Status update: Six Days in Fallujah, with Atomic Games president Peter Tamte

When it was first announced in April 2009, Six Days in Fallujah, from developer Atomic Games, raised more than a few eyebrows. Peace groups, veterans and some families of killed American soldiers lambasted the studio and its then publishing partner Konami for turning the unpopular war into an interactive entertainment experience. Taking place within a six-day span during the gruesome November 2004 campaign of Operation Phantom Fury, Six Days in Fallujah attempts to tell the true stories of multiple veterans who experienced the ordeal and, according to Atomic, several of them collaborated with the developer to help create the title.

Speaking with Joystiq during PAX East 2010, Atomic president Peter Tamte offered a lengthy update on the game's development progress. He addressed in detail its tone and the potential controversies inherent in its subject matter. November 2004 is still considered the most brutal single month of the Iraq War in terms of US casualties, and there are questions about how Six Days in Fallujah will handle the deaths of real people. The game not only has a responsibility to be respectful, it has a responsibility to be truthful.
According to Tamte, reports that Six Days in Fallujah is "complete" have been "lost in translation," noting that the game needs more than a publishing partner. Other than having "all the levels" built for the game, Six Days still requires "additional AI and graphics" passes for it to be complete. Also, Tamte said that Atomic would like to incorporate some of the technology built for its upcoming multiplayer shooter Breach into the final version of Six Days in Fallujah.

"I can say there are interested parties," Tamte teased when asked if any potential publishers had been knocking on Atomic's door. Only three weeks after announcing the game as its publisher, Konami pulled out of the project. According to Tamte (and confirming previous rumors), Konami walked away from Six Days because of the negative reaction the game received in the North American press.

"It was announced in Japan before it was announced in the United States," Tamte explained, trying to differentiate attitudes towards the game in multiple regions. "Confusion about the game in Japan was the biggest issue ... I think that there's a cultural difference between understanding what happened in Fallujah in the US versus Japan."

When asked to clarify, Tamte told Joystiq "the controversy especially" was the primary reason Konami decided to cease publishing the game. "It was Konami Japan that ordered Konami US to pull out," he bluntly offered. But Tamte isn't atop a soapbox regaling a tale of sudden abandonment from the Japanese publisher, saying that Konami was very honest about its position, though he recalls how surprised his team was when they found out they had lost funding.

"The Konami US people were very honest and straightforward with us throughout the process. We were very, very surprised. They informed us, and we were surprised when we got the information, but they did inform us a number of days before the public announcement was made." According to Tamte, Atomic Games and Konami had been working together for "about ten months" on the game until the publisher decided to back out. Tamte wouldn't specify which regions the new "interested" publishing partners for Six Days were from.

Newer developments have overshadowed the controversy concerning Six Days in Fallujah since it lost its publisher. Atomic recently laid off a portion of its workforce, and last August, the developer reported that a lack of "full-scale funding" for Six Days forced the publisher to shed some of its development staff. How can Atomic Games afford to stay in business, I asked? "Our investors," Tamte answered after a brief pause to laugh. While he declined to detail the extent of financial support his studio receives, Tamte pointed to the studio's downloadable title Breach (scheduled for release this summer) as proof that Atomic is still a functioning developer, despite rumors to the contrary.

Tamte's hope is to develop a "documentary-style" game in Six Days in Fallujah, which would realistically portray the roles and actions of the United States armed forces

"We are recreating the stories of specific Marines."

and honor the lives of the brave men and women who serve. Other factors exist, however, that could turn the game from a truthful retelling into a narrow vision of actual events.

Six Days in Fallujah will feature innocent civilians roaming its levels, Tamte told us, explaining that US Marines dropped pamphlets on Fallujah "for three months" before the invasion to ensure civilians would leave the region. According to Tamte, the rules of engagement are an important aspect of Six Days. "A Marine cannot shoot someone who is not a combatant. It's against the law -- you go to jail for that. The insurgents would actually take their weapons, throw them weapons down and run, knowing that they are no longer a target."

Tamte described real-life scenarios in which Marines would be lured into methodically planned ambushes by insurgents posing as civilians. "We have to recreate situations like that," he said, adding, "We also have to still follow the same rules the Marines have, which is that if you shoot a civilian, it is game over." But Atomic isn't setting out to make a trial-and-error experience, the developers know that if they don't find a skillful way to inform players of potential dangers and traps then the experience could turn into "Russian roulette." Tamte told us there are "a lot of ways" Atomic will provide information to players, as well as give insight to the situations and events through "interview segments." (Further details on these interview segments were not provided.)

After initially denying the use of white phosphorous gas during the Second Battle for Fallujah, US officials later confirmed its use, stating the weapon is "standard" for field artillery units. According to previously classified Pentagon documents, the gas had originally been listed as a "chemical weapon" and its use had been considered a war crime. Six Days in Fallujah takes place during the timeframe in which such chemicals were used by US forces combating insurgents (also, reportedly taking some civilian lives in the process); however, the game does not include any use or mention of the substance. "We are recreating the stories of specific Marines, and these specific Marines were not involved with that, so we are not dealing with that. None of these Marines were involved in any of these situations, and so we have no basis on which to do that."

When asked to clarify whether the player will assume the roles of different Marines throughout the game, Tamte explained that "there is a group of Marines, there's a few dozen Marines actually who are involved in the recreation.

"If film can deal with this, why can't we deal with [the Iraq War] in an interactive format where we can get people so much closer to the experiences?"

Many of them are in the game." By taking pieces from multiple perspectives during the campaign, from actual Marines consulting on the game, Atomic is developing a sequential timeline of the six days of battle that the player must endure; in the game, players follow "a few specific units as they move through the city of Fallujah."

While the current Iraq campaign is widely considered an unpopular war, Atomic is adamant that the game isn't being developed with any political message in mind. According to Tamte, there is no basis for it. "Whether the US should be in Iraq or not be in Iraq is not a part of this experience because to the Marine, it is irrelevant," he told us. Six Days in Fallujah isn't a game about war, so much as it's a game about the people fighting a war. "[The Marine is] there, and we want to tell his story. Why he's there is something that he might talk about, but ultimately, it's irrelevant to him."

With so much focus on the real soldiers that fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah, the traditionally simple concept of death in games would appear to carry substantially more weight in Six Days. Unfortunately, Tamte refused to go into detail about how the game deals with characters being killed, calling it a "gameplay spoiler."

"We do recognize there is something fundamentally different about the fact that it is real people in situations that we've recreated and that we cannot handle it the same way as it would be handled in a fictional game," Tamte did offer. "I guess all I can say there is that we're very, very cautious and considerate of the people who were involved, including their families, in all of those situations without going into details about how we're going to actually do that." Tamte would not confirm if any of the characters in the game are based on soldiers who died during Operation Phantom Fury.

Tamte used the word "choice" a few times throughout our conversation, but for a game that is based on actual events as described by real-life Marine, how can the game be anything other than a series of extremely linear scenarios? "I have to bookend it the way it actually happened, but everything that's in between the bookends is up to the player," Tamte said. He further explained that the game would insert players into a situation by first introducing the actual, predetermined occurrence and its outcome. Everything in the middle is up to the player. Without seeing an in-game example of the process, we're unsure how successful this design will be in keeping the "game" aspect of Six Days engaging.

"If I called this game an 'interactive recreation' instead of a 'game,' people would probably understand it a little better," Tamte said, still frustrated by reactions to the game's announcement in 2009. Tamte cited the Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker as an inspiration, not for the game's development, but as an example of how Iraq War stories need to be revealed to the world in different mediums. "If film can do this, if film can deal with this, why can't we deal with that in an interactive format where we can get people so much closer to the experiences?" Tamte wondered. "It's one thing to watch what somebody does on a screen, and you can get empathy from that, right? But it's a whole other thing when it's you who has to make those decisions yourself. All of a sudden you understand that situation in a much broader context."

Six Days is designed to get players emotionally invested in its characters and the situations they are forced into. While the mature gaming demographic grows every year, Six Days in Fallujah would enter a market dominated by the likes of Modern Warfare and Halo. Are those audiences mature enough to handle the gravity of the stories recreated in Six Days? Tamte seems to think so. "It certainly will be a mature-rated game, and also I should say that the content will be presented maturely."

Soon after it was announced, I suggested that Six Days in Fallujah could inadvertently become the most important game of this console generation. For Atomic Games, the most important part of the game is its attempt to accurately portray the soldiers that fought in this battle and to make players "understand what it's really like to be a Marine on the front lines in this war." If, by the end of the experience, players recount the game as "yet another shooter," Tamte said his team would have failed.

According to Tamte, the "plan" is to release Six Days in Fallujah this console generation for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Atomic Games' first current-gen release is Breach for Xbox Live (and later for PC), a downloadable multiplayer shooter.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.