Six Days in Fallujah: The Untold Story

In 2009, Konami announced it would no longer be publishing the Atomic Games-developed Six Days in Fallujah. Three years on, we speak to Atomic president Peter Tamte about the events that inspired the controversial title, the impact of Konami's decision, and the road ahead.

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On April 27, 2009, Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun published comments from a Konami representative explaining the company's decision to back out of a publishing deal with developer Atomic Games over Six Days in Fallujah, a military shooter where the aim was to accurately re-create one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War, which elicited some controversy:

"After seeing the reaction to the video game in the United States and hearing opinions sent through phone calls and e-mail, we decided … not to sell it."

Atomic was caught by surprise. Konami had expressed its enthusiasm for the title just three weeks earlier, officially unveiling the game at a press event in San Francisco earlier the same month. By early May, the deal was off. As Konami made every effort to distance itself from Six Days in Fallujah, Atomic was left with no publisher, a half-finished game, and a steady torrent of bad press.

So, what went wrong? What caused Konami to abandon a project that had the backing of Iraqi war veterans and the aim to change expectations of what a video game can be?

First contact

Atomic Games was first approached by the United States Marine Corps (USMC) in 2002 with a request to redesign the Close Combat series--a real-time tactical war game modelled after the Avalon Hill-developed board game Advanced Squad Leader and published by Microsoft--for specific USMC training purposes. By 2003, Atomic was working closely with the Marine Corps on developing a number of different training systems.

It was during the development of one of these systems--based on Atomic's squad-based military first-person shooter First to Fight--that the USMC assigned its first dozen or so Marines to help guide Atomic on everything from room-clearing tactics to weapon accuracy. Most of the Marines walking around the Atomic studio during that time had just returned from fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the first major military operation against Iraq by the United States. (The operation began on March 19, 2003, and ended on May 1, 2003, following an announcement made by then-US President George W Bush declaring the end of combat operations in Iraq.)

As Marines came and went, the same faces began to pop up again and again, until eventually Atomic development staff found themselves working with a core group of about a dozen Marines, most of them from the 3/1 unit (a battalion-level infantry and support personnel unit). Despite the fact that the group only met twice a year, friendships formed easily.

Atomic president Peter Tamte recalls that he knew the Marines were due to be deployed to Fallujah, but that no one at the studio knew anything about the battle until it was all over.

"It wasn't until they returned that we found out more than 40 percent of the 3/1 battalion was either killed or wounded in battle," Tamte told GameSpot.

The first Marine to contact Atomic after the battle was a sergeant who had been medevacked out of the area during the fighting. He wondered whether Tamte and his team would be interested in making a game based on his and other Marines' experiences of the conflict. Atomic said yes.

"Fortunately, while some had been wounded, all of the Marines we knew returned from Iraq," Tamte said. "They told us stories about Fallujah that reminded me of the World War II stories I grew up hearing, stories about 18-21-year-olds thrown into perilous situations where they have the opportunity to prove to themselves, and the world, what kind of humans they are. They have to make fundamental decisions not just about life and death, but about what they hold as their most important values."

When the Marines expressed interest in re-creating their experiences of Fallujah in the form of a video game, Tamte saw it as a chance to stretch the limits of the medium. After that, the stories started flowing: stories about creeping through darkened warehouses, schools, and homes; stories about ambushes and face-to-face combat; stories about Iraqi insurgents taking so much liquid adrenaline before a gunfight that it often took six or seven shots to bring them down.

"The biggest difference I noticed in the Marines before and after Fallujah was the realisation that the enemy was much tougher than we thought," Tamte said. "While there were certainly many tough fights during the initial Marine movement in 2003 from Kuwait to Baghdad, the battle for Fallujah was as tough as anything I had heard about from the Vietnam War or World War II."

"I met with Marines who, after being wounded, would get treatment and then beg to return to their unit because they didn't want their closest friends battling this enemy without their help."

The conflict in Fallujah

The Second Battle of Fallujah, or Operation Phantom Fury--labelled as the most heated urban firefight in recent US military history since the 1968 battle of Hue in Vietnam--was a joint US, British, and Iraqi offensive in November and December 2004. It was designed to clear the town of Fallujah of the Iraqi insurgency (estimated to be around 2000-3000 strong) ahead of the national Iraqi elections scheduled for January 2005. (The city of roughly 250,000 inhabitants had become a hiding place for Iraqi insurgents following the First Battle of Fallujah in April 2004, which saw the US Marines attack the city following the killing of four Blackwater security contractors.)

The combined US, Coalition, and British casualties following the end of the conflict numbered just over 200 fatalities and 1,000 wounded. It was later reported that thousands of Iraqi civilians died during the combined First and Second Battles of Fallujah, with a further estimated 200,000 people losing their homes in the conflict. (The Washington Post estimated that over 25 percent of the all the city's 39,000 homes were destroyed during the fighting, the intensity of which has been well documented.)

The aftermath offered little respite. Reports of anti-US sentiment in Fallujah gave way to renewed fighting between insurgents and US troops in the region, leading to the growing realisation that Fallujah had become a cautionary tale rather than a success story for the US military. Then, in 2010, came disturbing evidence of a possible link between battlefield residue and a dramatic spike in birth defects, cancer, leukaemia, and infant mortality in Fallujah.

Writing for The Guardian in December 2011, former US Marine and Fallujah veteran Ross Caputi spoke of his regret at the role he played in the 2004 conflict:

"It has been seven years, and the lies that justified the assault still perpetuate false beliefs about what we did. The US veterans who fought there still do not understand who they fought against, or what they were fighting for."

Did Tamte realise what he was walking into?

"I've spoken with very few people who have a Marine or Iraqi's understanding of the events [in Fallujah]," he said. "[But] wouldn't it be better for everyone if we gained this understanding while these events are unfolding, rather than waiting until it doesn't matter anymore?"

Tamte, who served as Bungie's executive vice-president from 1999 to 2001 before leaving to start Destineer Games and later acquiring Atomic Games in 2005, said that the goal of Six Days in Fallujah has always been to use the experiences, actions, and consequences of Marines fighting in the Fallujah conflict to give players a deeper understanding of the violent events that have helped shape recent history, while simultaneously changing expectations of what a video game can be.

"We had no reservations about making a video game about Fallujah--then or now," he said. "We've always seen Six Days in Fallujah as the opportunity to give people a better understanding of our post-9/11 world, and the different attitudes and cultures that are shaping it."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in April 2009, Fallujah veteran and consultant on the game Mike Ergo highlighted the importance of video games as a storytelling medium for a new generation that responds to interactive experiences in a way that no other generation has.

"Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom," Ergo told the Times. "In an age when everyone's always online or playing games, people's imaginations aren't what they were, sadly. For this group, books may not convey the same level of intensity and chaos of war that a game can."

Tamte agrees.

"We can do things in a video game that other forms of media can't, because we can make you the protagonist. Rather than watching somebody on a movie screen make tough split-second decisions, we can let you make these decisions yourself."

Konami, the fallout, and the road ahead

Tamte's vision for Six Days in Fallujah remains unchanged. The game uses Marines' accounts of the events in Fallujah to re-create a six-day period in the lives of several units fighting on the ground. Authenticity comes in the form of video interviews of Marines recounting their experiences of the battle, interspersed throughout the game, as well as near-perfect re-creations of Fallujah neighbourhoods using satellite photography.

Atomic wants everything in the game to be destructible, from individual bricks to entire buildings, in order to accurately re-create the intensity of urban combat and the complications that arise from situations that involve fighting in close quarters in a civilian-heavy environment. To achieve this, the development team built the game on a new game engine designed to handle realistic structural damage to infrastructure. (However, this engine was built for the current generation of hardware, which Tamte said will end before Six Days is ready. Atomic said it is not yet ready to reveal how this will affect the game's design.)

Despite so much of the game being based on the personal accounts of Marines who were there at the time, Tamte is resolute that neither he nor his team at Atomic are making a judgment call on what happened. The game, he insists, is not about whether the US or its allies should have invaded Iraq--it's about players experiencing something real.

"Many military shooters are a lot of fun to play, but they lack authenticity," he said. "At some point, you know what you're playing is a fictional account invented by game guys. A lot of the value of Six Days in Fallujah comes from the knowledge that you're experiencing what really happened."

(Tamte and his team decided against allowing players to assume the role of Iraqi insurgents in the game, choosing to tell the story from the point of view of the US and Iraqi forces. However, Tamte said that there will be a few non-US roles in the game, which are still being decided.)

But it was this emphasis on re-creating reality--a reality that at the time of Six Days in Fallujah's unveiling in 2009 was all too current--which led to widespread criticism of the game.

"There is nothing to celebrate in the death of people resisting an unjust and bloody occupation," British anti-war group Stop the War Coalition told media in April 2009.

"To make a game out of a war crime and to capitalise on the death and injury of thousands is sick. There will never be a time when it is appropriate for people to 'play' at committing atrocities. The massacre in Fallujah should be remembered with shame and horror, not glamorised and glossed over for entertainment."

Three weeks later, Konami cancelled its publishing deal with Atomic. Tamte said that the decision came as a shock to Atomic, which up to that point had received nothing but support from the publisher.

"There were literally no disagreements between Atomic and Konami's American team. We all saw Six Days in Fallujah the same way. It was the board of directors for Konami's parent company in Japan who just got freaked out about the controversy."

Tamte said that the board of directors of Konami's parent company in Japan ordered the US unit to pull out of Six Days because Konami "didn't want its brand associated with the controversy". He still believes this was a mistake.

"I think if they had waited longer to let our story be heard, they would have benefited from the outpouring of support we've received for Six Days in Fallujah as people began to understand more about what it really was contemplate new ideas about what a video game could be. This takes time. Unfortunately, Konami's board of directors didn't seem to understand."

More surprising than Konami's decision to walk away from Six Days in Fallujah was the amount of encouragement and feedback Atomic received following the loss of its biggest financial backer, including more offers of help from Marines who were eager to take part in the game's development. The challenge that Tamte and his team now face is gathering the money needed to finish the game, although not necessarily from another publisher.

"I would not say that we're focused on finding a publisher. Our focus is on finding adequate funding. The rest can get worked out."

Last year, Tamte started a new company, Theory.io, specialising in productivity software for tablets, mobile phones, and computers. While Theory.io won't be involved in Six Days in Fallujah, Tamte will still be involved with the project until its release, for which there is still no set time frame. While Tamte recognises that there will always be some people who don't want to see Six Days in Fallujah get made, the outpouring of support that Atomic has received has convinced him that the team's efforts will not go to waste.

"I know that the story we're going to help people experience is compelling. And, ultimately, this is what matters the most."

GameSpot contacted Konami for its side of the story, but the publisher declined to comment.

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