It’s rare to see a game dedicated to a single day from history, and it’s even more rare to play a game in which you’re not an important component of it. In most historical games, you’re usually a military commander sending orders from far above or a soldier that ends up becoming a hero, and most of the time you’re usually on one side or the other. That isn’t necessarily the case in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a Telltale-style game from Iranian-Canadian Navid Khonsari and his studio iNK Stories.
Playing as a young photographer Reza Sharazi, you’re thrust into the fiery atmosphere of Iran in September 1978. After the Cinema Rex fire, in which more than 420 people were burnt alive after being locked in, tensions are running high in the capital Tehran. The monarchy, led by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, blames Islamic militants for the fire, while the anti-government groups in the streets blame SAVAK, dreaded secret police of the Shah.
This is the backdrop of 1979 Revolution’s short three-hour story, which unfolds during the 7th and 8th of September 1978 - the latter day being the titular Black Friday, when Iranian soldiers opened fire on protestors in Jaleh Square, ending any hope of conciliation.
Reza’s interrogation by Asadollah Lajevardi (a real figure from history) at the notoriously brutal Evin Prison two years later frames the game’s narrative. You follow the events of Black Friday from Reza’s perspective through different dialogue choices and your interactions with Lajevardi, The gameplay mostly sticks to the tried-and-true Telltale formula, consisting of dialogue choices and an occasional quick-time event, but one important mechanic is added to the mix: Reza’s camera.
At various times throughout 1979 Revolution, you’ll be called upon by your friend Babak to take pictures of the scenes on the streets of Tehran. The camera mechanic is a simple minigame by itself. You have to hit a sweet spot in order to get the focus right and take a photo that unlocks information about the subject, as well as showing a real-life photo of it from 1978. It’s a fantastic mechanic that will please history buffs, allowing you to read about everything from Iranian tea etiquette to the different groups of revolutionaries to speeches from Ayatollah Khomeini, the main leader of the revolution.
In order to show the differing opinions of the different groups during the revolution, 1979 Revolution has a vast cast of characters representing them. They do feel a little typecast - the communist Tudeh Party character, for example, seems pretty one-dimensional - but for the most part the game does a good job of showing the uneasy alliance between the groups. While Babak and Bibi (a student leader) favour nonviolent means, Reza’s radical cousin Ali believes that violence is necessary, leading to a few binary choices that the player has to make. Minor characters represent the views of other organizations, like the People’s Mujahedin and the National Front, but their screen time is far too short for them to properly develop or explain their views.
Despite the deadwood, there are some genuinely great moments between the characters. Most poignant is the relationship between Reza and his brother Hossein, who works for SAVAK. A particularly tense scene at their parents’ house is a highlight of the game, with Reza realizing that going along with the revolution could end up alienating him from his brother and his mother. Though the dialogue is shaky at points, iNK Studios does an excellent job at showing the morally grey territory that so many people found themselves in during the revolution through Reza’s interactions with different figures.
As a story, 1979 Revolution is a gripping one, but as a game it can get pretty lacklustre at points. The QTE-laden action scenes are weirdly animated and very easy, while those hoping for a Telltale-esque game where you can truly affect the outcome will be disappointed. The game only has two different endings that ultimately depend on the way one relationship goes - the rest of the “choices” that you make mostly don’t have any consequences. For example, no matter how violent you are, your relationship with Babak and Bibi doesn’t really deterotiate.
Maybe iNK Stories is trying to make a point about the fates of revolutions through this. Maybe they’re trying to illustrate that, despite the illusion of people having power on the streets during the revolution, the everyday protestor never had the power to affect its outcome. Despite the fact that Reza is taking part in a hugely important historical event, the stakes that he can actually effect are small. History moves on.
This attitude is strongly evidenced in one of the game’s main dilemmas. A leader of the revolution is stabbed after the army storms his speech platform, but he believes that a mole has infiltrated the revolutionaries and tried to kill him. You’re quickly forced to decide who you think the mole is, but it’s a rigged choice: whoever you choose is revealed by Lajevardi to have been killed despite their innocence. Though this may seem like a frustrating cop-out gameplaywise, again it’s a profound commentary on revolutionary. A lot of the time, revolutionaries have to make the hard call out of paranoia, and a most of the time they’re wrong.
Despite its gameplay flaws, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday’s short story is mostly enjoyable. Short is the operative word, though, because the game would have benefited massively from a few more hours to flesh out characters, build their relationships, and create a satisfying cliffhanger-free ending. Leaving the player wanting more certainly isn’t a bad thing, but the pivotal events in the final few chapters fly by far too quickly.
iNK Stories’ effort to create both an enthralling story and a factual window into history is admirable, and while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it’s still an interesting game with plenty of historical information to paw through after you’ve completed it. The price tag is a bit too steep for a three-hour game, but history buffs and Telltale fans alike should see value in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.