In 1951 Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran. He quickly moved to cancel an agreement the Shah had signed with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company--the government owned conglomerate that would later become BP. Under the concession, the British paid the Shah a minimum annuity of 750,000 Pounds in lieu of a tax for rights to extract oil from Iran.
Mossadegh argued that Iran’s oil was not the Shah’s to sell, it was the property of all Iranians and whatever benefits came from it should go to them. The expulsion of Anglo-Iranian caused an international crisis that culminated when John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, okayed a CIA partnership with Britain’s M6 to arrange a coup.
The CIA’s man on the ground, Kermit Roosevelt, financed a network of Mossadegh’s political opponents and thugs-for-hire to riot in the streets while the Army executed an unconstitutional order from the Shah to arrest Mossadegh. After a trial, Mossadegh returned to his home in a small village outside Tehran and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
The Cat and the Coup interprets this moment of ignominy into videogame form. The game takes place during the 17-year period when Mossadegh was under house arrest. Players control Mossadegh’s cat and as they move it through each environment Mossadegh is coerced into reliving all of the tragic moments of his life. The game is a collaboration between Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, professors at USC’s Game Innovation Lab.
Brinson began thinking about the idea of making a procedural documentary while working on Waco Resurrection, an early project that was both praised and criticized for recreating the David Koresh’s violent standoff with the U.S. government. Taking inspiration from his friend Eddo Stern--who was using machinima to make documentaries--Brinson began thinking about international issues for his own documentary experiment.
“Years after the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they still upset me, and so I kept trying to think of an interesting game idea about war,” Brinson told me. “But all of my concepts were either flatly satirical or not revealing.”
Brinson played with the idea of a series of short games with players controlling the cats of famous historical figures including Cleopatra, Genghis Kahn, Adolph Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. Brinson’s wife suggested instead of focusing on tyrants he might try focusing on a historical figure that he actually liked, and so he settled on Mossadegh. At this point ValaNejad joined the project to help define the look and ensure there was some authenticity to the portrait of Iran.
“I volunteered to work on The Cat and the Coup out of a sense of responsibility, both as an Iranian-American and as the art-director of the game lab,” ValaNejad told me. “I wanted to make sure the game looked authentic and that the set-dressing reflected 1950’s Iran.”
ValaNejad took the work of Iranian cartoonist and illustrator Ardeshir Mohassess as a reference in creating the hand-drawn figures. The game’s backdrop is a colorful mosaic of 2D images: historical photos, royal luxuries from the Peacock throne, romantic figures from Persian poetry, and satirical cartoons.
The game space is a massive canvas though players spend their time in a zoomed-in view of Mossadegh and his cat. Following the curious path of his cat Mossadegh stumbles and falls from one section of the canvas to the next while the background shuffles to reveal imagery appropriate to what object the cat has just drawn his attention to.
“We never considered letting the player control Mossadegh as it was clear that making it about his cat was a compelling premise,” Brinson told me. “Making Mossadegh the avatar would afford a game design in which the player could make alternate historical choices, a ‘what if’ game, if you will. We wanted it to be about the actual history since Americans don't know it at all, certainly not enough to consider alterative outcomes.”
Likewise, it was important to find appropriate controls for the cat. “The initial control scheme was that of a straightforward platformer, but it was awkward with a character that was much wider than tall,” Brinson continued.
“And more importantly, the somber mood we were going for did not fit a play style that included jumping mistakes. A careful and deliberate cat fit our aesthetics, so early on we committed to a control scheme in which the player always makes successful leaps and rarely walks off of edges by accident.”
When Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister he found himself in a precarious position, having to manage the interests of a growing Communist movement, democratic liberalizers, conservative imams, and pro-Shah loyalists. He had to reassure American nervous about the country becoming a Soviet satellite and ask the British for technical and managerial assistance while rebuffing their demands to control Iran’s oil again. There were negative consequences to almost every choice he could have made.
“In the first of half of the game, the environment design reflects the enormous forces working against Dr. Mossadegh,” ValaNejad said. “In the game, he is easily manipulated and thrown off-balance.”
“But in the second part, as The Cat and the Coup shifts from an interactive experience to more of a conventional documentary, historic photographs paired with quotes from trusted U.S. sources reveal his powerful personality. One of the most effective images is of Dr. Mossadegh on the cover of Time Magazine as the 1951 Man of the Year.” (That Time cover story is archived here - Ed.)
Working on the game was a surprising experience for ValaNejad who learned that he was actually related to Mossadegh in the course of his research. Brinson and ValaNejad hope the game will also be an experience of discovery for American players.
“Since the game’s primary target audience is young American students, we assumed they knew very little about this particular chapter of American’s covert foreign policy,” ValaNejad said. ”Given the recent news from Iran, we also suspected our representations of Iranians may indeed conflict with their expectations.”
While many in the West remain unaware of Mossadegh, many historians count the coup among the most disastrous foreign policy blunders of the 20th Century. Following Mossadegh’s overthrow, the Shah ruled Iran as an increasingly brutal autocracy openly susceptible to Western corruption. It was during this period that Ruhollah Khomeini became an icon of national pride and resistance against Western exploitation, which led to the 1979 Revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“We considered drawing parallels between the U.S. and Iranian relations today with Mossadegh's story somehow, but only briefly,” Brinson said. “Even though Americans don't know enough about contemporary Iran, they know even less about Mossadegh's era.”
“It's important to give players a chance to make their own mental connections, to ask themselves if there is a direct link between this story and contemporary Iran. And so the role that oil plays in the game is enough for any American player to see parallels between the situation today and back then.”
The Cat and the Coup will be released for for free on PC and Mac sometime this summer. You can follow the game’s development at its official website, www.thecatandthecoup.com.
Michael Thomsen has written about videogames, sex, and animals for ABC World News, Nerve, n+1, IGN, The Faster Times, The Millions, Gamasutra, The Escapist, and Edge. He lives in New York City.