Untapped Potential: The fight for Fallujah

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[It’s time for another Monthly Musing — the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. — CTZ

It seems odd that I’d choose to dust off my soapbox and write an article in support of a game that, not only have I never played or seen a trailer for, but that I never had any intention of buying. I’m abysmal at shooters and don’t enjoy war games, so why would I care that Konami had announced a new title only to leave it dead in the water shortly thereafter?

Simply put, there is nothing more sad then wasted potential. Having the opportunity to do something great, deep, meaningful or even just different, but then in the end deciding it’s not worth the hassle. Effectively deciding to do nothing.

Before I continue, let me preface this argument by saying that I am not psychic. I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of how the game was going to be handled or what it would entail outside of the information I’ve gleaned from the various articles I’ve read. I can only speak about the potential I saw for this game, and games like it, to make an impact.

I first became aware of Six Days in Fallujah back in April. The author of the article seemed to share my surprise at Konami’s willingness to step outside the usual comfort zone of World War II and base the game on a conflict that had occurred only five years prior. It seemed like a bad idea from the start. Who makes games about wars that are still going on? Are they crazy?

Surely Konami and Atomic must have known that this title would generate controversy, perhaps they were even counting on it to fuel the game’s hype. They claimed it would give people true insight into what it was like to be part of that conflict. Players would be able to live out the battle as a US Marine fire-team leader and participate in a truly authentic experience. Everything from its satellite accurate maps to the weapons and vehicles included were crafted to immerse the player in the event. In order for a title like this to succeed, it would have to truly excel and after reading more about it I started to believe it just might.

They were using photos and diaries given to them by returning Marines who wanted to tell their stories. Several of the Marines were brought on staff by Atomic as consultants. Atomic claimed to have received information from civilians and insurgents so that their stories where also integrated. The game would feature documentary style interviews triggered through gameplay as the men behind the on-screen avatars told their stories.It had all the makings an interactive History Channel feature, potentially letting players see the events unfold firsthand.

After my research, I was firmly convinced that if done properly this game would be hugely successful and potentially even bring games into a better light as far as their effectiveness in telling more meaningful stories. After all, movies and books receive critical acclaim for tackling sensitive issues — Isn’t it time for games to attempt the same? Evidential not.

It took only a few weeks for the backlash to reach a boiling point. Families of Veterans called the game distastefu. Even though only a handful of pictures had been released at the time, they were calling for the game to be banned.

The Internet erupted in a flurry of arguments about whether games were an art form or strictly an entertainment media with gamers being pulled to both sides. The lack of details made the arguments even more difficult to substantiate. Since nobody had actually played the game or seen footage from it, all we could work with were our assumptions about what the game might be and what we hoped it was or wasn’t.

Those opposed to Six Days claimed it trivialized war and the lives lost in the conflict. The soldiers couldn’t recover their health by ducking behind crates and if the game allowed you to play on the side of the insurgents that was just depraved and cruel to those who had lost loved ones.

Gamers who supported the game pointed out that this argument applied to just about any war game, but since this game was endorsed by those who had actually been there it deserved special consideration. Furthermore, a book and documentary centered on the conflict had already flown quietly under the radar with another movie on the way (starring Harrison Ford as a Gen. Jim Mattis). Why is it okay for them, but not for games?

In the end Konami decided to just bow out of the controversy altogether. Less then a month after announcing Six Days in Fallujah. they quietly decided not to produce it, much to the shock of developer Atomic Games.

Incredibly, I didn’t anticipate this outcome. I had assumed that Konami knew exactly what they were getting themselves into and were prepared to fight the good fight until the bitter end. Sadly, ideals such as these are only seen in movies and books as well.

While Atomic soldiers on, planning to still make the game themselves and potentially find another publisher down the line, the game and its promise has been largely forgotten. Still I can’t help but wonder as the game slowly makes it’s way toward completion, are gamers really ready for this?

It’s interesting to speculate about videogames being considered alongside novels and movies as a medium that shapes the way people view the world. How gratifying for gamers to finally have their hobby recognized and taken seriously by the general public.

The only problem with this scenario is the “what if” involved. What if Atomic does everything right and the game truly does tell the story of Fallujah in a realistic way? Will anyone even buy it? Are gamers really prepared to have games that they might feel uncomfortable playing? Would a sufficient number of people be masochistic enough to spend money on a gaming experience that made them think about the state of the world and repercussions of our actions instead of just mindlessly entertaining them? Sure people go see war movies and read books on sensitive topics, but generally they do so to be educated or informed rather then entertained and they never spend $60 for this privilege.

In the end, I don’t believe that Six Days in Fallujah will be the groundbreaking experience I had originally hoped for. There are simply going to be too many concessions made to keep the game from being too different and too ambitious. Despite the initial controversy, or perhaps because of it, no matter what Atomic finally reveals, it has no chance of living up to the hope and expectations this game was expected to shoulder.

The Six Days controversy did do one thing worth mentioning though. It made us think, hope and honestly consider the untapped potential future titles could bring to our industry. Perhaps someday there will be a game that finally makes ours a respectable mainstream medium. The idea is out there now, we need only wait for a company willing to pursue it.

“Every form of media has grown by producing content about current events, content that’s powerful because it’s relevant,” Peter Tamte, President of Atomic Games.

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