The Cat and the Coup

"The Cat and the Coup is a documentary game in which you play the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh," explain Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, as if playing the pet of the former Prime Minister of Iran is as natural as can be. The fickle feline becomes the disruptive catalyst for movement from level to level through the game, which traces in reverse the series of events that triggered the coup against Mossadegh designed and carried out by the CIA in 1953. The game will be showcased at the independent game design festival IndieCade this coming weekend.

I've been a fan of the decidedly unusual and intriguing work of Brinson, an LA-based game developer and filmmaker, for several years, and indeed, many of his projects feature animals. But they also often examine historical figures, frequently from a rather oblique angle. Brinson was a collaborator on the Waco Resurrection project, for example, which revisited the Branch Davidian compound through the mind of David Koresh, while his quirky online film No Animals Were Hurt takes a look at a little known aspect of the life of Alan Turing.

"We were interested in playing with perspective," continues Brinson, and he means this both literally and metaphorically. "We also were interested in a kind of progression of aggression, and the idea of indirect manipulation." These are both very specific references to the behavior of the game, but they echo larger historical themes related to one country's manipulation of and aggression toward another.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the game is its visual design, which is nothing less than exquisite in its use of space, color and detail. ValaNejad, who serves as the art director for the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, explains that the game's aesthetic is based on Persian miniatures, which were painted between the 13th and 16th centuries and are characterized by their attention to detail. ValaNejad notes that LACMA has an extraordinary collection of Persian miniatures, and he studied them extensively. He adds, "I felt this responsibility as an Iranian American - my mother is American, my father is Iranian - to making the game look authentic. I also started to realize how personal it was to me." Connecting Iranian history to this particular aesthetic made a lot of sense to the pair.

Brinson and ValaNejad aligned the idea of detail, and the tension between figure and ground, with that of history. Why, asks Brinson, don't we as Americans know this particular chapter of American history? They also aligned it with game-play. "Much of the playfulness in the game is in reading between the lines," explains ValaNejad.

In the game, each room is a puzzle requiring a solution. There is also an abundance of historical material, most of it taken from The New York Times. "It was fun going through the archives and finding the history right there," remarks Brinson. "The Americans were well-meaning, but it's ironic that a country that stands for democracy helped to topple a democracy."

Once you've solved the puzzles and maneuvered successfully through each room, Mossadegh dies, and his body moves upward through each level of the game. It's an amazing moment - although the game's visual design is decidedly flat, having read through the history that led to the coup creates a sense of intense empathy for the leader, such that his quiet death is devastating.

The Cat and the Coup - Trailer from Peter Brinson on Vimeo.

"Documentaries are supposedly objective," says ValaNejad, "and we were taking advantage of that idea, but at the same time, art allows an opportunity to create an attitude and mood." So, on one level, the game is about a historical moment; but it is also about something far more complex, namely perspective, impossible spaces, and manipulation. Things, perhaps, that cats know best.

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