Navid Khonsari and the Doc Game Revolution

4 mins read

“Documentary” and “game” aren’t words you typically hear in the same sentence, but Navid Khonsari wants to change that. The director of hit games like Grand Theft Auto III and Max Payne spoke at a Hot Docs 2015 industry session entitled “Videogames+Docs=Future” about his upcoming project to a crowd composed largely of non-gamers. According to Khonsari, 1979 Revolution will be the first game of its kind: an episodic, multi-platform, first-person experience set during the turbulent days surrounding the Iranian Revolution. Players take on the role of Reza, a young photojournalist who navigates the streets of Tehran during the strikes and demonstrations that led to the revolution. Recreating actual historical moments in rich detail, Khonsari hopes to transcend the traditional boundaries of games by interweaving documentary elements such as photographs and audio recordings to give players a feeling of immersion in the actual sights and sounds of the conflict.

At this point, plenty of doc-makers will probably be shaking their heads and asking, “Why not just make a film?” Khonsari’s answer is simple: it’s been done many times before. The first game about the Iranian Revolution, on the other hand, has the potential to reach an entirely new audience, and as evidenced by the extensive press coverage of the project, it’s generating a huge buzz. With sales well in excess of $80 billion last year, the gaming industry has outgrown its older sibling, film. What’s easier to overlook is the fact that much of the recent growth has come on mobile platforms and from people who don’t consider themselves “gamers”, especially those in the 25-to-44 age group. Khonsari points to these trends as an important reason for doc-makers to expand their views of what’s possible in the gaming space. Wildly successful mobile games like Monument Valley prove that great design and user experience can be more important than guns and gore. The exploding popularity of touchscreen devices with people of all ages creates exciting new possibilities for the kinds of stories and experiences that are possible in games.

1979 Revolution will be released as a series of episodes, each with a playing time of approximately two hours—a much more contained experience than console games, which can take dozens of hours to complete. Shorter game lengths mean that both the production cost and the final price of the game is lower, reducing the risk of investment for producers but also lowering the barrier to entry for buyers, with many titles selling in the $3-$10 range. More important than all of these pragmatic factors, however, is the fact that games provide a wholly different experience from linear documentaries. Khonsari believes that games allow players to walk in a character’s shoes in a more visceral way than non-interactive forms. Not only does a player participate in the action of the narrative, their choices can have far-reaching consequences that drastically alter its trajectory, fostering an emotional impact that Khonsari argues can be more powerful than simply watching events unfold.

While it may seem impossible to make a game like 1979 Revolution without Khonsari’s clout and experience, his plan is to allow other creators to have access to the tools being developed by his team, helping them to create their own “verité games.” If he’s successful, it won’t be long until we’re all talking about documentary games.

Marc Serpa Francoeur is a documentary filmmaker and interactive producer whose work builds on lifelong interests in immigration, diversity, and social justice issues. Co-founder of Lost Time Media with Robinder Uppal, they have produced a wide range of linear and interactive documentaries since 2013, including The World in Ten Blocks (2016), a feature-length interactive documentary that premiered at Hot Docs and Sheffield Doc/Fest and The Head in the Hand (2018), which was listed by DOC NYC as one of the top twelve contenders for the Oscars’ Documentary Short category. In 2020 they released No Visible Trauma, a scathing exposé of police brutality and accountability issues in Calgary, their hometown. They are in production on Love in the Time of Fentanyl, a feature-length documentary produced in partnership with ITVS and with the support of the Sundance Documentary Film Program.

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