Iran's video-game developers find inspiration in America's best-selling Prince of Persia franchise.

The art of play.
May 26 2010 3:34 PM

Real Princes, Real Persians

Iran's video-game developers find inspiration in America's best-selling Prince of Persia franchise.

Quest of Persia. Click image to expand.
Quest of Persia: Nader's Blade 

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.

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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.)