Those looking for a critical perspective on the Iraq War should steer clear of Six Days in Fallujah. The controversial first-person shooter seeks to portray one of the bloodiest battles in American history, one that cost the lives of United States and allied forces as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens in 2004. Originally announced in 2009, the game was dropped by publisher Konami due to the objections of the families of service members killed during the Iraq War. In the 12 years since, public opinion has demonstrably shifted against that war.
That makes the job of Peter Tamte, head of Six Days in Fallujah publisher Victura, perhaps harder today than it was more than a decade ago. In an interview with Polygon on Thursday, after the game was announced for a second time, he was insistent that developer Highwire Games will not grapple with the political machinations that led to the titular conflict. Instead, their first-person shooter will try to engender empathy for American troops in the field, for their work destroying the insurgents that dug in throughout Fallujah, and for the civilians trapped in between.
“I think reasonable people can disagree with that,” he told Polygon of his narrative strategy. “For us as a team, it is really about helping players understand the complexity of urban combat. It’s about the experiences of that individual that is now there because of political decisions. And we do want to show how choices that are made by policymakers affect the choices that [a Marine] needs to make on the battlefield. Just as that [Marine] cannot second-guess the choices by the policymakers, we’re not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea.”
It’s the kind of dodge that we’ve heard from game makers many times before, most recently from Ubisoft in the lead-up to Tom Clancy’s The Division 2. But that game’s conflict was a wholly fictional one. Six Days in Fallujah recalls a battle that still looms large in the rearview mirror of our country’s headlong push into the Middle East, a tragic event seemingly on the cusp between current events and modern history. Its main characters will be real Marines and soldiers who fought there.
The city of Fallujah became a hotbed of insurgent activity during the 2003 Iraq War. A terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi drew fighters to that city from around the country and beyond. The violence he inspired directly caused thousands of civilian casualties, but also resulted in the deaths of a team of private military contractors from Blackwater USA. The image of their burned and mutilated corpses hanging from a bridge became synonymous with the U.S. occupation of the country itself. In 2004, Western forces tried to retake the city not once but twice. Six Days in Fallujah focuses on the Second Battle of Fallujah, which cost around 100 American lives, and — according to the International Red Cross — the lives of at least 800 civilians.
Looking back on the reasons for the Iraq War itself, many rightly question whether the U.S. military should have been there at all. Did the administration of President George W. Bush mislead the American people and the world in the months before the March 2003 invasion? Was the so-called “coalition of the willing” duped or otherwise incentivized into following along? Tamte isn’t interested in those questions.
He’s also not interested in portraying the alleged atrocities that may have been committed there.
When we describe first-person shooter as tactical, what we’re often talking about is methods of movement: Where does the player go, how quickly, and with what posture? But a military shooter likewise focuses on the weapon systems that are given to the player. For Marines and soldiers in Fallujah, that means rifles and explosives. But there were other tools and other tactics in play during that battle in 2004.
The U.S. military has said that it used “shake-and-bake” tactics, a combination of high explosive and white phosphorus rounds that flushed out insurgents from their hardened bunkers in order to destroy them. But using white phosphorus as a weapon, and in close proximity to civilians, would seem to contravene the accepted laws of war. Again, Tamte isn’t interested in litigating what constitutes a war crime.
“There are things that divide us, and including those really divisive things, I think, distracts people from the human stories that we can all identify with,” Tamte said. “I have two concerns with including phosphorus as a weapon. Number one is that it’s not a part of the stories that these guys told us, so I don’t have an authentic, factual basis on which to tell that. That’s most important. Number two is, I don’t want sensational types of things to distract from the parts of that experience.”
The same is true of the depleted uranium munitions used during the battle. The super-dense shells, commonly associated with the tank-busting A-10 Warthog, can fragment and shatter on impact, scattering their heavy metal payload all around. That could be why researchers show an increased incidence of cancers among the current population of Fallujah — especially in children. We asked Tamte what responsibility his team bears in communicating that outcome of the Second Battle of Fallujah to consumers.
“I don’t think players are going to be confused about the cost [of war],” Tamte said. “I just don’t think that they’re going to walk away from this experience going, ‘We need more war.’ I don’t think that’s something that the Marines and soldiers want as a message. I don’t think that’s something that the Iraqi civilians want as a message. I think people do need to understand the human cost of war.”
Tamte continued, “Perhaps playing the game will make them curious and they’ll want to learn more about all the things that have happened in Fallujah since the 2004 battle, and that will lead them to their own conclusions from doing the research. But right now, simply ignoring the battle is not going to cause them to think about all of its consequences.”
In making Six Days in Fallujah, Tamte and his team interviewed Marines and soldiers who fought there — just months after the battle was over, then again as recently as last year. They will be the avatars that players fight alongside. The challenge of moving house to house, engaging in some of the most violent urban combat since Vietnam, will make up 90% of the game’s action. The other 10%, Tamte said, will be given over to the story of the city’s civilian population.
Working with an American journalist in Iraq — whose name is being withheld for their safety, according to Tamte — developer Highwire Games has interviewed dozens of civilians who lived through the fighting. Their stories will give the game its parallel storyline where players will take on the role of a father trying to lead his family to safety. That family’s story will overlap with U.S. forces in the game.
“This is as an unarmed Iraqi civilian,” Tamte stressed. “We do not at any point ask the player to become an insurgent, to be clear about that. This is an Iraqi civilian who was trying to get his family out of the city during the battle.”
(In an FAQ on the game’s website, Victura notes that players will “never play as an insurgent during the single-player campaign, or in a multiplayer recreation of an actual event.”)
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Tamte has tried to get this game made. He says he’s been working on it for over 15 years, effectively since the months after the Second Battle of Fallujah ended. What hung him up last time wasn’t the outcry over alleged war crimes. Instead, it was a coalition of a different sort, this one made up of the families of service members who died in the Iraq War. Their outrage became a talking point for the international media, and ultimately helped pressure Konami into dropping the game in 2009.
One of the other dodges that many military-inspired games make is that they fictionalize their settings. These are made-up soldiers and made-up Marines, developers say, fighting a battle in a made-up country. Tamte and the team at Highwire are going in a different direction by putting real people into their game. So what does Tamte have to say to those families once again outraged that their relative’s death is included — even peripherally — in this way?
“A message that I heard from all of the people who’ve lost loved ones in battle is, they don’t want their child or friend’s sacrifice to be forgotten,” Tamte said. “Even the ones who were very opposed [to the war in Iraq]. And I had conversations with many of them, as well as other members of our team — especially former military who are on our team had conversations with many of these families in 2009 — and we heard one after the other, ‘We don’t want you to make a game about this, but we don’t want our son’s sacrifice to be forgotten.’ It’s a mixture of that.
“The reality is that most people are not aware of the battle for Fallujah,” Tamte continued. “And so, by talking about this battle in a game, we are helping people remember the sacrifice of some very specific people. So that’s number one. We share the same objective they have, which is, we don’t want their son’s sacrifice to be forgotten. But do I understand their caution about it? Absolutely. Absolutely. Because for most of those people, their only idea of a video game is watching somebody else play Call of Duty. Call of Duty is a sport, and if somebody made a sport out of the killing of my son, I’d be pretty upset. Our job now is to show people that we’re not making Call of Duty.”
And what about the people of Fallujah? Once known as the City of Mosques, Fallujah had more than 60 of its 200 historic structures destroyed in the fighting. Tens of thousands of people fled the city, many never to return. Lives were lost, and communities were shattered forever. What does Tamte say to those outraged that their suffering is being put into this game?
“Almost all the outrage I’ve heard are from people who were not in Fallujah,” Tamte said. “I think we live in a culture where we feel the responsibility to defend people, whether they want to be defended or not, on social media, and I am sure that there are people who are in Fallujah who will be offended. But I will tell you that from my experience and conversations that I’ve had over 15 years on this project [...] nearly all want people to know what happened in Fallujah. Whether you are an Iraqi civilian or you are a member of the Coalition. Either side.”
For Tamte, the goal of Six Days in Fallujah is to celebrate the heroism of those Coalition forces who fought there. The goal is to empathize with them, and also with the civilians trapped in the city. Anything else is a distraction.
“The only thing that I fear is that fundamentally, when we cut through everything, people’s objection here to Six Days in Fallujah is more of an objection to the Iraq War,” Tamte said. “We’ve made games about other wars, and real stories from other wars, that have not gotten the attention and have not gotten any sort of controversy. So fundamentally, people’s objection is to the Iraq War. I don’t think we should be a proxy for that particular battle.”
The game he describes, however, seems to have a very narrow appeal. Are you interested in the nuts and bolts of clearing a room filled with deadly insurgents? Then step on up and prepare to get your heart torn out, one way or another. Tamte and his team are eager to hold your hand and guide you through that experience.
But, if you’re curious why you and your virtual comrades are there in the first place, you’ll need to take that step on your own.
Six Days in Fallujah is scheduled to be released in 2021 on Windows PC and unannounced consoles.
Update (March 8): Nearly a month after his interview with Polygon, and in the wake of controversy over the publisher’s comments, the Six Days in Fallujah Twitter account issued a statement that appears to walk back some of the statements made by publisher Peter Tamte. In it, the Six Days in Fallujah team now says that the events depicted in the game “are inseparable from politics.”
We understand the events recreated in Six Days in Fallujah are inseparable from politics. Here’s how the game gives voice to a variety of perspectives:
The stories in Six Days in Fallujah are told through gameplay and documentary footage featuring service members and civilians with diverse experiences and opinions about the Iraq War. So far, 25 Iraqi civilians and dozens of service members have shared the most difficult moment of their lives with us, so we can share them with you, in their words.
The documentary segments discuss many tough topics, including the events and political decisions that led to the Fallujah battles as well as their aftermath. While we do not allow players to use white phosphorous as a weapon during gameplay, its use is described during the documentary segments.
During gameplay players will participate in stories that are given context through the documentary segments. Each mission challenges players to solve real military and civilian scenarios from the battle interactively, offering a perspective into urban warfare not possible through any other media.
We believe the stories on this generation’s sacrifices deserve to be told by the Marines, Soldiers and civilians who were there.
We trust you will find the game — like the events it recreates — to be complex.