By Julie Ershadi
Kurosh ValaNejad was born in Iran in 1966 to an Iranian father and an American mother. He and his older brother Cyrus grew up there until shortly before the 1979 Revolution, when the family moved to the United States.
There, he became a design artist and, eventually, the graphics mastermind behind a small yet elaborate virtual adventure involving a key episode in 20th-century Iranian history: the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s prime minister, in 1953.
“The Cat and the Coup,” the brainchild of University of Southern California (USC) Assistant Professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts Peter Brinson, is a video game that explores the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his subsequent internal exile.
ValaNejad created the game’s art style and imagery: a patchwork of geometrical patterns, historic photographs, miniatures (scanned from Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s private collection of manuscripts), and original drawings which he adapted from the backs of envelopes doodled on by Ardeshir Mohasses, the late Iranian artist-cartoonist, who was a friend of his mother.
Brinson, who teaches in the School of Cinematic Arts’ experimental Interactive Media & Games Division, originally had the idea to create a documentary video game about all of the 20th century coups engineered by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). ValaNejad, then Art Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, offered to collaborate on the project. He suggested that Brinson scale the game’s scope down to Mossadegh’s fall in Iran, because it was the first of the CIA’s controversial interventions and the most globally significant.
“I felt a responsibility to help,” ValaNejad said. “I wanted to make sure it didn’t misrepresent Iran and Iranians like I’d seen in Hollywood film productions.”
The game, in which the player controls a fictionalized version of Mossadegh’s cat and explores the events of the overthrow from that vantage point, has received numerous accolades for its vision and style. It was the winner of the Documentary Game category at the 2010 IndieCade Festival of Independent Games. (According to ValaNejad, the organizers created the category that year to officially recognize the narrative accomplishment represented by “The Cat and the Coup.”)
This year, ValaNejad is scheduled to travel to Iran for the first time since 1978 to attend the Goethe-Institut’s Games and Politics exhibition at the 2018 Tehran Game Convention, from July 6-7 (currently on show at Singapore’s Kult Gallery until February 12.) “The Cat and the Coup” will be one of several interactive media displayed to highlight the potential for video games to explore historically significant topics.
Accurate representation was a major goal of ValaNejad’s. Films like “Not Without My Daughter,” he said, disparaged Iranian culture and society to Western audiences. ValaNejad said he hoped people would understand that Betty Mahmoody’s experience was an exception, not the norm; that there were also happy families from mixed marriages, in spite of the decades of political drama between Iran and the United States.
“I attended a school full of do-rageh [half-Iranian] kids like myself in Iran,” he said. “The hardships of losing everything in a Revolution, the harassment we faced in school, and the blatant discrimination that our fathers faced at work in part because of the misrepresentations on TV, in films and on the news only made us more resilient and made our family bonds stronger.”
The in-game art is designed to represent different aspects of Iranian history leading up to the 1953 overthrow, including the Qajar shah’s oil concession to a British subject, William Knox D’Arcy, in 1901. Oil barrels strewn across one scene are decorated with portraits of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, who granted the concession that led to the creation of the British Petroleum (BP) company.
ValaNejad’s ultimate aim is to educate the rest of the world about Iran. The intended audience is American students who might wish to learn more about this intricate chapter in world history, or better yet, those who don’t know a single thing about Mossadegh, the Shah, or the CIA.
To expose audiences to the subject, ValaNejad and Brinson made the game available for free to download on Mac and PC in 2011 through the USC game design school’s publishing label.
“People bumped into it by accident, which is the goal,” Brinson said in an interview at his office on the USC campus. “The amount of money we could’ve made on it is not nearly as valuable as having all sorts of people serendipitously learn about Mossadegh.”
Pleased with that success, Brinson and his team are now working to bring the game to Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro gaming console in ultra high definition, the most advanced level of visual quality available to the general public (also known as 4K).
Last June, Brinson brought a demo version of the updated “The Cat and the Coup” to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the gaming industry’s big annual trade show in Los Angeles. Around 100 attendees tested the game as they coursed through the expo’s section for independent developers. Brinson said he learned a great deal about game design from watching them play through the levels, such as noting small tweaks that could improve the gameplay experience.
Most players will take between 15 minutes and a half-hour to complete the game. The intent is not to be on a par with the design philosophies of modern mainstream titles, which often strive to provide hundreds of hours of gameplay each, usually delivering repetitive, formulaic experiences to generate sales.
Brinson has designed a nuanced, iconoclastic journey that flips several important video game conventions on their heads. For example, the game player takes on the role of Mossadegh’s cat, and the goal is not to help the former prime minister, but to hinder and undermine him without his knowledge. The cat represents the unseen hand of Mossadegh’s real-life detractors.
“All I want is to keep the conversation going about our relationship to Iran so that Americans can see some nuance in the relationship: that not everything is black and white,” Brinson said. “So if we can just bring back up the question of who are we in relation to Iran, and what is our past, what is our present, and what is our future, then this will be great.”