[Gamasutra correspondent Jason Johnson sits down with Iranian independent developer Mahdi Bahrami in order to discover how the teenager has overcome geographical and cultural boundaries to present his independent games to the world.]
The city of Esfahan is renowned for its beauty. Lavish palaces, glowing minarets, and lush gardens give it an Oriental mystique. Its architectural heritage can be traced back to antiquity, but not everything is old.
Modern structures help define Esfahan as well. There’s the oil refinery, textile mills, and, of course, the Uranium Conversion Facility, the oft disputed yellowcake conversion plant that is the heart of Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find an indie game developer. Yet for Mahdi Bahrami, the Iranian-born 17 year-old who has recently engineered a string of nominations in indie game competitions, Esfahan is home.
Aside from living in a part of the world that doesn’t get much positive exposure in the West, Bahrami is a typical teenager.
He’d rather skip school than go to class, his math book is irreverently covered in drawings, and I got more out of him talking about soccer than I did quizzing him on game design. In fact, he contacted me several times about Iran’s match against Brazil in Abu Dhabi.
There is, however, one difference between Bahrami and your average high school student. He makes video games. Cheerful, brightly colored, and tinged with Persian influence, Bahrami’s games show a side of Iran that contrasts the bleak outlook often portrayed in the headlines. They are tiny windows indeed, but for those of us in the West, they’re about the closest we’ll get to seeing a pure, unfiltered perspective of an Iranian citizen.
Though Bahrami seems blissfully unaware of it, his games are imbued with Iranian history and culture. Bo is a puzzle-platformer which brings to mind the ancient Persian craft of carpet-weaving. Players move their character in and out of positive and negative space to solve its puzzles, similar to the way yarn moves back and forth through a loom to form a motif.
Likewise, Everything Can Draw! is a curious experimental game about using geometry to draw, an idea that has been prevalent in the Middle East for centuries. The influence of geometry can be seen everywhere in Arabic art, from embroidery to the intricate patterns on the tiles that adorn the walls of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in central Esfahan. Furthermore, Everything Can Draw! utilizes the bold colors and arabesque embellishments particular to Persian art.
Both Bo and Everything Can Draw! have gained recent international attention, a testament to young Bahrami’s talent, but circumstances surrounding their accolade illustrate the hardships of being an indie game developer, or doing much of anything, inside Iran. A few weeks ago, Bahrami and his father traveled to Japan after being invited to demo Everything Can Draw! at Tokyo Game Show 2010’s Sense of Wonder Night, but it wasn’t easy for him to get there.
“We couldn’t just reserve a hotel in Japan,” he explained. “The Iranian banks are banned. They only work in some Arabian countries. A friend [from the show] had to reserve the hotel for us.”
Bahrami was referring to trade sanctions levied against Iran by Japan and many other nations in response to Iran’s refusal to cease enriching uranium, an activity that Iran claims is peaceful, but which many see as an attempt to attain a nuclear weapon.
Trade sanctions pose a constant obstacle to Bahrami. Bo won the IndiePub Community Favorite award this year, along with its $5,000 cash prize, but when I asked Bahrami what he planned on doing with the money, he told me he hadn’t gotten it yet. “It’s not possible to send money directly.”
The “embargo,” as Bahrami calls it, makes it unlikely he will ever get paid. Despite this, his amicable demeanor shined through. We were chatting over instant message because he was uncomfortable speaking in English. A wide-grinning smiley accompanied his reply.
Esfahan was once an oasis town with key positioning along the Silk Road and, as a result, became a thriving trade center_ a place where the East and the West converged. Today, only a handful of countries do business with Iran, leaving Bahrami few opportunities to publish his work. Apple doesn’t operate there, meaning Bahrami can’t distribute games on the App Store. Other avenues are blocked as well.
He directed me to his blog where he had posted a letter from Microsoft in response to a game he submitted to the Xbox Live Indie Games service. Unsurprisingly, his LocoRoco inspired game KooChooLoo!!! had been refused on the grounds that it was submitted from an Iranian account.
Bahrami even has trouble entering his games in contests. “I can’t submit my games to any competition that charges a fee,” he said. “For example, the IGF competition.”
In Iran’s insular economy, game makers have few options. Game consumers, on the other hand, have two: steal, or go hungry. “All the games are cracked,” he told me. Bahrami and his friends play pirated copies of retail releases, which can be bought locally for two dollars from those who deal in that sort of thing.
It seemed odd for him to be making games in a country that doesn’t even have a legitimate video game market. Moreover, it feels sardonic that his opportunities are so limited while the Iranian government rolls on with its nuclear initiative despite the sanctions. Clearly, Iran has far more pressing concerns than a schoolboy’s inability to publish games.
Even so, Bahrami’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed in his homeland. He just appeared on the Iranian television show Sefro Yek, where he discussed Everything Can Draw! on a live broadcast. He initially appeared nervous, swiveling in his chair and darting his eyes to and fro, but as the interview progressed, his confidence grew. It was the same confidence I could sense in him when he expressed to me his desire to continue his studies abroad.
At the Sense of Wonder Night conference, Bahrami had stated he didn’t want to make games for a living, but his tune appears to have changed. “Now I’m interested in being a game developer,” he posted in a recent blog entry. The words “game developer” were emphasized in a bold green, the same color of the uppermost stripe on the Iranian flag.