March 28, 2021

Six Days in Fallujah's First Gameplay Trailer Reinforced Many of its Harshest Criticisms

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, we shared the first look at gameplay in Six Days in Fallujah, a game that has been the topic of heavy criticism due in large part to the subject matter itself, as well as its portrayal of what are very real, very recent, and very painful memories for the Iraqi and Arab communities. 

This new asset followed shortly after we published a lengthy report that both detailed the context of why The Second Battle of Fallujah is a painful subject and black mark on the US’s history, as well as shared the perspectives of the Arab community who have close ties to the war, and to the communities affected by that war. We did so in the hopes that we could capture the larger conversation happening around the game for our readers. We believe it’s our responsibility to give you the necessary context and lens by which to view and consider the contents of the game to make those judgments for yourselves. 

But our packaging and rollout of the trailer earlier this week contributed to a tonal disconnect with our reporting, as well as our increasing concerns around the intentions of the game, and it was a disservice to our readers to not frame and present the news of a first in-game look at Six Days in Fallujah within that larger context and conversation. We wanted to take the time to reshare and reframe this new point of reference with our readers, to apologize for the original misrepresentation, and to remind you all of the valuable voices and perspectives from our sources who took the time to speak to us and share an important side of the conversation. 

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In a feature last week, I spoke to a number of game developers and critics who are either from Arab or Iraqi backgrounds, or otherwise have close ties to the Second Battle of Fallujah -- a controversial battle that occurred during the Iraq War, in which at least 800 Iraqi civilians died at the hands of US and British troops.

Six of those I spoke to agreed to go on the record about their fears, frustrations, and criticisms of what we know about the video game Six Days in Fallujah, which claims to "recreate true stories of Marines, soldiers, and Iraqi civilians" involved in the battle. Their concerns are many and if you have not already, I recommend taking the time to click the link above to read the full context of what they said, as a summary does not do their stories justice but it’s also important context as we continue to see more of the game itself.

Among those concerns are:

  • The game's pitch and marketing thus far focuses heavily on US forces who invaded Fallujah, and has either minimized or often even excluded stories from Iraqi civilians.

  • A game like Six Days in Fallujah runs the risk of contributing to an ongoing culture of generalized, racist, and dehumanizing portrayals of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern cultures across all entertainment, and especially FPS games.

  • Publisher Victura has numerous verifiable past ties to the US military, making it difficult to trust that Six Days in Fallujah is not at best unintentional, or at worst very intentional, US military propaganda.

  • Six Days in Fallujah has had minimal and often contradictory messaging as to how it will address the controversial political contexts around the Second Battle of Fallujah, including the documented (if denied) war crimes allegedly committed by US forces.

With its first gameplay reveal, Victura had an opportunity to account for these numerous valid concerns. If Six Days in Fallujah is indeed an empathetic, thoughtful portrayal of the horrors of the Second Battle of Fallujah as they impacted everyone involved, this week's trailer was a perfect time to showcase that intent with a focus on the Iraqi perspective, as well as some acknowledgement of the US's harmful decisions in entering the war in the first place. All of this could have been done alongside gameplay that told a meaningful story to those watching.

However, the trailer that Victura released this week has done nothing to quell those fears and criticisms. Instead, it has substantiated many of them.

The First Look at Six Days in Fallujah, Broken Down

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Six Days in Fallujah's first gameplay trailer opens with narration from US Sgt. Jason Kyle, who continues to tell the story of his experience in Fallujah interspersed throughout the trailer. A handful of other US veterans make appearances and tell their stories, as well. Almost the entirety of the six-minute trailer is told through their viewpoints, and all of the gameplay shown is through the US military perspective, lending credibility to the concerns that this is largely a game about empathizing with the US military rather than the people who lived in Fallujah. A brief perspective from two anonymous Iraqi civilians is shown later in the video, but it is far and away eclipsed by what is clearly a military-focused story.

Sgt. Kyle's introduction gives way to a narrator who introduces the gameplay of a soldier walking down an alley. Upon turning a corner, you can see a dark, undefined figure at the end of the alley, who the player immediately begins shooting at. We hear soldiers yell, "There's one in the alley!" and then "I got you," when the figure is dead. There is no context offered for the person who was shot at -- which is notable because of the presence of civilians in the real-life counterpart to this story. They are merely presented as an enemy to be defeated.

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As the trailer continues, we are shown gameplay mechanics presented in the same manner as This Year's Thrilling New Shooter, rather than what you might expect from, as Victura themselves have described it, a 'playable documentary'.

"Pin enemies in place with suppressive fire, while you flank," the voice says with a tone of hyping up a fun gameplay feature. An enemy shouts "Allahu Akbar" in the distance in the only attempt at detailing who the player is shooting at: presumably a generalized Islamic terrorist.

More shots are exchanged with distant figures in a house across a street, again impossible to tell who they are from a distance. It's a scene reminiscent of what one of the developers I spoke to, Alex, mentioned in our interview, about the ease at which Middle Easterners are villainized in games, because Americans don't have to question it.

“You just turn on a game, you see some terrorists, and you start shooting at them," they said.

The Unknowable Fallujah

We cut to a segment called "The Fatal Funnel" in which Sgt. Kyle reappears with the line, "The person who goes in first is never wrong. They have the most to fear." This line is not contextualized, but it’s especially dark given the number of civilian deaths in Fallujah. Without additional context, it’s easy to interpret this line as a defense or rationale around those deaths.

Three more US military veterans appear and share their experiences of entering houses and not knowing what to expect inside, focusing on the fears of those soldiers and ignoring what the people inside those houses might have feared. This discussion of fear is used as a transition point back to a gameplay feature, this time around the procedural generation to recreate the “realism” of the battle. "Six Days in Fallujah reshapes the battlefield every time you play. Each room, each building, even the entire neighborhood is generated procedurally. Every map is a new map. So just like actual combat, you never know what to expect."

Six Days in Fallujah has, from the start, promised a "real-life" experience. Here's one quote from Victura's official website messaging:

"We’ve invested more than three years building technologies to explore specific parts of the combat experience more realistically than other games have so far," the website continues. "We hope that participating in these real-life 'moments of truth' will give each of us a new perspective into events that have already shaped so much of our century." [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=The%20reality%20of%20Fallujah%20--%20a%20place%20where%20people%20lived%20their%20lives%20--%20has%20been%20glossed%20over%20for%20the%20sake%20of%20a%20thrilling%20combat%20experience"]

While it wasn't entirely clear at the time what this would entail, the demonstration of a procedurally generated Fallujah offers part of an answer. The "real-life" Victura is interested in is the real-life combat experience, focused on the soldier's perspective of the city as an unknown, threatening place. The reality of Fallujah -- a place where people had once lived their lives and which many refused to abandon due to a number of deeply personal reasons -- has been sacrificed for the sake of a thrilling combat experience.

It's an exacerbation of an issue that media critic Anita Sarkeesian, whose parents were born and raised in Iraq, pointed out prior to the trailer's release:

"The developer statements very carefully acknowledge the Iraqi casualties but they are not providing any context about the fact that the heroes of this story are murdering people who are defending themselves and their homeland, a people who have been targeted repeatedly over the years by world powers, including the US."

Why Stay?

More gameplay is shown featuring firing at distant and nondescript targets before cutting to another section titled "Fathers and Sons." In this section, Sgt. Kyle tells an emotional story about missing his son's birthday while in Fallujah, and not wanting to die on his child's birthday. While this story is heartfelt, the trailer’s emphasis on the pain felt by loss of life is noticeably centered on the US side of that story. It does nothing to either contextualize the political decisions that sent Sgt. Kyle and the US military at large to Fallujah in the first place, or to tell any stories from Fallujah residents whose family lives may have been impacted in similar or far worse ways.

A final, lengthy gameplay sequence follows soldiers moving through an empty, dark house and checking rooms, all with the framing, lighting, and audio effects one might see in a horror game, just before the protagonist is attacked by some unseen enemy. The player kicks down the door and screams are heard as a family huddles in the darkness. It is entirely unclear whether or not control is taken away from the player at this point, and whether or not players might have the ability to fire on what are clearly civilians hiding from the invading force, a la No Russian.

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"So just think, you have this marine, you're amped up, you've got all this adrenaline going through, and this family of four -- and I'm talking to the dad, I'm like, 'Dude, why are you still here?'" The focus of empathy, a major point of concern from the sources I spoke to in our original report, again favors Sgt. Kyle’s perspective. The tensions of war from any perspective notwithstanding, we never get to see him nor anyone else explore the implications of what could conceivably happen when a Marine in that situation opened fire into buildings or streets without checking who the target was, as previous segments of gameplay suggested.

The trailer then cuts to the only scene we see with Iraqi representatives. The anonymous interviewees say that the people in Fallujah were told to leave, but the reasoning for some staying behind is pinned on the stubbornness of an older generation. Excluded is the context that the US did not permit any males over the age of 15 to leave at all, and it is likely many families chose to stay together rather than be separated from one another or abandon their homes. The trailer ends here.

What Have We Learned About Six Days in Fallujah?

This first gameplay trailer for Six Days in Fallujah tells us that regardless of what ultimately ends up in the game when it releases, the priorities of publisher Victura are, first and foremost, on presenting the US military as brave heroes. Though the individuals whose stories are told may indeed be sympathetic, the ultimate motives and context of the US being in Fallujah in the first place were far from it, as US military veteran John Phipps acknowledged when we spoke to him for our original article.

"There is a massive unwillingness on the part of American media, no matter what form of media it is, to portray US soldiers as the antagonists or the bad guys, which, in that instance, we were," he said.

It’s still possible this may be addressed in the shipped game, and Victura’s website says it will explore "the events that led to these battles." But we haven’t seen evidence of that yet. Thus far, indications increasingly point to the idea that the bulk of Six Days in Fallujah will follow a war story intended to inspire empathetic feelings for the US military and its actions in Fallujah, and may engender negative feelings about Iraqis and Middle Eastern people as a whole.

"It sells you the idea that the soldiers are brave and that their cause is just without showing you if their fear is justified or not," said Yifat Shaik, an Iraqi-Jewish academic who I spoke to in my original article. She was referring to this tweet at the time, but her analysis seems fitting for the trailer, too. "We do not see what they are encountering, the enemy is faceless and voiceless...It's propaganda because it is telling you (and this is true for all the gifs and images they have on Twitter) that they are the good guys and that they are fighting a nameless enemy. It is there to sell you the idea of war being just and that the US Army [are] the good guys in this case. If I reverse this, and those would have been Iraqi soldiers or insurgents, our reaction would be a lot different."

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In a six-minute trailer, less than one minute is devoted to the Iraqi perspective, and it is focused on a single subject: one possible reason why more civilians did not leave Fallujah. Of course, we won’t know what the final balance is until the game comes out, but the recently-updated FAQ on the game's website states that the team spoke to over 100 Marines and soldiers for Six Days in Fallujah, while 26 Iraqis (23 of whom are from Fallujah) were interviewed, some of them as long ago as 2008. This does not inspire confidence that their stories will play a prominent role, or at least not as compared to that of the Marines.

What we do know so far is that, at least in the gameplay segments, the Iraqis in Fallujah will be portrayed as distant, non-specific foes who yell stereotypical phrases. We know that players will be encouraged to shoot indiscriminately where they think enemies might be, and while we don't know if players will be able to accidentally shoot civilians (Victura has said it won't depict war crimes, but has been inconsistent in other messaging), the idea of simply being able to fire into houses where innocent people might be hiding or firing at generic, unknown maybe-foes remains troublesome.

While the publisher has spent time and energy promoting the game's "documentary" style of storytelling, this week’s footage ultimately focused on the intensity and specificity of shooting mechanics as a core point in its marketing. Though these mechanics -- like the "Go" command and the procedural generation of the city -- are said by Victura to be in the service of realism, the realism being uplifted is the realism of shooting, of violence, of destruction. It is not the realism of the lives of the everyday people of Fallujah.

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This is, of course, just a six-minute slice of a gameplay trailer, and does not encompass the entirety or even most of what Six Days in Fallujah will be. But with a subject as sensitive, real, and controversial as the Second Battle of Fallujah and its corresponding video game, Victura hasn’t taken many opportunities to make their intentions clear. What information and responses have been offered have revealed little about how the Iraqi side will be portrayed.

Whatever Six Days in Fallujah ultimately is, every step this game has taken from its initial announcement and cancellation, to its re-announcement and marketing has been contradictory and frequently thoughtless. Now, Six Days in Fallujah's first gameplay trailer has only served to increase people’s concerns that it cannot be trusted to be more than another military-centric wargame.

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