latest project is a GTA-style game set during the hostage crisis in Iran.
"I want people to understand the incredible moral ambiguity of this story, that this was a country with many different ideas and beliefs," Khonsari, 41, told CNN's Michael Saba. His family escaped Iran after the shah was deposed, and emigrated to Canada before he moved to the United States to work in films and games. "Growing up in Iran when I did, I saw Iranians in the greatest light, and I saw them in the worst light."
It is that contrast his production studio, iNKstories (made up of Khonsari and wife Vassiliki), wants to convey in its upcoming title, aptly called 1979. Considering Khonsari worked on Rockstar hits like GTA3, Vice City, San Andreas, Max Payne, Red Dead Revolver and Bully, he may be able to thoughtfully convey his message: That no historical event can be seen in black and white.
"I think that being able to base a game in contemporary historical truths is significant, besides being educational," he told Saba. "It opens people's eyes to look beyond what they're reading in the paper and realize that there's a definite relationship between history and the headlines. … People are so quick to accept the official record of things as 'history,' without examining everything that's gone on in the last 40, 50, 60 years. It's important we remember these things, and work to keep them relevant."
His vision of 1979 is remarkably detailed, given the title is still in production and has a long while before making it to shelves. He envisions a standard third-person shooter, but with much more cinematic elements than even GTA had.
Players will be able to choose which characters they want to control, thereby choosing a side they want to take in the revolution. They could be a student demonstrator, a member of U.S. Special Forces, a soldier in Saddamn Hussein's army crossing into Iran, a fundamentalist determined to found an Islamic theocracy or more. There's not especially a right or wrong to the course of action because, as the game's tagline puts it, "there are no good guys."
If there's a company that can pull off such a delicate balancing act — making a successful game in which you could conceivably play as Iranians taking U.S. diplomats hostage or alternately as a pro-democracy protestor savaged by her own countrymen — it's iNKstories. Their previous efforts, Alan Wake and the John Milius-penned Homefront were decidedly story-driven in ways seldom seen in the medium. But the subject of the game is sure to cause some blowback when it's released.
"Iranians are going to criticize me because I'm making a game that 'promotes American imperialists going in and shooting Iranians,' " Khonsari said. "Americans are going to criticize me because I'm making a game that 'glorifies Islamic fundamentalism,' or something. I'm not going to please everyone, and the point of the game isn't to do that."
In fact, Khonsari wants to make games based on several historical flashpoints. Future installments may include stories set in Manuel Noriega's 1980s Panama and Moammar Ghaddafi's 1970s Libya.
It's a novel way to approach real-life events in a fictional way, and certainly more compelling than Activision's Modern Warfare series, which started as a rollicking extrapolation on conflagrations in the Mideast, but has seemingly devolved into a boilerplate run-and-gun in only three installments. That's what happens when you have Russians invade the United States and force gamers to fend off tanks from the roof of a donut shop.
Khonsari's concept sounds as if it will not only be more engaging on a gaming level, considering the events are grounded in reality, but it also could foster a sense of learning about actual conflicts and how history is always written by the winner.
Now that is a hard game to play.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at email@example.com.