The Flare Path: Persian Potpourri

When is a bad game not a bad game? When it inadvertently nudges you towards a good game. I began this week playing a very weak HAWXlike coded in Tehran and, via some connected Wikipedia delving and Steam sifting, ended it playing a powerful adventure game set during the Iranian Revolution.

Squadron: Sky Guardians’ flight model resembles actual flight in the same way a vaulting horse resembles an actual horse.

The player-controlled aerodynes in this Iranian-made Unity-powered aerial combat curio refuse to lose speed when they go up-tiddly-up-up or gain it when they go down-tiddly-down-down. Only the jets know the thrill of acceleration and they, clever so-and-sos, double their velocity the instant the Shift key is pressed.

In addition to unrecognisable physics, Squadron purchasers get questionable piloting tips…

…and dogfight venues as poky as pigeon lofts.

Fly for more than 40 seconds in any direction at max speed and the game’s most ruthless opponent recommends you return to the ‘war zone’. Ignore Perimeter Pete’s brief countdown and the swine doesn’t turn your warbird around – he remotely detonates the sausage of Semtex that’s been placed next to your fuel tank to discourage wandering.

Tough missile lock conditions, agile bandits, and a single difficulty level ensure the line-astern ten-sortie campaign has the capacity to frustrate. The kindest thing I can say about Squadron is that its unusual premise – seventy-five years of Iranian Air Force history under one roof – means there’s a fair chance your first stop after rage-quitting mission #5 (an Iran-Iraq War sortie involving a Kharg Island offshore oil platform and a fleet of seemingly unsinkable Iraqi gunboats) will be Wikipedia.

The game’s depiction of the profoundly dubious/pragmatic 1941 Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran might be wildly inaccurate* but I’m glad it exists. Curious about briefing claims and sortie implications, I found myself following the white Wikipedia rabbit down a hole that eventually led me to The Cat and the Coup and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.

*Squadron ignores the fact that the Imperial Iranian Air Force was equipped with biplanes in ’41 and was swiftly and painlessly neutralised by the RAF and VVS.

Definitely due another mention on RPS, The Cat and the Coup is a short free puzzle game inspired by one of the Cold War’s most cynical acts. You control the mischievous moggy of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a reforming Iranian Prime Minister removed in a 1953 coup engineered by the US and Britain.

Mosaddegh had made the mistake of nationalising Iran’s oil industry thus depriving the UK of one of its most valuable overseas assets.

A pawed clock resurrects the recently deceased and deposed PM, and then carefully timed scampering and cunning object manipulation sends him tumbling downwards through a series of eye-catching collages and seesawing rooms that initially make little sense.

The reward for your feline meddling is a memorable final sequence in which the descent is reversed, the game revealing itself like a peacock unfurling its tail feathers.

Far more subtle and thought-provoking than the newspaper political cartoons it sometimes resembles, The Cat and the Coup is a lovely thing. How wonderful it would be if it was one of a family of similar titles. If only more devs handled history as delicately and poetically as Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad.

What’s more important to you – democracy or the safety of your family? Is the use of violence justified when seeking to overthrow a repressive regime? Should a photojournalist allow his work to be used for political purposes? 1979 Revolution: Black Friday asks some very difficult questions and does so without ever feeling didactic, reductionist or contrived.

A brilliantly executed adventure game stuffed with drama and believable characters, it’s clearly made by people intimate with Iranian culture and fascinated by the events that transformed Iran in 1978-79.

You play Reza Shirazi, a young photographer drawn into the heart of the anti-government movement by fate, friends and family connections. It’s a confusing, dangerous place to be. Liberals, communists, and religious fundamentalists all want the Shah removed but vehemently disagree on the way to do it and what path the country should take once the hated monarch and his Gestapo-like secret police are gone.

The revolutionaries you photograph and mingle with are driven and passionate. They’re often fearful too. 1979 Revolution is awash with paranoia.

Sometimes that paranoia manifests itself in violence. Reza can perish at various points in the plot. Usually you save him through well-timed WASDing or by furiously mouse-clicking a QTE icon (happily Quick Time Events are employed sparingly). Occasionally he can talk his way out of trouble.

As dialogue shapes most of your relationships, it’s splendid so much of it is so well crafted and delivered. I can’t remember a moment where a cliché, clumsy phrase, or piece of poor acting pops the story’s soap bubble.

The closest thing to a stock character is a sadistic cattle prod-wielding interrogator. Elsewhere distinguishing friend from foe, the right course of action from the wrong one, is seldom easy. 1979 Revolution never patronises and, like a good novel or movie,  knows when to stop babbling and push on. Only once did I feel I was being pushed into a corner unfairly.

The subtlety of the decision-making and a murky embedded whodunnit encourage replay. I plan to return to iNK Stories’ version of Tehran at some point to right a wrong I unwittingly committed on my initial playthrough and to reacquaint myself with a game that captures the excitement, energy, and anxiety of revolution uncommonly – incomparably? – well.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday is £1.91 until November 1. 

The infamous eight-year war with Iraq that followed hot on the heels of the Iranian Revolution crops up rarely in sims and wargames. Its reputation for WW1-style slaughter and stalemate means it’s not a conflict I’m naturally drawn to but one of the hexy treatments in the works at present might change my attitude.

Jason Petho and the Campaign Series Legion are planning to swell Campaign Series: Middle East with Iran-Iraq War content at some point next year. The expansion will take the form of commercial DLC. As the traditional yet likeable base game is scenario-rich and rigorously researched, I’d be surprised if the add-on was small or slapdash. Will the realism extend to poison gas and child soldiers I wonder?

Those after a less fragmentary recreation of a conflict known as The Imposed War in Iran (An Iraqi invasion of Khuzestan began the carnage) must be cheered by the imminence of The Operational Art of War IV (If TOAW4 ships without an Iran-Iraq War simulation then fans are sure to address the deficiency quickly) and the early promise of this scenario for the free – assuming you own one of the DC series – Decisive Campaigns Community Project.

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This way to the foxer

8 Comments

  1. Shiloh says:

    Oooh, TOAW4 you say, Tim? Interesting…

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  2. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    I think this might be the first time I have actually played one of the games mentioned in this column. I can also recommend 1979 Revolution. The controls (and QTEs) are a little janky, but it’s a refreshing topic and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

    I would really love to see more games where the protagonist is not central to the events unfolding around him. Hero fantasies are fine from time to time, but i do think stories that share an insight into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times pack more of an impact.

    Another interesting historical game I played a few years back was called A Golden Wake. You follow the life of a two-bit hustler in the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. Like 1979 Revolution, it was a game that drew me into a wiki-hole after completing it, which is quite neat.

    • PersonThatPlaysGames says:

      I second 1979, I’ve been championing it but they haven’t made a second episode yet. Seems to have fell off the radar.

  3. xgladius19 says:

    I saw on Steam that the developer of Squadron: Sky Guadian, RSK Entertainment, has made other games about Iranian history. You guys should do a review of them.

  4. Dogshevik says:

    These ground textures of Squadron Sky Guardian … is it just me or is that straight out of google maps?

  5. goodpoints says:

    Oh man I’m going to replay Rev1979. (will be the third time) I don’t think any of historical game has hit me like some of the moments of R1979. I was a bit wary of a game made by expats with an upper class protagonist whose family has connections to the Shah, but the family tension was just masterfully written (particularly Hossein) and Reza’s position of privilege really allowed Babak’s narrative to resonate. Unfortunately there were some instances were I thought that explanatory notes should have been included. (as they were elsewhere) It’s only reveled toward the end that Reza’s best friend, Babak, is also the family’s live-in servant. (someone in the theater mentions it and then there’s that really powerful moment at the family dinner) This was fairly common that the upper class would support poor children or orphans as a sort of domestic indenture, but there’s really not much written on it in English histories so some explanation of Babak’s social position would have really benefited players who don’t have that background knowledge.

    But as far as evoking that sense of time and place, of the multitude of revolutionary factions, of being in the center of a historical maelstrom, and being pulled in a dozen different directions, the game was brilliant. Things like going to the bazaar and seeing the contraband cassette vendors: tapes of Ali Shariati lectures, Khomeini speeches, Googoosh, American rock mixtapes, and Michael Jackson bootlegs all on the same table. (reminds me of one of my favorite Persepolis panels: Estevie Vonder )Hearing the outrage toward and the various theories surrounding the Cinema Rex fire. The martyr walls. The centrality of the bazaar in urban life and the impact of the bazaari strike. The paranoia caused by SAVAK. Oh, and Evin is a real prison and Asadollah Lajaverdi aka Hajj Agha, was actually the warden.

    R1979 also inspired some really great articles by games writers, here’s three of my favorites: 1, 2, 3

    It’s such a hard game to criticise, as various gameplay quibbles I might have had faded with brilliant moments like when you watch photos Reza takes transform from the game’s visuals to their real counterparts. I’m still hoping for a sequel as it ended on such a frustrating cliffhanger. Though perhaps a story that does stop so abruptly with so much unresolved could be fitting for the confusion and fragmented narratives of revolutions in the age of mass media.

  6. TrenchFoot says:

    What Matrix is currently promoting doesn’t look like enough of an improvement for me to buy TOAW again. I’m seeing yellow text on green background. Are they trying to maintain the borderline readability of the original? Maps and UI showing just moderate improvement.

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