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Of Rockstars and Revolutions

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

A few years ago I wrote blog post comparing the graphic novel Persepolis to the video game Just Cause, lamenting that while a revolution would be a great setting for an open world-style AAA game we would likely never see it, because AAA developers seem to have neither the interest for nor the balls to treat the subject as anything other than a GTA-style violence-fest. Persepolis, a touching and complicated personal account of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, is closer to what I wanted to see in a game that dealt with such potent concepts. Just Cause, while fun, was - like GTA - a joke when it came to addressing the topics it raised.

Four years later it seems like someone is trying to make my dream come true... at least in theory. To my amazement this person is former Rockstar writer/designer Navid Khonsari, an Iranian-American who is apparently putting his full weight behind a commercial video game based on the 1979 revolution, called simply 1979: The Game.

I'd never heard of him before, but Khonsari was apparently one of the driving creative forces behind the PS2-era GTA games - GTAIII, Vice City, and San Andreas. So not only was he at Rockstar, he was specifically involved in the initial birth, evolution, and maturation of GTA as a mass-cultural phenomenon, setting the tone for all Rockstar's subsequent creative output as well as their public image as the badboys of the industry.

Given my sour stance on Rockstar (I find their use of irony more evasive than genuine, rendering their supposed "social commentary" insincere in most cases.) I admit that I didn't want to believe Khonsari might be making my dream game: a sophisticated political statement, occupying a space outside America's dominant narratives, with a AAA budget behind it, and made by an articulate visionary who is also a good game designer. Yet I have to admit... this interview comes close to creating such an impression.

It's interesting what he says about fiction versus non-fiction. This, I guess, explains how the same mind that (partially) produced GTA: Vice City can also produce 1979: The Game. I don't agree with what he says. The mercurial relationship between fact and fiction is not so simple. Myth shapes reality and reality shapes myth. I don't believe that labeling something 'fiction' is a free ticket out of treating social, political, or whatever content with subtlety or complexity.

Khonsari seems to be arguing that GTA's pseudo-ironic vapidity was justified by the fact that it was "in the crime genre", which is how he distances 1979: The Game from it in terms of social outlook. Yet if we look at the crime genre outside games we see a massive swath of approaches and styles, from shallow and cartoony to mature and serious. GTA didn't have to be Scarface. It could have been The Wire, and the fact that Khonsari glosses over this fact seems calculated.

That said, his over-simplified construction that non-fiction demands social responsibility seems to serve him well as a mass-cultural stance. It's certainly an easy way to justify both GTA and 1979: The Game at once. A more complicated stance would certainly be harder to explain to his rather skeptical interviewer, which makes me wonder whether Khonsari himself believes it or whether it's something he just tells journalists. Either way, if it helps him get such a game made and distributed I can't fault him too much for it... though it could be a problem if such rhetoric became commonplace.

There are virtually no gameplay details, so who know if this game will ever even see the light of day. It is significant though, I feel, that a former Rockstar designer is taking a vocal stance on such a game, chatting it up to the international press and making an impassioned argument about the value and place in the AAA market for such games. It really makes me reconsider my take on Rockstar, considering that perhaps not everyone there is satisfied by the company's approach to controversy. If so we'll hopefully see more Khonsaris in the future.

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