Six Days in Fallujah ‘not trying to make a political commentary,’ creator says

Those searching for a crucial point of view on the Iraq War ought to stay away from 6 Days in Fallujah. The questionable first-person shooter looks for to depict among the bloodiest fights in American history, one that cost the lives of United States and allied forces along with countless Iraqi residents in 2004. Initially revealed in 2009, the video game was come by publisher Konami due to the objections of the households of service members eliminated throughout the Iraq War. In the 12 years considering that, popular opinion has actually demonstrably moved versus that war.

That makes the job of Peter Tamte, head of 6 Days in Fallujah publisher Victura, possibly more difficult today than it was more than a years back. In an interview with Polygon on Thursday, after the video game was revealed for a 2nd time, he was insistent that designer Highwire Games will not grapple with the political machinations that caused the titular dispute. Rather, their first-person shooter will attempt to stimulate compassion for American soldiers in the field, for their work damaging the insurgents that dug in throughout Fallujah, and for the civilians caught in between.

“I think reasonable people can disagree with that,” he informed Polygon of his narrative technique. “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.”

Marines move up a stairwell, backlight by a second-floor window. Light streams through the dust in the air.

Image: Highwire Games/Victura

It’s the sort of evade that we’ve spoken with video game makers sometimes previously, most just recently from Ubisoft in the lead-up to Tom Clancy’s The Department 2. However that video game’s dispute was a completely imaginary 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.

A white man with grey hair looks into the camera. It is Peter Tamte circa 2021.

Peter Tamte was executive vice president at Bungie during the development and launch of Halo.
Photo: Victura

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 video 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?

The face of Eddie Garcia looks at the camera, rendered three times in Six Days in Fallujah

Left to right: Former Marine Sgt. Eddie Garcia being interviewed for 6 Days in Fallujah; as rendered in the game; and as photographed during his military service.
Image: Highwire Games/Victura

“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 battled there. The goal is to empathize with them, and likewise with the civilians trapped in the city. Anything else is a distraction.

An American Marine supports a bloodied comrade as they exit a structure, rendered for promotional purposes to help announce Six Days in Fallujah.

Image: Highwire Games/Victura

“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.

6 Days in Fallujah is set up to be launched in 2021 on Windows PC and unannounced consoles.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.