If Walt Disney Pictures has its way, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will be the first movie in a megabucks-grossing franchise. Considering that this is popcorn fare based on a video-game series with a tenuous connection to ancient Persia (save for two 2008 games that borrowed from Zoroastrianism), it’s no surprise that the film places whiz-bang theatrics above historical context. But if Bruckheimer and Co. did want more authentic video-game source material, it would be easy enough to find. They’d just have to go to Iran.
The land of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does indeed have a modern video-game industry, one that borrows greatly from Persian mythology—and, ironically enough, from America’s Prince of Persia series. According to members of the Iranian expat gaming community, the pioneering action/adventure games are just as popular in Iran as in the United States and Europe. The series’ setting in a richly detailed (if not always historically accurate) pre-Islamic Persia captivated a generation of Iranian game designers. Perhaps as a result, the bulk of Iranian video games designed for export are medieval slash-and-hacks that owe much stylistically and thematically to Prince of Persia.
Iran’s most popular game series, Quest of Persia, takes obvious inspiration from its American predecessor. Game manufacturers Puya Arts explicitly note that their games are more “Persian” than Prince of Persia. In the promotional materials for 2006’s Quest of Persia: The Revenge of Ghajar, Puya explains that “Quest of Persia is a game about Persia which has been built by Persians. Unlike games like Prince of Persia which has more an Arab or Indian theme, Quest of Persia is 100 percent Persian, from music to environments, up to characters.”
The Quest of Persia series isn’t in the same league as the titles developed by major American and Japanese firms. 2005’s Quest of Persia: The End of Innocence, for example, has blocky graphics, while 2008’s Quest of Persia: Lotfali Khan Zand suffers from clunky controls. But the gameplay in the Quest of Persia series is ultimately engrossing; I’d say it’s roughly on par with much of what’s on offer from smaller Western game makers.
The major reason for the games’ relative primitiveness is that the country’s video-game industry didn’t take off until the mid-2000s. While amateur programmers have been making freeware games in Iran since the 1980s, business didn’t start booming until 2006, when the government-funded Iran National Foundation for Computer Games started providing seed money and support for game developers.
An English-language translation of the foundation’s charter offers a melange of commercial (“Lending support to efforts to tap the country’s potential in the computer games industry”) and propagandistic (“Developing and promoting cultural principles and Islamic-Iranian identity through the industry”) justifications for bolstering the video-game industry. The bulk of Iranian games that are distributed in foreign lands, though, are heavy on the Iranian and light on the Islamic. The Quest of Persia titles all place a huge emphasis on regional history and culture. The End of Innocence is set during the Iran-Iraq war, with Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard hunting down the main characters. Lotfali Khan Zand is a game seemingly designed for history majors, with players standing in as the last shah of the Zand dynasty in a quest to protect Persia from takeover by the bloodthirsty Mohammed Khan Qajar. 2009’s Nader’s Blade, the most advanced game in the series, is a prequel whose protagonist is a 16th-century Persian monarch charged with stopping an Afghan invasion.
You’ll find the same quasi-historical settings and Persian nationalism in most popular Iranian games. In Garshasp,an upcoming ultraviolent fantasy stab-’em-up, you play as a legendary monster slayer who hunts Deevs, the traditional demons of Zoroastrianism. Age of Heroes is an adventure game based on Ferdowsi’s epic Persian poem, the Shahnameh, aimed primarily at a domestic teenage audience. (The game was designed by Iran’s Ferdowsi Foundation to raise interest in the poem among young people.)
As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, life isn’t easy for Iranian video-game designers. Although Iran has many talented computer programmers, they are often raw and inexperienced. It’s tough to rack up sales domestically, as the average Iranian does not have much money to spend on video games. Sanctions also make it difficult to market games in Western countries, and the threat of censorship and government interference is ever-present. Arash Jafari, a member of the team behind Garshasp, told the Post’s Thomas Erdbrink that the game’s Iranian release date was being delayed because of the political climate. “[P]eople are sad right now, worried,” he said. “Some of their family members are in prison. This is not the right time to promote our game.”
As a result of these market pressures, locally produced games are often incredibly cheap. According to Puya Dadgar, a project lead at Puya Arts, most of their games market domestically at $6 or $7 (in U.S. dollars), while selling from 25,000 to 60,000 copies. Even at those low prices, there’s stiff competition from Western fare: Iran is one of the world capitals of software piracy and bootleg copies of games such as the Call of Duty series and Bioshock 2 can easily be found at street stalls or bazaars for under $3.
Iranian games aren’t all swords and sandals. In comparison to the epics designed for overseas sales, many domestic games indulge in a fanaticism and intolerance that is all too current. It’s not surprising that these rabidly anti-reformist, anti-American games are cheap and poorly made. (In that, they have much in common with the crummily designed Islamist video games coming out of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.) In Special Operation 85: Hostage Rescue, a first-person shooter developed by the ultraconservative Union of Islamic Students group, players rescue heroic Iranian nuclear scientists from evil American and Israeli soldiers. Despite the 2007 release date, the game feels like a rehash of 1990s-era relics like Doom. (Upon its release, Al Jazeera scoffed at the game’s poor quality.) Fighting the Leaders of Sedition, a sloppily programmed shooter that’s freely available on the Internet, is even more disturbing in that it asks you to shoot at the heads of Iranian reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami. (Mousavi, Karrubi, and Khatami all shoot back.)
Iranians who prefer a good, faux-Persian epic won’t have to wait very long—bootleg copies of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will surely be on sale in the streets of Tehran within days of the film’s American release thanks to Iran’s prolific DVD pirates. Iranian video game fans, it seems, are eagerly awaiting it. Jerry Bruckheimer himself was interviewed by the popular expatriate site Iranian.com and in the comments, Persian-speaking readers eagerly parsed the movie’s plot and characters for references to the Shahnameh. After all, as one commenter noted, the Prince of Persia games have cultural resonance for real Persians: “[I]f you are Iranian and have kids anywhere between 12 and 42 that grew up in the west, they have probably played it.”