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1979 Revolution developer explains how hard it is to make emotional games

Navid Khonsari spent a decade in the game industry as a cinematic director, working on projects such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Max Payne, Manhunt and Alan Wake. So he knows a thing or two about telling stories that will produce emotional reactions in players.

Khonsari gave a brief talk at Games for Change 2016 last week about his first indie game, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which his studio, Ink Stories, recently released on iOS, Mac and Windows PC. An adventure game about the Iranian Revolution would seem to be an inherently emotional exercise, but as Khonsari explained, it’s not as simple as that.

In 1979 Revolution, you play as an 18-year-old Iranian photojournalist. Your choices can change the ending of your own story, but not the course of history. The goal of the project, according to Khonsari, was to both entertain and engage players. Ink Stories wanted to deliver an “honest depiction” of the Iranian Revolution, but also to put players who aren’t familiar with it in the shoes of a person who is experiencing that event themselves.

“Empathy kicks in, emotion kicks in, and that connection kicks in,” said Khonsari.

Khonsari wanted to tell this story in a video game because he believes that interactivity is a powerful way to bring people into an experience. The narrative gameplay of 1979 Revolution helps you to understand what happened during the conflict, but “emotions are cheap on their own,” said Khonsari. That’s why interactivity in the form of choices is crucial — it starts a conversation between creator and audience, and that “narrative engagement stays with you.”

Having to make choices gives players ownership over the story, said Khonsari, and “cognitive empathy” follows. The more decisions you make as a character, the more closely you become tied to that character. These three elements — emotion, empathy and cognitive connection — are all key to telling an impactful interactive story.

“If you just do one, it’s not going to work,” said Khonsari.

Ink Stories is now working to bring 1979 Revolution into virtual reality with the help of the Made in NY program and the Independent Filmmaker Project. One of the ways in which the studio is hoping to bring players further into the experience is a simple interrogation mechanic with motion control in VR: When you get asked a question, you can nod or shake your head to answer yes or no.

However, Khonsari said that VR “in itself isn’t necessarily a slam dunk” when it comes to immersion. As he reiterated during his lecture, everything has to work in concert to produce an emotional experience that stays with you.

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