While no one was looking, Iran has developed a homegrown video game industry. The most amazing part? Some of the games are actually pretty damn good.
Although scattered Iranian programmers created homemade freeware and shareware games during the 1980s and 1990s, Middle East-based gaming has traditionally been dominated by Turkey and Israel. The combination of governmental cultural repression and Western sanctions in Iran is a difficult one for programmers, unfortunately.
The most popular Iranian game and the biggest export (by far) is the Quest of Persia series. “Quest” consists of several graphically lush action games rooted in Persian mythology and Iranian history. According to pan-regional site MEGamers:
Quest of Persia” is a series of games based on the historical events of the land of Persia (Currently known as Iran). The games tell the adventures of Arashk, and Leyla who try to explore the secrets of the ancient Persian sites and in the process of the game they come across different situations related to them. What makes Quest of Persia completely different from other games about Persia is that it is by its own a 100% Persian game. Music, environments and characters have a complete Persian theme. Furthermore, Quest of Persia promises to show the players what the land of Persia is all about, getting you involved in its true historic stories, and gives a unique gameplay never experienced before in any other game.
The games are the creation of Iranian firm Puya Arts, who also offer a downloadable demo of “Quest of Persia: Lotfali Khan Zand.” The game is a historical action game set in the 17th century where players get to be the last Shah of the Zand dynasty and struggle against the upstart Qajar dynasty. Unsurprisingly for a video game, there is also a heavy amount of on-screen violence and bloodshed.
Other games in the series include:
“Quest of Persia: The End of Innocence”: “The Story begins with Iraq attacking Iran from air, sea and land. Arashk who is an engineer working in Petrochemical plant, gets caught in the attacks, and has to escape the factory while it’s burning into ashes. He meets Leyla an archeologist who is working in the desert. She is trying to find out the secrets of Ancient Persian Sites. Together they have to fight the Iraqi Invasion army, while trying to solve the mystery of Ancient Sites. Arashk and Leyla find a manuscript which provides them with information about secrets of Ancient Persian Sites. It gives them a clue about the famous battle of Agha Mohammad Khan Ghajar and Lotfali Khan Zand…”Ruining the Iranians-as-misogynists narrative, the game has a female protagonist (awesome). However, in order to sell the game in Iran, Leyla has to wear a discreet head covering at all times. Tomb Raider it isn’t.
Quest of Persia: Nader’s Blade: “The game tells the story of Nader the great king of Persia, and how he defeats the afghan who invaded Iran in the 16th century. The story continues with Lotfali Khan Zand struggle to defeat Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar 60 years later..”Elsewhere, other Iranian games also focus on local, almost-nationalist themes. But instead of focusing on history, many games have anti-American or anti-Western storylines. For instance:
Special Operation 85: Hostage Rescue: “Two young Iranian nuclear scientists, Saeed and his wife Maryam, are kidnapped by US military forces while on a religious pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, and are sent to a prison in Israel. Bahram Nasseri, an Iranian special operations agent, is sent to Israel to save the scientists and four other Iranians. While in Israel, Nasseri also exposes an Israeli-Iranian responsible for leaking classified information about Iran’s nuclear program to Western powers. The name of Nasseri’s mission is “The Special Operation” [...] The game is a 3D first-person shooter with eight levels of play. The player character, Bahram Nasseri, must kill US and Israeli soldiers and manage his Iranian-made AK-47’s ammunition while pursuing the rescue objectives. Nasseri must also obtain secret information from the laptops of slain enemy combatants.”This game was funded by an Iranian organization named the Union of the Islamic Students, who commissioned an Isfahan-based team for the gig. Supposedly, the game was inspired as a nationalist response to a 2004 American freeware game where players got to pretend they were US soldiers destroying a nuclear facility. The eight-level game had modest sales.
Saving the Port: This Iranian-government funded turn-based strategy game is set in World War II, during the joint British-Soviet occupation of Iran. In the game, which was designed “to counter the West’s cultural onslaught and in order to promote the Islamic-Iranian culture,” players strive to protect the port of Anzali from perfidious Albion.
Another government-funded game, Age of Heroes, draws on Persian mythology. In this case, it’s a video game adaption of the Shahnameh :
Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games has released ‘The Age of Heroes’, a three-dimensional computer game based on the Shahnameh. The game has been designed based on the stories narrated in the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi’s magnum opus, Shahnameh. ‘Age of Heroes’ offers a three-dimensional presentation of Iranian natural scenes, outfits and historical architectural structures. The music of the game also has an Iranian-epical theme and some 35 voice actors have dubbed the game. The game introduces some 110 mythical figures living in nine regions. Users must use various weapons and superpowers to ward off evil characters. Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) is a classic work of Persian epic poetry and recounts Iran’s mythical and historical past.
In the past, MSNBC and the BBC have written about the struggle of Iran’s video game programmers.
A YouTube trailer for “Quest of Persia: Nader’s Blade” is shown below.
A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.