In most games, you get to be the hero. You’re functionally unkillable, and as NPCs fall and fail all around you faster than kids in a remedial geometry class, you’re allowed to be the ultimate good guy: to stand triumphant in the end, most likely battered-but-unbroken. If you’re playing through a standard good vs. evil narrative, it’s fairly likely that you’ll have achieved everything you set out to achieve; the bad guys are bungled, their insidious plots rightfully thrashed. If the game you’re playing has a more nihilistic bent, you may have lost a few good people along the way, but you probably came out on top, or you’ve at least lived to fight another day. There’s catharsis to be had in those sorts of tales — you know who the bad guys are, and you know that, for the moment, you’ve thwarted them. It’s easy to be the hero in stories like those. It’s who you’re meant to be.

But in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, the “good guys” sometimes go on to become your most deadly adversaries. The heroes you ally yourself with today could become the men who drag you off to prison tomorrow. People you think are unassuming innocents might be political chessmasters, playing you against your compatriots. Your best friends may leave you in your darkest moments. Members of your own family might turn against you. At the same time, everyone else just may be compelled by the same intrinsic goodness, and the same desire for justice and equality that you are — they just might have a different idea of what that looks like.

See, in 1979 Revolution, it’s not easy to do the right thing. And that’s not necessarily because evil is so much more tempting — it’s mostly because it’s hard to know what the “right thing” really is. While most games allow you to be the conquering hero, 1979 Revolution challenges you to be a true hero in the face of monstrous injustice and true moral ambiguity, and it doesn’t give you a clear way to succeed. In the very real world of 1979 Revolution, the price of blind heroism is very high, and the price of acquiescence is potentially even higher. After all, you’re not just fighting for yourself — you’re fighting for your friends, your family, and all of Iran.

Reza in Evin Prison. His interrogator rests his hand on Reza's shoulder.

Truth is less forgiving than fiction

Since it’s release in March of this year, 1979 Revolution has received a lot of attention from news outlets including Fox News, Vice, and NPR. The game has been banned from Iran, and its creator, Navid Khonsari, has been accused by the Iranian government of being a spy.

In the game, you play 18-year-old Reza Shirazi, a young photojournalist who inadvertently becomes involved in the people’s revolution against the shah. Reza is based on Khonsari himself, who was in Tehran at the time of the 1978 protests. The game depicts true events and real people, including Asadollah Lajevardi, the actual warden and interrogator at Evin Prison at the time when the game takes place.

And the people and events aren’t the only things that are real in 1979 Revolution — so are the stakes. You’re not fighting to preserve a mythical realm, or against a fictional enemy. You can’t afford to run headfirst into situations, guns blazing, expecting the game to coddle you simply because you’re the protagonist. You can die for refusing to cooperate with your interrogator. You can fail to save the lives of key figures in the revolution and be forced to proceed through the story without them. Your actions can have dire, lasting consequences not just for you, but for your friends and family.

Reza and his friend Babak stand in front of a crowd of protesters.

Do the “right” thing

Like the stakes, the morality of 1979 Revolution is also firmly rooted in reality. Though you can ally yourself with your cousin Ali — who favors violent revolution — your best friend Babak — who favors peaceful protest — or your older brother Hossein — who is struggling to help uphold the status quo — the narrative is careful to make sure you understand that none of them are definitively right or wrong. Babak, Ali, even Hossein and his fellow soldiers are just people trying to make sense of a complex situation and do what they think is right… just like you are.

During gameplay, you’re frequently charged with making a decision about who to side with — decisions that can have deadly consequences for anyone you side against. And as Babak tells you early on, no matter how much you’d like to remain an impartial observer, “[You’re] going to have to pick a side, okay? You may not want to, but it’s gonna happen.” These decisions often have far-reaching, sometimes dire consequences. You’re forced to choose between who to save from a firing squad, at the cost of another person’s life. You’re forced to try to ferret out a traitor to the resistance, with little information and mounting urgency. You may even ultimately be forced to betray your compatriots while being interrogated, in order to protect someone close to you.

Many of your most heroic moments feel very small in comparison. Most of them are quiet, private moments between you and another character: offering to provide a young reporter with pictures of the protests; standing up for Babak to another group of belligerent protesters; offering kind words to a poor woman and her baby at the roadside, or putting a message on a public message board to give people hope. Some of them are more grandiose — saving a person’s life when they’re attacked, for example — but the majority are simple acts of kindness. In a world being upended by revolution, these sincere moments of connection and compassion feel rare and valuable: the few times where you know, for certain, that you’re doing good by your fellow man.

But in all of these choices you make, there is no “right” path or “good” ending to strive towards — and, for that matter, there is no truly “evil” path, either. There are few actions you can take that are designed explicitly to inflict pain on others. If you hurt other people, it’s often in self-defense, or because you have no other choice. Everyone around you is trying to make the world better the best way they know how, but with so many conflicting viewpoints, outside of the moments mentioned above where you can directly see the good you’re doing for someone, it’s hard to know if you’re ever succeeding.

Reza's brother Hossein squeezes Reza's arm with a pained look on his face.

Real stakes mean real connections

Reza may not be a real person, but he represents the collective experiences of many real people. The people he encounters — the protestors, the soldiers, and even his interrogator — are also based on real people. The Iran the player experiences through him is real; the events of the game are based on things that really happened. Realistic punishments that make Hollywood heroism a non-option, combined with 1979 Revolution’s ambiguous morality systems could have had the effect of making the game feel cardboard — more like a documentary or a social experiment than an interactive experience. But instead, I felt a real desire to interact with the world presented to me; I felt driven to try and do the right thing, despite the hardship involved.

This is due in no small part to the cast of characters that populate the political chaos in 1979 Revolution. On top of truly incredible voice performances, secondary characters like Ali, Hossein, and Babak are sold by the narrative as complex, passionate, and righteous. They’re people you want to get to know better — there are hidden depths to each of them. The secondary characters of 1979 Revolution serve not only to richen the world, but to richen your understanding of it. Their complexity makes them feel like individuals: people who have a part to play in your story, but who also have a story of their own. They have as much autonomy as you do, and it makes it feel like you’re a participant in a widespread cultural event, rather than the protagonist in an action movie.

By presenting the stakes and morality system as realistic, 1979 Revolution succeeds not only in immersing you in it’s central conflict, but also in allowing you to feel a real connection to the people who are experiencing that conflict alongside you. It never feels like you’re playing through a pretend version of the revolution, one where it’s easy to make the right call along a paragon/renegade axis of goodness — or one where there’s even necessarily a “right” call to make. On the contrary, the game’s overwhelming greyness makes it feel like you’re playing through the lived experience of not just one, but many, many Iranians.

One of 1979 Revolution’s greatest triumphs as a game is that, throughout, its mechanics and attention to detail make it feel authentic. I don’t mean that it feels “believable” in the traditional sense (though it obviously does) — I mean that in every moment of gameplay, you can feel how intensely honest it is. It tells a story not about a simulated experience of larger-than-life heroism, but of the human experience of being a single person trying, against great odds, to change a system much bigger than themselves. It brings the realities of revolution to your front door, and ultimately leaves you with the hope that true revolutionary change is, in fact, possible. And instead of starting with an action star, it starts with you.