An Open Letter Series
We’ve got a lot to talk about this month. For the sake of not burying the lead, I’ll say that 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is kind of a hot mess, both in terms of form and content, but one with a very interesting and well-presented setting.
For those who aren’t familiar, 1979 Revolution casts the player as Reza Shirazi, an amateur photographer/aspiring journalist recently returned from a stint in Germany. The place he has returned to is his hometown of Tehran, and it’s (you guessed it) 1979, just before the revolution gets into full swing.
For most players, this novel setting (for a video game) will be the most appealing thing about the game, and thankfully that aspect of it is rewarding. Even without looking at external interviews, it’s apparent that the developers conducted extensive research; photographs and found objects reveal encyclopedia entries that present a depth of research without being dry, and really establish the cultural and political context of the events the game portrays. From a thematic perspective, the main themes the game employs is what it means for a bunch of people with fundamental disagreements to “unite” against a common enemy and how that plays out. It would be easy for the game to use hindsight to focus on how naive/unprepared the moderate majority was for the religious right to seize power; but the game isn’t nearly that myopic, instead casting a wider net, exploring the moral ambiguity of the situation and implicitly asking us how these schisms are embodied in today’s resistance movements. They contrast this with spending a small but significant portion of the running time looking at how people lived in pre-revolution Iran; the highlight of this is a set of ‘home movies’ from the Shirazi family that are clearly actual archival films from the period.
As a game…well, that’s really where it struggles.
It becomes readily apparent, early on, that A. the developers played and slavishly emulated aspects of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, B. The game was designed for tablet with PC as an afterthought, and C. The game’s ambitions were limited by its budget. Let’s take these in turn.
The Walking Dead popularized (though certainly didn’t invent) the adventure game that emphasized story, lots of dialog, and narrative branching over the puzzles that have traditionally been the connective tissue of the genre. It also made the unusual decision to yank the hood off the car and tell players, explicitly, what narrative decisions were and were not being tracked by the game, through the infamous “X Will Remember This” notifications, as well as boilerplate at the game’s opening talking about how reactive the game’s narrative will be.
I could write a full essay on why I think this was misguided design, but the short answer is that that it seems to be designed to assure the player that there is actual narrative reactivity, and not the usual smoke-and-mirrors that makes the game seem responsive while ultimately being linear. This itself assumed that there is something *wrong* with the smoke-and-mirrors approach (I’d argue that having simply the illusion of choice is fine as long as you preserve the illusion), but the larger issue was that it itself was smoke and mirrors; it merely assured the player that this was truly a ‘free’ narrative experience, which of course it wasn’t. Infinite branching is impossible and unviable, and the nature of scripted storytelling is that the writer must create a certain linear order of events; there can be mild permutations in that, but that’s all; to acheive greater freedom, the world needs to be a lot more sandboxy than that found in a plot-driven adventure game. Even then, it’s an enormous amount of work to track and be ‘fair’ to every permutation; the ending of The Walking Dead threw out every major decision I had made because most players chose differently and the designers had designed for the majority. Ultimately, you are back to square one in terms of the problems of interactive narrative; the only difference is you now have large, on-screen notifications that pop up to frequently remind you that THIS IS A VIDEO GAME, and one that the developers are not confident can speak for itself. It’s the single most immersion-breaking mechanic I’ve encountered in all my years of gaming, and the fact that anyone copied it is beyond me. 1979 Revolution is even worse than its forebear in this regard; in The Walking Dead it was an optional setting that defaulted to on, here it’s mandated.
The Walking Dead also used occasional QTEs and timed dialog choices to add tension to what would otherwise be a big stream of exposition; 1979 Revolution does this as well, and while the QTEs are sloppy, *most* of it doesn’t feel shoehorned in. At the same time, I can’t decide, writing now, if they really add to the experience. What would be lost if we could reflect on our dialog decisions? What would be lost if the combat was cutscenes rather than QTEs (interactivity, sure, but is “click the mouse really fast” really any more interactive than nothing?) The fact that 1979 Revolution borrows its formal construction wholesale from another game tells you that the developers are really, really focused on content over all else.
I suspect the other reason they did this was that The Walking Dead, while originally released on PC, became very popular on mobile devices – and this gets to our second issue. A game developer once told me that touch was the worst control scheme ever designed; what he meant by this is that it’s extremely limited in both precision and the number of commands you can simultaneously execute; generally speaking, the best you can do is have two thumbs clumsily poke or swipe at large spaces on the screen. This make entire genres of video games non-viable on touch devices, but fortunately adventure games aren’t one of them; you can “point and click” with a single finger just as easily as you can with a mouse.
The problem is that the developers were not content with simply point and clicking; they want the player to drag, swipe, and use the full range of touch gestures to interact with the game. This is all fine and dandy until you port the game to PC and leave all of those sequences unchanged. Taping on a hotspot becomes clicking your mouse really fast; applying bandages becomes awkwardly choosing starting points for lines and “dragging” with your mouse, as if you were in MS Paint. And the movement controls are just downright awkward (though probably no more than they were on mobile). It’s not a significant impediment to enjoying the game, but it is a sign of a limited budget, and the sort of thing a PC gamer should be aware of going in (something made more difficult by the fact that Steam banned the “mobile port” tag from appearing on their storefont).
But the biggest budgetary failure is surely in the ending. The story has a pretty good sense of pacing and moves along until a point, slowed only by an entirely unnecessary frame story that sees our protagonist threatened with torture in order to tell us the story that makes up the bulk of the game (as an aside – the interrogation is a ham-handed composite of cliches that is considerably worse than the main story proper). At a certain point, we are returned to the torture room frame story; a series of confusing and questionable plot twists is revealed in the span of about 30 seconds; and then the credits roll.
If this were an episodic game, it would be still be bad episodic design (the existence of a sequel is no justification for unsatisfactory endings) but this game *isn’t* episodic. Here we can only speculate what happened. Did the developers plan to make an episodic series and run out of money? Did they hope this cliffhanger would drive demand for a sequel? And why on earth did they market it as a complete game, given the state it’s in? Presumably because they really needed to recoup some of their investment and being honest would have hurt sales, but that’s still a pretty gross situation.
Yet despite all this: I’m glad I played it. I don’t know a lot about the Iranian revolution, and this game really sparked an interest in the subject matter (I’ve now put Stephen Kinzer’s All The Shah’s Men on my to-read list). In a world of video games that either claim to be apolitical (in the mainstream) or are ham-handed rhetoric (for most indie games about “political” issues) seeing something that has any sense of nuance is refreshing. The developers clearly have some talent; I just wonder if they might be better filmmakers than game developers.
I have some more thoughts about specific sequences in the story, but this is quite long enough, so let me know what you think and then we can maybe dig in a little more.