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Six Days in Fallujah is a video game that many people don’t want anyone to make. The depiction of the darkest days of the war in Iraq was so controversial in 2009, when the memory of a bloody battle in 2004 was so fresh, that then-publisher Konami canceled it.
But Peter Tamte kept it alive.
Tamte’s original company, Atomic Games, collapsed after Konami withdrew its support under pressure. But he revived his efforts in 2015 with Victura Games, and the CEO announced recently that the game will debut on the consoles and the PC in 2021. Victura is making it with the help of Highwire Games, whose leaders worked on games such as Halo and Destiny.
Six Days in Fallujah will be a tactical military shooter based on the events that took place in the Second Battle for Fallujah in 2004, when U.S. and British soldiers had to clear out an Al Qaeda stronghold after the group seized one of Iraq’s major cities. It was a street-by-street, house-by-house battle, and it was very bloody.
The reactions to the announcement were equally as visceral as before. Some said it would glorify the American military’s war crimes in Iraq, while others said it would be a fitting tribute to the U.S. soldiers who sacrificed so much in the battle. Tamte never saw the game as making a political statement. Rather, in an interview with GamesBeat, he said he felt compelled to make it for the memory of veterans. His team conducted more than 100 interviews with veterans of the battle, and it talked to Iraqi citizens who witnessed it as well.
I spoke with Tamte for 50 minutes, and I probed as much as I could, given he isn’t fully describing the game yet. Then, a week later, I spoke with him again for another lengthy call. He said he knows he has to walk a fine line when it comes to depicting violence, retelling recent history, being respectful of veterans, telling the truth about what happened during the combat, and capturing the views of Iraqi citizens. He noted that it’s a video game and so 90% of the choices you make will be “tactical.” But he noted that perhaps 10% of the missions will force you to make moral choices, and that one mission takes place from the view of an Iraqi citizen.
The game will surely reopen a debate (that I participated in) prompted by 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare about how realistic war video games should be. Tamte said the original effort started at the request of former Marine Sgt. Eddie Garcia, who was gravely wounded during the Second Battle for Fallujah.
The battle began in 2004 after Al Qaeda seized control of one of Iraq’s major cities. The battle proved to be the toughest military conflict for Western forces since 1968. Coalition forces suffered a total of 107 killed and 613 wounded during Operation Phantom Fury. U.S. forces had 54 killed and 425 wounded in the initial attack in November, 2004. The casualty number later rose to 95 killed and 560 wounded.
Victura will announce more details about Six Days in Fallujah in the coming weeks. The team wrote a letter about why it feels it’s important for the game to be made. Highwire’s team includes Jaime Griesemer, who was lead designer for the original Halo and Destiny games; Marty O’Donnell, who was audio director and composer for Halo and Destiny, and Jared Noftle, who cofounded Airtight Games and has more than 20 years in the industry. They have more than 30 people working on the game.
I honestly don’t know how this game will turn out. I know it will be profoundly disturbing, particularly to people on both sides who became victims of the wider war that still feels like it is too recent in our collective memories. There is something to be said for the unflinching look at history and the truth. But the game is sure to stir emotions that many might believe are better left dead. Tamte has agonized over this and thought about it for more than a decade.
Social media analyst Spiketrap monitored the response to Six Days in Fallujah, using its tools to measure audience sentiment across the internet, and it saw most of the conversation taking place in Twitter. Overall audience reaction was negative, with a low sentiment score on Twitter at 28, with a high sentiment score surrounding its video at 77. Generally, any score over 60 is positive.
One thread with the lowest sentiment score discussed the game as a “crime simulator that glorifies war crimes,” a reference to allegations of the U.S. use of white phosphorus in Fallujah. Others debated whether it was possible for a game with politics and history involved to not make a political statement. And some positive conversations revolved around whether the game will offer introspection similar to Spec Ops: The Line. After watching the reaction to the game, I interviewed Tamte again and appended that interview to the first one.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interviews.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve been on a real odyssey here.
Peter Tamte: That’s an apt description. It’s been a long and winding road, and it’s not done yet.
GamesBeat: What kind of reaction did you get?
Tamte: The reaction is pretty consistent with what we expected. In all honesty, fairly consistent with the reaction in 2009. A lot of the same concerns and a lot of the same support. We’ve seen both sides.
GamesBeat: Do you want to take me back to 2009 and what happened back then? Where did the original idea come from?
Tamte: The project began when a Marine named Eddie Garcia, who I’d gotten to know quite well — he was blown up by a mortar in Fallujah. He was med-evac’d out of Fallujah. Very dramatic story. Seconds away from losing his life. He went to a field hospital, then a hospital in Baghdad, then a hospital in Germany, then a hospital in the U.S. Just a couple of weeks after he was hospitalized in the U.S., he reached out to me and started telling me these stories of things that had happened during the Battle of Fallujah. It bothered me a lot that I hadn’t heard any of these stories, because these were remarkable. These are stories as dramatic as anything in history, and I hadn’t heard them.
He was the one who suggested — he said, “Our generation plays video games. Would you be willing to tell these stories through a game?” I said yes, and then within weeks after that, I was interviewing, on camera, Marines who had just returned from the battle to tell us their stories.
We decided that in order to tell those stories, we had to build our own game engine. At the time engines, the licensed ones, were a bit more primitive. We built our own engine, which took us three or four years. Partway through, Activision released Modern Warfare, the first one, and it sold remarkably well. All the game budgets went through the roof. In order for us to compete we had to have a partner. That’s when we reached out to Konami. They ended up funding part of the game, and of course we announced the game in 2009.
Then the world exploded. Konami pulled out. I had to wind down the company, effectively.
GamesBeat: In 2006 or so, is that when you actually started?
Tamte: We started development in late 2005.
GamesBeat: Back then, what sort of concerns came up about whether you should do a realistic game in this setting?
Tamte: The concern has always been, how do we tell these stories faithfully, but not sensationally? There was never a question in my mind as to whether or not we should do it, or whether a video game should tackle it. I never hesitated about that. For right or for wrong, to be honest with you, maybe I should have. I don’t know. But I didn’t at the time.
The concern has always been that these people have trusted us to tell their stories, and to do so in an interactive medium. By definition, that means that the player has some agency in those stories. So how do we set this thing up in such a way where the player has that agency, but the stories are still faithful?
GamesBeat: Did Konami ever allow you much dialogue with them as far as being able to talk the controversy over at the time?
Tamte: No. The U.S. team was always very supportive of the project. The decision to pull out of the project wasn’t even made within Konami Digital. It was made by the parent company’s board of directors. I had no clue that it was coming until I got the phone call saying, “We’re pulling out, and there’s going to be a story in the newspapers.” That story was going out, that day or the next day.
GamesBeat: Was it an immediate reaction from Konami, or did it take some time for them to come to that conclusion?
Tamte: My recollection, it was about three weeks or so. The objections to the game at the time — the media organizations went to an advocacy group called Military Families Speak Out, which is opposed to any film, any kind of entertainment that deals with war, or that might be perceived as glorifying war. Those were the spokespeople they found to speak against the project. So much of the mainstream coverage went through that group.
Beyond that, I’d call it two other categories of people who were concerned about the project. The first would be just people who were opposed to the war in Iraq and thought that perhaps this would be a project that would try to justify the war in Iraq, which was never our purpose. The second group would be people who were concerned that perhaps video games weren’t ready to tackle real-life events.
GamesBeat: Looking it up, Black Hawk Down came out in theaters in 2001. It feels like there’s a double-standard at work?
Tamte: Something that’s upset me is that there is, without a doubt, a perception that because we have the word “game,” that we can only deal with trivial things. I think that misses the real opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, for those of us who are game creators. Every other medium is about watching what somebody else does. Video games are about what you do. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike by watching somebody else ride a bike. I learned how to ride a bike by getting on a bike and trying it myself. As humans, we learn a lot more by doing things than we do by watching things.
Very early in this project, I wanted players to be put into these situations where they had to make the same sort of split-second life and death decisions that we were asking these 22-year-old corporals to make. Through that, I believed that they would gain an empathy for that corporal in that situation, but also for the complexity of the situation. For those who think we’re going to try to justify the war in Iraq, that’s just never — that question, of whether the U.S. should have gone into Iraq, is never a part of what we’re doing. We’re interested in that corporal’s experience. The extent to which the decisions made by policy-makers affect the decisions a corporal has to make, I’m interested in that, but I’m not interested in the bigger policy question of whether the U.S. should have gone into Iraq.
GamesBeat: When you had to shut down, how many people were affected by that? How big was your company?
Tamte: About 85 people were working on the project at the time.
GamesBeat: And then when did you restart?
Tamte: We began working with Highwire in October of 2017. I raised the money before that. Victura is a totally separate entity. I created it from scratch. There’s no shared ownership of Victura. I went out and raised the money, and then we licensed the rights — I went back to the investors in Atomic and said, “We’d like to license this IP from Atomic in the same way that Atomic might have licensed it to someone else who might have been interested.”
Konami had exercised a provision in the agreement that allowed them to terminate for convenience rather than for cause. If they terminated for convenience rather than cause, then all of their rights reverted back to Atomic. Konami never had ownership of the property, but they did have publishing rights. When they terminated for convenience they lost the publishing rights as well.
GamesBeat: What made you want to do this again, and maybe subject yourself to another round of what happened?
Tamte: Some of which has started already! I read a couple of tweets here and there. But it’s a fair question. I’ve spent about 11 of the last 16 years of my life, in some capacity or another, trying to work on this project. And an awful lot of my life savings. This is more than a business opportunity, obviously. This is very important to me personally.
There’s two reasons. I wonder about this myself, to be honest, because I could have pursued a lot of other opportunities, but I’ve pursued this one. So why? It comes down to this. Number one is, the stories still haven’t been told. The stories should be told. I think a lot of people could benefit from hearing these stories and getting to know these Marines the way I have. That’s a big deal to me. I’m not saying every Marine is this way, but the ones I’ve worked with on the project have been remarkably thoughtful, good human beings who were put in very difficult situations. That’s something a lot of us can relate to in some ways. Wanting to do the right thing in the same way that these guys wanted to do the right thing. Getting to know these Marines, who they are and what they were trying to do, I thought that was important and I wanted to tell their stories.
The second part of it is that — I feel like many of these people shared some traumatic experiences with me under the assumption that I would share them through this game. I failed them. That started it. But there’s another part of it, which is I believe there’s an opportunity for games to tackle true stories. This is something we have not, as an industry, done hardly at all. Brothers in Arms, from 2004, 2005, tackled some true stories. Medal of Honor has simulated some true stories. But categorically, video games have steered away from true stories.
I think of that as something that I’m interested in pursuing for Victura. I specifically started Victura with the idea that we would do this with Six Days in Fallujah, but that we were going to extend this idea of letting players experience true stories throughout history, across many different games. That’s my goal.
GamesBeat: Was it hard to get the restart going, to find someone like Highwire and find the investment?
Tamte: A remarkably high percentage of the people I’ve talked with about the project asking for investment — our success rate has been very high. I found an awful lot of people who see this as something important to do. On the investor side, I’ve been very surprised at the support, the level of support.
As far as Highwire, they thought about it a little bit. I think they realized that in order to do this game right, this would require that they pour their whole selves into it. This was not going to be something that would get finished in six to nine months. They were committing a good chunk of their lives to this project. But I know that they were interested in it from the very beginning. I also know they spent a bit of time making sure they were ready to tackle this kind of a project. You know Jamie and Marty over there, right? Marty says a lot of crazy things, but they’re very thoughtful people, very mature people.
GamesBeat: Does Victura have a lot of people, or is that a smaller entity?
Tamte: Victura’s team is very small right now. Highwire is pretty small right now, too. We have 30 people at Highwire tackling a project of this magnitude. That’s daunting. The Call of Duty team is how many people now? Six-hundred? Eight-hundred? For each game? Something like that. We have 30 people at High Wire, and then a bunch of us at Victura. I’m also able to work with contractors, so that helps fill in the gaps. But we’re a tiny team right now. This is the third video game company I’ve built. I’m taking this step by step. We’ll grow the team.
GamesBeat: Do you think the passage of time has helped you be able to do this now?
Tamte: I think so. There are still people who will think this is a bad idea. Some of them are already making themselves known. But at the time that Six Days in Fallujah was originally announced, the United States was still struggling with the question of whether to have a presence in Iraq, or what the size of that presence was. It was very topical at that time. There were very heated opinions about it. In the sense that that is no longer a question — those questions have been answered compared to eight or nine years ago. I hope that people can pull back from that.
But I would say this about that, though. I don’t think we want to let too much time pass. I’m hoping people learn things from the experience of playing Six Days in Fallujah. That understanding is relevant today. Waiting 20 years to make the game would deprive people of some of the things they might pick up from this experience, which is still very relevant to today.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve talked to more than 100 people by now. During all this time, have you continued interviewing people?
Tamte: We talked to a whole bunch of people, both American military and Iraqi civilians, between mid-2005 — the project really began development in late 2005, but I began interviewing people at the beginning of 2005. From that point until 2009, we interviewed a whole batch of Marines, soldiers as well, and Iraqi civilians.
Then, when the project shut down, to be honest with you, I left the whole industry. I was pretty burnt out at that point. I went and I built a productivity software company. I steered in the exact opposite direction of where I had been. I walked away from the game industry. I was very frustrated. But once we started the project again — mid-to-late 2016 was when I started talking with both service members and Iraqi civilians again.
GamesBeat: Did anything change about the kinds of stories you heard from people?
Tamte: The stories themselves did not change. It’s interesting, however. Some of the people I interviewed more recently were people I had also interviewed right after the battle. In some cases they had forgotten certain stories, stories that were very vivid in their minds at the time they first told us. Stories that were validated by other people that were there, and that now these Marines have blocked out of their minds. They could not remember. That was interesting.
The other thing I’d say that changed was, more time for reflection, and that reflection also comes with the benefit of hindsight now. We saw how things continued to unfold in Iraq. These Marines, their hearts really go out to the Iraqi people. I hope that’s something that people throughout the Middle East will see. That’s in some ways unexpected. To the shopkeeper who lost his shop, to the mother who lost her child, to families that lost their homes — these guys are very aware of this.
One of them said to me, I think he put it pretty well. He said, “It wasn’t their fault, but it wasn’t my fault either.” They were all put into this situation by conditions outside of their own control.
GamesBeat: How do you decide where to focus given all that material? Some people have brought up the question of whether there’s an Iraqi point of view or an insurgent point of view. How did you think about that and what to do about it?
Tamte: Is there an Iraqi point of view? Yes, most definitely. Players will become an Iraqi civilian, an unarmed civilian, in what’s effectively a stealth mission, trying to find their way out of the city during the battle. Iraqi civilians caught between Al Qaeda on one side and the coalition on the other side. One of the reasons why we’ve interviewed, now–it’s two or three dozen Iraqis at this point that we’ve interviewed. We wanted to be able to communicate that perspective authentically to people.
So, the perspective of Iraqi civilians, yes, absolutely, that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do. Now, the perspective of Al Qaeda, no, it’s not there. Al Qaeda in Iraq became ISIS. I’m not going to put players in a situation where I’m going to ask them to play that role. We’ll address the context under which Al Qaeda rose inside of Iraq, so people understand why the battle took place, but we’re not going to ask them to empathize with the Al Qaeda perspective.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how almost everything you do in the game requires you to have some kind of judgment about that. Do I want to include this in the game? Should I include this? How can I not include this? You go through those steps with every piece of the game.
Tamte: At every step, yeah. Part of what’s guided us is there’s a consistency in the experience that we’ve heard across many of these stories. We can create that systemically. What we do with each mission is we set the starting conditions the way those conditions actually existed. We give players the same objective that the Marine or soldier had to complete. But how they complete that is then up to them. A lot of what we’re trying to do is set up systems that allow that to simulate correctly, effectively.
The thing is, everybody is going to be curious about how it really happened. That’s why we’re matching these gameplay moments with video interviews of these guys. The video interviews will provide the context of what’s happening, what that individual was thinking, that Marine or soldier or civilian, and then what really happened. We haven’t exactly figured it out creatively. Sometimes we want to let people know what’s really happening along the way, and sometimes we want it to play out then tell them what happened in real life. But that’s the tradeoff between the two. It goes back to one of the earlier questions you asked about how we mix these things together.
GamesBeat: I thought about that quite a bit when the new Modern Warfare came out. They showed me the previews of it, and I had a very negative reaction to the sequence where you’re going into a townhouse and clearing room by room. I don’t know if you remember that part.
Tamte: I do, and I read your story about it.
GamesBeat: The condition in which I saw that, it was on a big screen in a situation where I had no agency. I wasn’t in control. And afterward they didn’t offer an interview. I had to make assumptions about what you as a player are allowed to do in those scenes. It raises all these questions. Do I have agency to the point where, say, I could shoot this innocent woman? But when I played that game and reviewed it, I felt like they took you to the edge of making the choices that soldiers face, but they pulled back from allowing you to do what might be the worst things that could be done. For that reason, I felt, OK, this isn’t the sensational outcome I’d feared. But I wondered what you thought about that question, of how much agency to offer.
Tamte: Well, I’d like to observe two things about that. First of all, in Call of Duty you do end up pretty much shooting everybody. Everybody ends up becoming a bad guy, and you’ve gotta shoot. We’re drawing a much finer distinction. There will be times when you should not shoot that person. That’s an important difference between us and Call of Duty. We’re asking players to make that same choice that a Marine or soldier was facing, and to do that in a split second. As one Marine said to me, “It’s terrifying, because on one hand you might go to prison, and on the other hand you might die.” That’s the situation they’re in, and we want players to experience that, that moment of “What do I do?”
Shooting a non-combatant, however, is a complete mission failure. We are going to — one of the things that’s important to many of the people participating in the project is we follow the laws of war. If you violate the laws of war in the game, that is a mission failure. And there will be people you cannot shoot.
I don’t want to make it sound like that is the focus of the game, however. The focus of the game is going to be on the tactical puzzles that you need to solve. Ultimately, players aren’t so much looking for a morality simulator as much as they are looking for an honest “What is it like to be in combat?” simulator. Nintety percent of the decisions that a Marine or soldier had to make were not moral questions. They were tactical questions. That’s going to be 90 percent of our experience as well. There are those 10 percent moments where you need to make some tough decisions and you make them very quickly.
GamesBeat: Does it in some way resemble something like policing simulators, where they use these kinds of scenarios to train people?
Tamte: It’s interesting. I think they call those judgmental shooting simulations. I guess in some ways yes, but again I want to make sure — that’s not the center of the experience. It’s a periphery to the experience. But it’s a part of the experience.
GamesBeat: That scene in Call of Duty was memorable, but if the game was nothing but that, it might feel relentless to me.
Tamte: That’s exactly right. That’s what I’m trying to say.
GamesBeat: But I wonder if “relentless” is appropriate for a game. Then you get into questions about what is a game, what kind of story you want to tell, and so on.
Tamte: That’s why I go back to this. Ninety percent of the experience we’re creating is going to be tactical questions rather than moral questions.
GamesBeat: Do you wind up with a lot of scenarios besides clearing houses? What are the different kinds of experiences?
Tamte: It’s hard for me to describe a percentage of the game that’s going to be the actual house-clearing. There’s a lot of outdoor activities as well. We’re very intentionally not talking about the features of the game quite yet. The reason for that is just because the last time we announced the game, we had created an engine that was capable of destroying the entire game world. We did that six years before Rainbow Six: Siege allowed you to blow holes in walls. We had an engine that allowed you to destroy the entire game world. You know how many people talked about that? None. Zero.
Ultimately, that’s the question most players are going to ask us, though. What are the features of the game? So let’s just wait to talk about the features until we can talk about the context of the game itself and people understand what we’re trying to do.
GamesBeat: Did you wind up having an easier time with technology now? Did you have to create your own game engine again, or did you use something else?
Tamte: We started with Unreal Engine 4, and we’ve been heavily modifying that. Unreal Engine 4 gave us a huge head start compared to where we were before. But then we also spent the last — it’s been almost three-and-a-half years now of modifying that technology for some of the unique features we’ll talk about in a few weeks.
GamesBeat: Are there still some things that you would say that might make it more like a game than reality? The DICE people have a historian on staff to help them with things like their WWII games. But they always say that when they have a clash between history and fun, they focus on fun. For you, how did you approach that balance?
Tamte: This is where I have to give Jamie a ton of credit. When we began the project, I dumped all this stuff on him. I had 10 years, 15 years of material that I’ve collected. This is interviews with people who were there, documents that shaped my understanding, all this stuff. Jamie spent a few months thinking about all that, assembling all that in his head. He came out and said, “There are some essential elements of that experience that these guys describe that I have not experienced in a video game. Let’s focus on that as a starting point.”
That’s become the foundation. This is what we spent most of our time working on, as well as the technology to enable that experience. Rather than using the word “fun,” I guess I prefer to use the word “compelling.” When you think of God of War or Last of Us, you’d say parts of it were fun, maybe, but other parts of it were sad. There’s a full range of emotions. That was the true genius of those experiences, that they were provoking a full range of emotions. All of which are compelling. So it’s the word “compelling” that I’m after as opposed to the word “fun.”
Some of that is going to be fun. Some of it is going to be sad. Sometimes we’ll make you feel clever. Sometimes you’re going to feel scared. But ultimately we think we’ll make you feel empathy. All of that comes together in that experience.
GamesBeat: Is there still some unavoidable politics you have to deal with? Some kind of backdrop to the story?
Tamte: It’s the Iraq war. [Laughs] We have to explain to players why they’re in the city. Here’s how we’re going to do that. We’re going to tell that from what we believe to be an objective, factual perspective. Now, of course, as content creators you can always pick which facts you’re going to talk about. But we don’t think that does service to the experience. There are certain absolute facts that are not something that a conservative or a liberal would fight about. They are the things that led to what happened in that city in 2004.
We need to give players that context. But it’s not being done from a perspective of, well, conservatives will get mad at this or liberals will get mad at that. It’s a series of events that transpired and led to the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq taking control of the city of Fallujah. Players need to understand that. They need to understand why they’re there and what they’re supposed to do. But those are not a political consideration.
GamesBeat: What do you think about how graphic it should be?
Tamte: We’re not trying to push the envelope on that. To me that’s where we get into the sensationalism, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. On the other hand we can’t sanitize the whole thing either. I would expect that we’re going to handle the level of violence similarly to the way other military shooters today handle it. We might pull back a bit from that. We certainly want to avoid perceptions of being gratuitous. That would be outside the tone of what we’re trying to do.
GamesBeat: Given that you don’t have Call of Duty’s thousands of people, what is the scope of the game? How ambitious can it be?
Tamte: We have to make some choices about things that we won’t do as far as the broader feature set of the experience and the quantity of content. We have to make sure we’re narrowly focusing ourselves on what we believe we can accomplish so that the quality of that experience is strong, while the quantity may not be as broad as what you’d expect from a Call of Duty. We’ll price the product according to — one reason we haven’t talked about pricing yet is because when we get closer to release, we’ll have a better understanding of what kind of value we’re giving players. Where do we land on the quantity of content question? We’ll price the game accordingly.
GamesBeat: There are video game conventions that seem like they wouldn’t do well here. Things like upgrading weapons or multiplayer. America’s Army handled that by having everyone play on the same side.
Tamte: We’re going to be focusing more on cooperative multiplayer. All of the scenarios in the game in which we re-create a true scenario will be done with single-player or cooperative modes. In the future, at some point, I expect we’ll also add some competitive aspects to the game. But that’s not being done within the context of true stories. Right now we’re very focused on the single-player story narrative, as well as the cooperative experience.
GamesBeat: When you think about what you’ve got going here, does it compare in some way to any other game experience out there?
Tamte: You know what, honestly, I would say it’s a bit of a bunch of things. In terms of games, I think the closest thing would be Brothers in Arms, from the early 2000s. They tried to tell some true stories from World War II in the context of realistic game mechanics, game mechanics that enhanced the authenticity of the experience. I’d say that our objectives are along those lines. If you’re to compare what we’re doing to another game, the closest thing would be Brothers in Arms, with the benefit of 20 years of progression in technology.
GamesBeat: Something people might judge this game on is how you view the enemies or depict the enemies. Have you tried to do that in a certain way? There’s always that question of, how humanized or dehumanized are they?
Tamte: I don’t have a good answer for you on that. I don’t know that we’ve arrived on that, for one. Some of that is going to come from our testing. We’re going to start somewhere and feel that out. As I talked about earlier, I don’t think we have a responsibility to cause players to want to empathize with Al Qaeda. We do want players to empathize with civilians. Our energy there is probably going to go more toward the civilian side than the insurgent side.
On the other hand, we’re also trying to make something realistic. This is a tactical game, a difficult tactical game. You’re going to be presented with–it’s going to take you longer to accomplish objectives than you would in Call of Duty, which is about killing enemies.
GamesBeat: Some of the things I discovered when I was writing about Modern Warfare — people had different points of view than I did about what to be sensitive to. I don’t want to play a game where I’m shooting women, for instance. But some people said, “Well, think about that. In reality there are people from both sexes that would be fighting against you. Do you want to sanitize that out of a game? You want to play a fun game about war if it’s a certain way, but you don’t want to go into a place where you find out what it’s really like.” There were some interesting discussions that came out of that. What are people sensitive to?
Tamte: There are visceral reactions we have to violence involving certain people, yeah. My answer would be that those elements that would be in the game are always based on a story we’ve been told, an event that actually happened. I don’t want to get into examples, because it would break up the story. I don’t want to validate the notion that it’s this situation or that situation. There are situations that people will reflect on. Let’s put it that way.
Our goal is not to provoke in the same way that Call of Duty provoked. Whether it’s the Russian stuff from 10 or 15 years ago, or the townhouse scenario in the new Modern Warfare — it’s not that I don’t respect them for trying to challenge players with difficult things, morally difficult things. But our problem set is a bit different from their problem set. It’s not that we’re — we have different kinds of scenarios and we handle them differently from what Call of Duty would do. Call of Duty is still about kill count, and for us it’s very much about giving players — part of establishing empathy in players about what it’s like is discretion about whether they’re supposed to fire or not, and how they’re supposed to handle situations.
But again, that’s the 10 percent. 90 percent of the experience is the tactical questions. How am I going to accomplish this objective with all these things. There aren’t necessarily moral questions in that problem. When we get into the moral questions, we want players to have to make split-second decisions that are difficult choices.
GamesBeat: You could almost make this an adventure game, a choose-your-own-adventure.
Tamte: That’s exactly right. That was a fundamental design choice we had to make. Are we going to do that or not? Because you’re either going all the way in that direction or you’re not. What was the Molyneux game? Black and White? We’re not going there. Your character in the game doesn’t change based on your moral choices. It’s you who are hopefully affected by the choices that you’re making, personally, as an individual. A real human being, not an avatar in the game. That’s more what we’re going for. But not so much in a sense of, it’s going to take you down this storyline or that storyline.
It’s more about, I’m in this difficult situation and I had to make these choices. This is what I chose and this is why I chose it. The process of thinking through those choices forces you to think about the situation in a different context than watching someone on a movie screen make all those choices for you. That’s ultimately what it’s about for us. How it changes you, not your avatar.
GamesBeat: You’ve had a long time to think about this. But it’s a lot to think about. It weighs heavily?
Tamte: It does weigh heavily. The responsibility weighs heavily. We’re caught in this–well, “caught” is the wrong word. But we’re in a situation where we know people are assuming the worst of us. And for legitimate reasons, because they can only judge us based on the content of other games, and they can’t necessarily see how we’re trying to do things differently. There are limits on what we can do differently.
We’re trying to find that place, and I think we have found that place, that allows us to let players experience combat more realistically than they have in other games through these true stories. If we can just get that, to me, that’s the satisfaction, if we can achieve that.
Our second interview
GamesBeat: What can you say about the feedback you’ve gotten since we talked last?
Peter Tamte: There’s a couple of misconceptions about what we’re trying to do that I’d love to be able to clear up. The first one is the perception that we’re not going to tackle controversial aspects of the battle. To be clear, we did not include white phosphorus as a weapon for players, but we will include it within the documentary segments of the game. It’s important for people to understand that unlike most games, we’re doing this similarly to the way you saw in the trailer, where there’s a mixture of real people talking to you on the screen along with the gameplay elements. That gives us a lot more capability to tackle certain things from a broader perspective through the documentary segments, things that are better tackled through the documentary segments than they would be through gameplay.
GamesBeat: Are those documentary segments almost like cutscenes in between missions?
Tamte: You could think of it that way. Plus, they will also be integrated within the missions themselves. In addition to seeing the documentary segments, periodically you’ll hear these people talk, just audio, while you’re in the environment. You can hear what they were thinking and feeling at that moment while you’re experiencing that same moment.
GamesBeat: Is there actual footage of the battle in the documentaries, then? Or is it all people talking through these interviews?
Tamte: It’s a mixture of footage and photos of the battle as well, yes. We have quite a few photos from the battle. There are rights issues to work through with those, obviously, but there will be a mixture of video and photos from the battle.
Something we tried to do, which I think — again, there are people that are worried. I can say what I’m going to say about the controversial aspects of the game, but until people see it, they won’t believe it. But we did try to do that in the trailer. The beginning of the trailer talks about how a decision by policy makers led directly to the rise of Al Qaeda. That’s a bold statement. If we’re willing to do that in our marketing, clearly we’re willing to tackle that in the game.
GamesBeat: There was some concern or fear that this would be a one-sided story, just the U.S. point of view. I don’t know how people characterize it exactly, but perhaps the imperialist point of view, glorifying war. You point out that 26 of your interviews here are with Iraqi civilians, and 23 of them were in Fallujah at the time.
Tamte: That’s correct. You’ll experience these stories three different ways. You’re going to see these real people talking to you onscreen. They got the opportunity to speak to you directly as real human beings. You’ll play the role of an Iraqi father trying to get his family out of the city during the battle. And the third way is that you will encounter these civilians during the scenarios in which you’re playing as a Marine.
GamesBeat: Would you say that there’s a sufficient point of view from the Iraqi side? Is that a small part of the game, a large part of the game?
Tamte: I’d say that we’re very intentionally trying to create a wide array of perspectives about the battle. It’s also not safe to assume that all the Marines and soldiers were in favor of the war. Many of the Marines we spoke with opposed the war that they were asked to risk their lives for. They talk about that, too. You can expect a diversity of opinions not just from Iraqis, but from the Marines and soldiers as well.
GamesBeat: I remember you said that if you shoot a civilian, the scenario ends, the mission ends, and you fail immediately. It seems like this is a difficult thing to reconcile between the game and the documentary material, or the game and real life. If civilians died in the battle, don’t you need to show that in some way to truthfully tell that story? Do civilians die in the game, if not by your hand, then what’s shown in the documentary and in aspects of the gameplay?
Tamte: We tackle that more extensively during the documentary. We also do not show the death of a real Marine or soldier in the game. I think it’s important to understand the structure of what we’re doing. We’re using these documentary segments to explain to players the context and the situation that they’re facing, and then we set the starting conditions of that scenario the same as it existed in the actual battle. But keep in mind that what the player does is up to them after that point. They must complete the same objective that the Marine or soldier had, or in the case of the civilian story there are specific checkpoints on the way out of the city. The player must complete the same objectives that these people had, but as it’s a video game, they have quite a bit of agency about how they get from the starting point to the end.
The reason why I drill-down on that is because understanding that is important to what we’re trying to do. Ultimately, when you think about what video games can do that passive media cannot do, it comes down to putting players in scenarios where the player is forced to make a lot of those same choices and deal with the consequences of those choices. It has a lot to do with — when I have to think through that scenario for myself, those options for myself, I have to explore that more deeply than when I watch someone else do it.
But that also means I also have to play that out. Those things need to evolve. It’s very possible that people might want to play the same scenarios three, four, five times just to see the different consequences and different things that might happen. What we hope players will get from it is this understanding of how complex the situations are, because they’re trying to solve those situations themselves. Again, I can read about something. I can watch something. But when I try to do it for myself I understand it much more deeply.
What they’re going to pull out of that is this understanding of — this thing that might look simple from the outside is actually very complex. Further, if you’re going to assault a city, the result — the casualties were massive. Again, I don’t think most people understand that. This is something that is an abstraction to most of us, because we see it from afar. But if I can put players in scenarios where they themselves must solve them, and they themselves are seeing how difficult those situations were, because they are struggling to solve them, I hope that they’ll understand that if you assault a city, there will be massive numbers of casualties. That’s a lesson for us to take out of it.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of discussion about political decisions, the politics behind the game, and whether there’s a point of view expressed there. Are you trying to stay neutral on the politics, but express that the politics still existed, to recognize that in the documentaries in some way?
Tamte: We certainly understand that the event is politically charged. What we’re doing is certainly intertwined with politics. We’re hoping that the stories themselves — we want this to be about their stories, not about our story. That’s what people are interested in. They want to hear the perspective of the people who were actually in the city at the time. And trust me, those stories are much more interesting than my story or my opinion. We have so much of that, and we want to share it with players.
GamesBeat: It doesn’t sound like there’s necessarily a Washington D.C. point of view or a Baghdad point of view. You see that decisions have been made in those places, but you’re trying to keep the focus of the attention on things that are happening inside Fallujah.
Tamte: From the perspective of the people who were on the ground, yes. That’s correct. We can show how those choices by policymakers affected those individuals, but ultimately the story we’re telling is about those individuals who were in the city.
GamesBeat: The rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq — you mentioned what led to that. Is this something that happens in the documentary part?
Tamte: Yes. There are some — I don’t want to give away too much of certain things we’re going to do in the game. It’s too early here. But there are ways we can talk about that. There are ways to experience that in gameplay. And that explanation also comes through in the documentary segments.
GamesBeat: Everyone is concerned about what parts you ignore. You’re not ignoring the fact that civilians died in this.
Tamte: Oh, no. No, no. People who appear in the documentary segments we’ve interviewed, they lost friends and family. Their stories are being told. It’s very important to us. Again, I’m drilling down on this because this is one of those misconceptions — I don’t mind that people get upset about the political implications. What bothers me is that they think we’re somehow not going to allow these stories that we’ve been told and trusted with by these civilians to be told.
Honestly, many of those stories reduced me to tears. They’re experiences that no human being can hear about without wanting to reach out to those people. The problem is, how do you create a platform for those stories to be told? What I’m trying to suggest, and in some cases in a poorly-worded way, is that we’re going to tell the stories of Iraqi civilians to people who may not normally hear those stories, because they’re being told through a military shooter. The military shooter gives us a platform to help people hear the stories of both the Marines and soldiers as well the Iraqi civilians. Having a military shooter allows us to tell stories that we couldn’t normally tell to people who normally wouldn’t be exposed to them.
GamesBeat: Back to the documentary part, how much do you have to say about atrocities like white phosphorus? What’s the context for discussing that?
Tamte: Our plan is to describe specifically what it is and how it was used. We’re telling stories of specific people. Those people are in fireteams. That’s a four-man team, basically. It’s part of a squad, a squad is part of a platoon, a platoon is part of a company. Fireteam members typically are not allocated white phosphorus. That’s an asset or a weapon available at the company level. Most of the time white phosphorus is used for illumination. I know there are stories that the government has acknowledged about white phosphorus being used as a weapon. But a fireteam member is not going to be carrying white phosphorus with them, which is one of the reasons why we didn’t hear stories from these guys about their use of it.
GamesBeat: It seems like that part has become so big an element of the controversy that fully describing how it’s mentioned in the game seems like it’s become important. I saw the big blow-up on Twitter about how this is a “war crime simulator.” I don’t know how you felt about that and whether you wanted to communicate something about it.
Tamte: Well, I think the main thing I want people to understand that we are tackling controversial aspects of this war, including white phosphorus. But the larger message of the game is about the overall cost and complexity of urban assault. We can talk about specific weapons that might have been used as part of that urban assault. But isn’t the bigger question, what is the real cost of the urban assault beyond those weapons? How do we avoid getting into situations where there is an urban assault? That’s the bigger question to me, more than which weapons were used. We’ll cover both, but we’d like to direct as much attention to the reality that an urban assault is going to be enormously costly to both the assaulting troops and on the people of the city. That’s the lesson we hope people take away.
GamesBeat: Is it fair to say that people will come away from this with different perspectives? Some people will see that in some way it’s a justifiable military operation, and others will come away seeing it as a war crime?
Tamte: I certainly think we all bring our own politics into the experience. To some extent, all of us will be challenged by the perspectives that are presented by the people who were actually in the city. I don’t think we’re going to necessarily change people’s minds about whether the war was justified, but I do think everybody is going to walk away from this experience understanding that if you’re going to assault a city, that cost will be enormous to the assaulting troops as well as the people of that city. And so perhaps there’s a larger lesson in that about avoiding the assault in the first place.
GamesBeat: Do you get into subjects such as Blackwater and the background and role of PMCs in Iraq?
Tamte: To the best of my knowledge — I’ll tell you, all the stories that I’ve heard from the Fallujah battle have been from the perspective of military forces. We’re going to tell those stories that were a part of that. We can’t tell every story, every factor that led up to this battle. That documentary would be longer than the game. We can give players a very specific context as they enter into this second battle for Fallujah about the very direct causes. That context, as we’ve already shown in our trailer, reveals mistakes by policymakers that are things we could perhaps learn from. As we showed in the trailer, we’re not backing away from those things that directly led to this battle, regardless of whether they reflect poorly on decisions by policymakers.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’re well-served by showing as much documentary as possible.
Tamte: As much as players will tolerate, yes.
GamesBeat: It feels like neither side of the debate about the game and its existence would object to having more documentary sessions.
Tamte: I think that’s true. At the end of the day, players are going to want to play the game. But we do believe that the game gives us the opportunity to provide a context through the documentary segments.
GamesBeat: What’s interesting here is that so much time did pass that you were able talk to civilians. You hear stories from the Marine point of view, but you get additional perspective over time from civilians. What did you learn from that process, starting with the Marine point of view and eventually getting something that’s more of a 360-degree view?
Tamte: The first time we interviewed civilians was in 2008, actually. Those interviews ranged everywhere from–we have a mother, we have journalists, we have teachers, we have a mechanic, we have a guy who ended up becoming deputy prime minister of Iraq. A pretty full range of Iraqi perspectives, dating all the way back to 2008. All of those people are from Fallujah. They communicated stories to us that provide a context into why there was a conflict at the time.
The second batch of interviews we did was with Iraqi civilians who have since emigrated to the United States. They provide an additional amount of context. Then the third round, we have a journalist on our staff full time. His background is work for some TV stations in Arizona and Texas. He went to Fallujah about a year ago and sat down to interview people who were present during the battle in their homes, capturing another round of really interesting insights and stories.
GamesBeat: And this becomes all part of what you can use in the documentary parts of the game.
Tamte: That’s true. The challenge is that some of those people, their identities need to be kept secure because it’s dangerous for them to participate in any sort of western production. You’ll notice that when we start showing some of those. You’ll hear their voices and see their homes, but some of them are not able to show their faces because it’s not safe.
GamesBeat: Did that change the game and how some things are shown?
Tamte: Certainly from the very beginning of the project it did. Once we started interviewing Iraqis in 2008, we started understanding that there is a perspective that, regardless of your political persuasion — there’s a perspective that challenges perceptions about the battle and about people.
The other thing that we learned through that experience is there is a very deep desire for peace on both sides. We’re talking to people who have — I have to take a step back. The war is abstract to most of us. It’s very real to the people who we’ve interviewed. Their desire for peace is very strong. What we’ve seen from all of these people — or I shouldn’t say all, but what we’ve seen from many of these people is ways to grasp on and try to find this. Certainly, something that I experienced is the full realization that many of those people in that city, their hopes and desires for their lives were very similar to my own hopes and desires for my own life.
GamesBeat: It sounds like people may not need to worry that this is a story that does not criticize the U.S. in any way. You do have criticism that either comes from Iraqi civilians or from veterans themselves.
Tamte: The answer to the question, it’s safe to say that there is a diversity of perspectives in this game and that some of those perspectives are critical of choices made by policymakers. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the context of the battle without describing those choices. Those perspectives will come from Iraqis, from westerners, directly through their own voices through the game as well as the context we provide through the documentary segments.
GamesBeat: It sounds like in some ways the game did change over time. The game you’re launching in 2021 is different from the game you would have launched in 2009.
Tamte: In many ways, [it’s] different in many ways. Many of the core features we’re going to talk about in the coming weeks are fundamentally different from the core features that were in the game in 2009. That’s one aspect of it. We have interviewed more Iraqis since then, and more Marines since then as well, so there’s an opportunity for a wider diversity of voices within the game.
GamesBeat: I don’t know whether it’s important or not, but there was an attempt to control the media as well during the battle, what journalists could or could not say, whether they should be in the city. Has that come up, or is that something more tangential?
Tamte: I can’t answer that except to say that I have read accounts from journalists who accompanied some of the platoons that we’re following, from the first moment of the battle to the end. I don’t want to conclusively say that we won’t include journalists as part of the documentary segments. We interviewed journalists off-camera. I guarantee you would recognize the names, people who were present in the city during the battle. We spoke with them way back. Honestly, I’d like to do another round with them if I can. But that’s more of a side note.
The point I want to make is I don’t want to say we’re not going to include the perspective of journalists in the documentary segments. I’d very much like to do that. COVID has made that a bit more challenging. But I’d very much like to include that perspective, for one. And two, we absolutely have spoken with journalists who were with these units for the extent of the battle, if not literally every day.
I hope people see, again, our very first communication about this game publicly was a critique of a policy decision that led to the growth of Al Qaeda. If we are willing to do that in our marketing, we are certainly willing to do that in our game. We have interviewed a lot of Iraqi people. Making sure that their story is told is important to us. That will be a part of the experience, an integral part of the experience. And the third thing to know is just to ask the question. If video games ignore the Iraq war, won’t millions of people forget its cost?
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