It’s 2004. It’s just over a year since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces, the first stage of a war that had already seen an estimated 13,500 people lose their lives.
Destineer, a small publishing outfit, are noticed for their military-strategy titles and are commissioned by the CIA and FBI to create training material for the United States Military. They start work on Judgmental Shooting Simulator and worked closely with Marines during development.
But of course, the Marines they worked alongside would be called back into active duty. Development on the training simulators continues into 2005 when news of the Second Battle of Fallujah has long hit the West. At this point, Atomic Games already wanted to make a more narrative-driven game, “using those simulators as a basis for mass market appeal,” according to a 2018 interview with Variety.
And as it happened, this coincided with the return of the Marines. Atomic Games heard their stories from Fallujah—how this urban combat was so different from anything presented in the media. How all the other shooters out there got it wrong. These marines came to the developers with a request: “Make a video game about it.” That video game would become Six Days in Fallujah.
Quietly in development for a few years, Atomic Games (a subsidiary of Destineer) set to work to create a shooter like no other. In aide of the realism, Atomic Games claim to have interviewed more than 100 individuals about the Second Battle of Fallujah.
Critics claim that Atomic Games, and now new publisher Victura, were always working closer to the U.S. Military than they let on; that the intention has been to encourage enlistment. Peter Tamte, founder of Atomic Games and Victura, is honest about their past creating games for the military, but denies claims the game is a recruitment tool, saying on the game’s FAQ: “The US government is not involved in making the game, nor are there any plans to use it for recruiting.”
Victura countered claims of working with the U.S. Military further, stating that interviews were either made through Tamte's contacts organically or were found by a journalist Atomic Games had hired.
Funding aside, what was this original Six Days in Fallujah going to look like?
The earliest piece of information we could find comes from a blog post written by Nathan Cheever, lead campaign designer. While admittedly not an official statement, and simply a member of staff speaking from memory, he states that development began as early as 2005, just a year after the bloody battle.
The original video pitch for the game is extremely telling as to what the game really was. Despite claims it would be a documentary-style game, it sounds indistinguishable from Judgmental Shooting Simulator. The video suggests the game would involve going door to door, deciding who’s the insurgent and who’s not—who dies, and who lives. The only voices we hear are marines. All the footage is from the marines. There is no mention of how it was for those that lived through this hell happening to their home.
This sort of omission was shared by an ex-serviceman who did consultation work on the title. Infantry Officer Read Omohundro was extremely critical of the media reports regarding civilian death, which is estimated to account for 800 of the lives lost. “It’s real easy for a media company or anybody to go in and say, oh, you’re killing all these civilians,” said Omohundro in the Variety interview. “They’re not seeing what we were seeing on the actual battlefield.”
Further still, the game would play interviews with Fallujah veterans at the end of every chapter. Again, not the civilians.
And these views against media reports of the battle certainly bleed through to the gameplay. While claiming to be a documentary-style game, it was openly admitted that the game would omit controversial aspects of the real Second Battle of Fallujah, such as the killing of 800 civilians and the destructions of Mosques.
“We don’t want that to be recorded, videoed, and then put on YouTube and it shows people laughing. Suddenly, you’d trivialized a nation’s culture,” said Cheever in 2018.
Omohundro also claimed in an interview with ABC News that, “if you make a choice that is not on the moral high ground, you shoot an innocent for example, then the game’s over for you."
This raises questions as to how this game could act as a documentary of the battle, since in reality, places of worship were in fact hit, and hundreds of civilians were injured and lost their lives. Concerningly, no mention of this is in the 2009 promotional material. Nor is the use of white phosphorus munitions—an aspect of the story so significant, that the side effects are still felt in Fallujah, with those exposed to these explosive munitions being ten times more likely to have children with birth defects. It’s baffling why this was the case, considering the U.S. admitted to its use in 2005.
When asked about depicting war crimes in the game, Tamte simply replied that “none of the items that you've mentioned have come up in any of those stories [with Marines].”
So what was going to be authentic? Atomic Games wanted this to be the most destructive shooter yet, creating a new engine so that every building could be destroyed, as you created your own path in Fallujah to evade insurgents: “that’s essential to tactics, so you can blow a hole through any wall, you can destroy any building,” said Tamte in one of the original game’s trailers.
So to recap: This is ambitious stuff. A company that had been working on training material wants to use the skills and contacts it’s built so it can make a shooter. It wants to tell the story of what happened at the Second Battle of Fallujah from a marine’s perspective, allowing players to make tactical decisions that could cost or save their comrades' lives, as well as try and minimalize civilian casualties. It involves interviewing around 100 witnesses and building an entirely new engine from scratch.
That’s a heck of an investment, which may be why some suspect involvement from the FBI and CIA. Finding a publisher proved difficult. According to Nathan Cheever's blog, EA were on board but wanted to include it in the Medal of Honor series. Sony were courted, with the U.S. division being “100% onboard.” This fell though when Sony Japan got worried about sales in the Middle East.
However, the financial backing would come, and it came from one of the few studios who didn’t yet have any skin in the game of the shooter trend in the 2000s: Konami.
Six Days in Fallujah vs. The Media
A company as large as Konami picking up your title should be a boon, but it was perhaps the kiss of death for the project.
Suddenly it’s 2009 and the game is announced. The team is shot into the limelight. Sure enough, Six Days in Fallujah had got people talking in gaming circles, but now it moved from forums to Fox News.
In the U.S. and U.K., some veterans and their families were up in arms against Six Days in Fallujah. In a Fox News debate, a mother who lost her son hit back against the title, saying that she felt there was no respectful route to take a game based on a real battle: If her son is included, she has to see him die again. If he isn’t, it’s airbrushing the loss of loved ones out.
While 2021 interviews bring up wanting to represent both sides in the game, interviews back then did not. Tamte instead goes on the defense saying that the aim is to teach young people specifically about what the troops went through, citing a low awareness about the battle in younger demographics. Omohundro backs Tamte, saying it’s a way to “cherish [the marine’s] memories."
“Absolutely unbelievable that Peter Tamte and [creative director] Juan Benito would try to make an 'entertainment' experience about a war that we're actively fighting, while soliciting advice and input on how to best kill Marines in game, from people who have worked to kill Marines in real life.” - Dan Rosenthal, Veteran
Compounding the problem, Konami wasn’t singing from the same hymn sheet as Tamte and Atomic.
Speaking about the game’s backlash, a representative of the publisher was quoted as saying, "We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience... At the end of the day, it's just a game."
Describing the game as “entertainment” conflicted with the defense Tamte was putting forward constantly in the media, in response to veteran’s families worrying it would be exactly that.
It wasn’t an attack on all fronts, however. Looking at archived comment sections from 2009, it’s a stark contrast to 2021. The general gaming audience appear to be supportive, seeing this as yet another moral panic.
In fact, in my research, there was nothing but love from the gaming community. The video from this 2008 to 2010 period with the most views is from a gaming channel, voicing heavy support for the title, and racking up over 100,000 views—an impressive feat in the earlier days of YouTube. In comment sections on news sites or uploaded television debates, gamers come out in defense of the developers, indicating there likely would have been a big market for the game if it had managed to release.
Politically, however, it was quite literally an attack left, right, and center. The Stop the War Coalition became one of the harshest critics, saying, "The massacre carried out by American and British forces in Fallujah in 2004 is amongst the worst of the war crimes carried out in an illegal and immoral war.”
“To make a game out of a war crime and to capitalize on the death and injury of thousands is sick[...] The massacre in Fallujah should be remembered with shame and horror not glamorized and glossed over for entertainment."
But it’s unlikely that the anti-war crowd dealt the killing blow. This was hardly the demographic Atomic and Destineer were courting in media appearances.
The conservative outrage was a different matter; that’s the group they needed on board. And this wasn’t being quelled... they now believed the game was going to be in support of the insurgents.
That would be the hardest thing to shake. It was a rumor that people who worked on the game were still having to deny in 2012.
In truth, the journalist Atomic Games hired to speak to people in Fallujah did indeed interview insurgents. With tensions still high in America, the mere mention of insurgents having anything to do with the project was too much to stomach, explaining why the team would not find another publisher, despite fans seemingly clamoring for a release.
Living in the Past, or Moving On?
In April 2009, Konami didn’t want to take the heat anymore and ditched the project. The developers hung on for as long as they could, but Atomic Games went under in 2011, along with parent company Destineer.
Just after Konami left, Tamte had said that the game was “two-thirds” the way to completion.
In addition, Victura indicate to me that the interviews conducted in the 2000s will be re-used. With so much returning from the original Six Days, it's fair to assume that some of the original issues will bleed through to the 2020s iteration.
There are some changes—apparently players can experience the perspective of Iraqi civilians. However, the anti-war crowd is still speaking out, particularly veterans themselves.
Many of the crowd speaking out against the game are asking one thing: Why? Well, this lookback at the original game’s development and press cycle tells us why—Six Days in Fallujah isn’t for you.
In 2009, Six Days in Fallujah made no attempt to hide its bias to one side of the story. War crimes were ignored and not even apologized for in media responses. No, Six Days was for those who supported the U.S. war effort, or at least were not overtly against it. And it especially played on the public's ignorance of what really happened. However, when that crowd didn't like it, it was game over.
Victura seem to want to continue on that path. Openly admitting that, yet again, the use of white phosphorus will be omitted from the game—because hey, it didn't come up in their interviews.
Have the team learned their lesson? Seemingly, no. But hell, maybe they don’t have to. Maybe their actual target audience is ready. The rest of us don't have to be.