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Six Days in Fallujah, One Small Problem

Like many gamers, I am not easily offended by videogames.

Whenever a morally objectionable gaming issue is raised in the media, or on a forum, the crusty Old-Man Gamer in my head pipes up. He's hardcore, for his age.

"Listen here, son. I was blowing up cops in strip clubs when I was ten years old!" he says. "I've been killing Nazis since I was old enough to crawl! In my day, we didn't have one of those newfangled Hot Latte Machiatto mods--all we needed was a few pixels and a little imagination. And I don't want to hear a thing about warfare, son. Hell, I invaded Germany wearing the skin of a Teletubby!"

For as often as the media thinks I've been morally assaulted by video games, so far not one of them has coaxed so much as an indignant sniffle out of Old-Man Gamer. This may have a lot to do with routine exposure to certain Counter-Strike sprays, but that's what it takes to become hardcore.

So it was very strange to sit there on a Thursday night, one hand clasped around a Norwegian bottle of spring water, the other clenched tight in a fist around an hors d'oeuvres napkin, as Konami's Six Days in Fallujah shocked and awed my moral center. This was new.

Konami's Gamers' Night was just another of the yearly publisher events that brings together journalists, free food and drink, and, occasionally, games. An open bar surrounded the event like a halo of liquid distraction. Later, there was talk of dancing games, and a dinner. And then, following a presentation of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, USMC veteran Michael Ergo marched on stage, and promptly launched into a dramatic recollection of an RPG attack in Fallujah that nearly ended his life.

Developed by Atomic Games, Six Days in Fallujah (PC, 360, PS3) is based on the November 2004 assault on the Iraqi city--actually the second major battle to take place there in the Iraq War. The idea is an extensively-researched recollection of the six day invasion of US forces, told with an accurate timeline and including stories and characters based on real veterans of the conflict.

The unique, controversial nature of the project was apparent in Ergo's speech. In the middle of a night headlined by cheap, exploitative fare like Saw: The Videogame, to suddenly be listening to someone's first-hand account of combat in Iraq was quite the about-face. At that point, I wasn't sure whether this was an indication of the inappropriateness of the stunt, or how unusual it was to be faced with a real person's dramatic struggle in the midst of a pre-planned marketing campaign for silly videogames. Maybe Six Days really would be a serious, mature take on war. Maybe we're just not used to this kind of thing.

His story finished, Ergo explained how important he feels videogames have become to our culture, and how they are "one, if not the most important" mediums for telling stories such as his. Ergo then left the stage with a loud "oorah!" as the screen behind lit up.

The video began with what some marketing executive might call a "sizzle reel" of footage from the Iraq war. Trucks exploding from IEDs. Shrapnel from a blown-up building rifling off like bullets. Some kind of hip-hop/rock blasting. A few Marines fading in to recall their memories of battle. Title cards that said things like, "Experience the most intense battle of the 21st century." One Marine: "This is the opportunity to tell our story."

It was at this point that Atomic Games CEO Peter Tamte came out to show us a bit of game footage. The first scene opened on a typical Iraqi street, the player's third-person soldier surrounded by several squadmates. Suddenly an Iraqi ran out of an alley and into the path of the soldiers. Panicking, he bolted in the opposite direction--and then the shooting started. One of the Marines screamed, "Get some!"--and all hell broke loose.

Immediately it was apparent that Six Days is not aiming for a very realistic take on modern warfare. I never did imagine that Atomic would create a plodding, Operation Flashpoint-esque shooter in the sacrifice of action-packed combat. But considering the extensive marketing on the point of realism, I certainly didn't expect to see soldiers running out into the middle of the street during a firefight, taking a half-dozen bullets in the chest, and then regenerating their health safely behind cover. Not in a planned demonstration for press, at least.

In fact, from what Konami showed us, Six Days is far closer to Gears of War than America's Army. It has the same Gears D-pad weapon selection, the same style of cover system, and the same action-oriented gameplay.

In another clip, the player broke off from his squad, crouched up behind two insurgents who were firing on US soldiers, and took them out from a few feet away like some kind of renegade commando. I may be ignorant of this particular battle, but I've certainly never heard of any Army ninjas breaking off from their squads and capping insurgents solo. Maybe something like that has happened once or twice; either way, the videogamey nature of the moment seemed entirely out of place.

Later on, a soldier fired a rifle-mounted M203 grenade launcher into a building--then fired it again, and again, in a rapid-fire Rambo tactic that you'd only ever see with a controller in your hand.

We didn't see any of the moral choices or "survival horror"-esque situations that the developers have mentioned. All I saw were scenes straight out of a Battlefield game. And unfortunately, the liberties taken in this early demo immediately called into question the rest of the game's merit, and turn the whole project into the sort of controversial mess that nobody enjoys.

"As long as [Six Days in Fallujah] made as realistically as possible, I believe that this could be a good thing for both combat veterans and for the war in general," said Sgt. Casey J. McGeorge, a veteran of the Iraq war, in an interview with G4--and I can't disagree that this approach would certainly help Konami's situation.

I can accept a game that has me firing rockets into buildings and indiscriminately blowing holes in the walls of houses. Even in the case of a one-sided story, if I'm solely rejecting the game based on a perceived bias, then at least it's making me think. But without even the most basic attempt at realism, the foundation of the project is on shaky ground.

Calling the game "Iraq War Rampage," and lending it the standard shooter setup and exploitative marketing, would be one thing. By picking a specific battle, claiming some level of historical accuracy, and using the faces of real Marines to market the game, Konami and Atomic have created the expectation that Six Days will represent a portrait of warfare that is a good deal more mature than that of Contra. And judging from this early glimpse, there is little evidence of that promise.

Of course, Six Days is inevitably controversial for its subject matter. The way Tamte bills the game, as a narrow, experiential story devoid of political comment, is akin to the film Black Hawk Down. But whereas Ridley Scott could get away with a movie that mostly glossed over the political and moral questions of that comparatively small conflict in favor of telling the on-the-ground storyline, pulling off that same trick with Fallujah--a battle from a war with an incomparable level of public awareness and charged political debate--will be far more difficult, and require a certain degree of dignity that was not demonstrated on Thursday.

Konami and Atomic have already contradicted themselves more than once, which isn't helping.

"We're not pro-war," said Konami marketing VP Anthony Crouts last week. "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."

"We want people to experience something that's going to challenge them, that's going to make them think and provide an unprecedented level of insight into a great military significance," said creative director Juan Benito a few days later.

However, the more subtle contradiction seems to be the statement that the game will show only what the consulted Marines saw on the ground--despite the fact that civilians, and even insurgents, have been consulted for the project. Because these particular Marines apparently saw no dead children, and few civilians, the game will reflect that, according to Tamte. "What we're trying to do is recreate the stories of the Marines that we've spoken with and that are involved in the creation," he says. "And we're telling those stories of those particular Marines."

Based on the demonstration, I'm skeptical of how effective this strategy will be. As I watched the gunfire on screen, I should have been wondering what it was like to actually be in the shoes of those soldiers. But as I sat staring, I instead wondered whether the Marines had bothered to observe that building for civilian inhabitants before demolishing it. I wondered how any Marine that got shot in Iraq could endorse a game based on Fallujah where you can be hit by a hail of bullets and walk away.

By the end, I was left wondering what Konami was thinking.

Six Days in Fallujah is scheduled for a 2010 release on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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