A picture freezes a moment; a song traces emotion in soundwaves; a movie combines the two and adds movement, the subtleties of action and reaction. Where does a video game, with its programmed scenes and choose-your-own endings, fit in the entertainment spectrum of artistic expression?
That’s the question that’s been blazing across video gaming communities since a surprise announcement from developer Atomic Games. They’ve finished their biggest and most controversial project, Six Days in Fallujah, a video game based on the current Iraq war and made with the intent to “recreate the pressures and conditions the [US] Marines faced”, as creative director Juan Benito put it in an interview with Joystiq. Its gameplay fuses the high-octane rush of shooters with the slow-drip suspense of horror games in order to portray the lethal unpredictability of war—one city street, one IED, one firefight at a time. The game has had a difficult birth. Since it was abandoned by its distributor and advertiser Konami due to backlash from both anti- and pro-war voices, its development has been completely secret. Now, a source close to the company reported to IGN, the product is ready and waiting for another publisher to give the game a chance to be released to the public.
The game market is no stranger to violence or questionable morality. Grand Theft Auto’s hooker-beating glee and the trite glorification of violence and masculinity in titles such as God of War are popular topics of discussion both within and outside of gaming communities. Watch Fox News or CNN long enough, and it’s guaranteed: there will be a story on how video games claimed another innocent life, deaths resulting from domestic violence or accidents are blamed on the digital devil. In one case, according to Kotaku, a three year-old girl died after shooting herself with a loaded pistol, left unattended in her house, that she allegedly mistook for a gun-shaped Nintendo Wii controller. In another, from the Fresno Bee, a college freshman was convicted of shooting a 19-year-old in a dispute over a PlayStation 2. Video games are the heirs apparent in an American legacy of blaming the culture—the rock n’ roll, the comic books, the rap—instead of the people who participate in it.
Behind the mainstream, though, a counterculture bubbles up that increasingly questions the possibilities of games as interactive art forms, led by websites such as the popular Penny Arcade or Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer blog. They point to the release and success of such games as the unorthodox and naturalistic Flower (“...the type of game that reaches out to us and whispers about the beauty of life—without saying anything at all,” says IGN) and time-warping Braid (“...a monumentally relevant game that speaks highly of its creators and their potential audience’s tolerance for new ideas,” according to 1UP) which suggest something has shifted in the medium. Perhaps it’s time to start taking games seriously, to start turning them into art.
Six Days in Fallujah, then, is what happens when you question the stereotypical violent videogame’s clichés with the genre-bending and expressionistic principles of recent video game experiments, and then back it up with the large budget and production values of the biggest recent releases. The result? A familiar clash over what constitutes responsible entertainment that happens to provide ample room to debate the burgeoning artistry of video games.
The Road to Fallujah
The project’s story began in 2004, when veteran collective Atomic Games started rubbing shoulders with the US Marine Corps to create a digital battlefield simulation for fresh recruits. One of the battalions assigned to consult with Atomic on the project, 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, was suddenly shipped off for duty in Iraq; specifically, they were headed for combat in Fallujah. Operation Phantom Fury turned out to be what the US military, in an interview with DefenseLINK news, considered “some of the heaviest urban combat US Marines have been involved in since the Battle of Hue City in 1968,” and led to the death of over 100 Coalition troops, more than 1300 insurgents, and 800 innocent civilians. Those present saw horrific, house-to-house, room-to-room firefights, sniper attacks, and a two-day battle within the city’s largest graveyard. To this day, it remains one of the most brutal battles of the war.
What happened next came as a bit of a surprise to Atomic Games. “When [the soldier-consultants] came back from Fallujah,” recalled Atomic president Peter Tamte in GamePro magazine, “they asked us to create a videogame about their experiences there, and it seemed like the right thing to do.” Why? According to Tamte, in order to get across “...what it would really be like to be in a war.” He said, “I’ve been playing military shooters for ages, and at a certain point when I’m playing the game, I know it’s fake. You can tell a bunch of guys sat in a room and designed it. That’s always bugged me.” Thus, Six Days in Fallujah was born.
Atomic stated in GamePro that it interviewed over 70 contributors in order to ensure authenticity, including war historians, military psychologists, Marines, civilians, and even insurgents who were present during the battle (though Atomic refuses to compromise their sources). The few public demos of Six Days shown before the blinds were drawn showcased that dedication to gritty realism, with scarily real suburbs and cityscapes, taken from satellite maps and soldiers’ personal accounts, experienced through an over-the-shoulder perspective of a Marine squad leader. Civilians could be seen hiding in their houses, buildings crumbled under the power of explosives and were scarred when bullets smacked into them. In one frightening sequence, a man in casual clothes walking in front of the squad with his hands up suddenly ducked behind an abandoned car, reappearing with an RPG launcher and his finger on the trigger.
The game must have seemed promising at the time, and so it was with much anticipation that it was revealed Six Days would be published by Konami for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows computers in early April 2009, with an expected release sometime in 2010.
A War of Attrition
Almost immediately the game came under fire from both anti-war and veteran’s groups in the US and UK, with angry parents of deceased Marines and even a big-name corporation, the UK’s Stop The War Coalition, taking to the airwaves on Fox, ABC, and the BBC to demand a boycott or cancellation. Reg Keys, the father of a slain British soldier, said in the Daily Mail that “these horrific events should be confined to the annals of history, not trivialized and rendered for thrill-seekers to play out”, while Tansy Hoskins, the president of Stop The War, called the project “sick” in an interview with TechRadar. “The massacre in Fallujah,” he continued, “should be remembered with shame and horror, not glamorized and glossed over for entertainment.” Hit on both sides of the political spectrum the publisher, Konami, a mere three weeks after announcing the game, dropped the project entirely on the April 27, 2009.
The abrupt withdrawal of support sparked the ire of the blogosphere, members of which pointed out the double standard of the common acceptance of World War II games or the near-real interpretations of modern events in many games that didn’t set off nearly as much of a firestorm. Proponents of the game also mentioned how other mediums of expression aestheticized war, since movies, television shows, and books about Afghanistan and Iraq could be, and have been, made. Generation Kill was a smash hit on HBO two years ago, and the Oscar for Best Picture this year went to The Hurt Locker. To many, the controversy was a case of artistic discrimination. “If games are ever to evolve as a medium,” asked another commenter on GamePolitics, “why are they singled out when they try to tackle a serious subject matter? ”
As best-selling authors and former British Special Forces operatives so often do, Andy McNab pounded the last nail in the coffin of arguments against Six Days’ release during an interview with TechRadar, offering his view of the game as a UK citizen:
“In America it is not as if this is ‘shock horror’—everybody has been watching it on the news for the last seven years.[...] In America a 90-year-old and a 12-year-old will know what happened at Fallujah. It’s on the TV, there are books about it. The game is a natural extension to that; it is folklore. The only difference being that it is presented in a different medium[...] If the game stands up and offers Americans those soldiers’ stories, then, why not?”
Despite the setback of losing Konami’s support and the lashing it received from its critics, Atomic is now back with an (allegedly) finished game in tow, ready for release. Still, its implications raise concerns about its graphic nature. “Must we experience exactly what the soldier experienced to understand that war is brutal, dehumanizing, terrifying, relentless?”asked Naoko Shibusawa, Associate Professor of History at Brown, who questioned the potential of such virtual war games for teaching lessons in peace. Informed that Marine veterans of the battle in Fallujah were central to game’s creation, she also wondered, “What does it say that the soldiers are asking to replay some of the most horrific moments of their lives?”
As of now, though, the fate of Six Days in Fallujah is unknown. It has yet to be picked up by a publisher in this conservative market, and even if it was might still be forced through a number of hoops and adjustments before considered ready for distribution. What if it comes out, though? It could be just another bland bullet point for Glenn Beck to preach on, one more smoking gun in the murder of our nation’s moral sensibilities. Or perhaps the ideals of the gaming counterculture would be realized, with the perception of games in modern culture changing practically overnight. Maybe one day in the future we’d be assigned levels to complete in our class’s required docu-game.
Nicholas Morley B’13is pretty FUBAR right about now.