I love video games. Adore them. I grew up alongside them and matured as they did. I saw them go from simple, 2D arcade experiences built on twitch reflexes to technologically mind-boggling vehicles for deeply emotional, complex narratives. So I love video games.
It’s with that love that I feel the need to critique the medium and the industry in areas it deserves. One of those areas is storytelling. Despite the fact that some games have reached a level of narrative sophistication that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, the medium’s storytelling remains mired in immaturity and is often of a quality that is simply not comparable to other audiovisual media like TV or cinema. Laughable writing, wooden performances—we’ve come a long way since Resident Evil 1’s ‘Jill sandwich’, but not as far as we should have. There are some outliers, and there are wonderful things going on in the indie game scene, but the average narrative of gaming is dragged down by the mass of poor execution.
Mind you, this isn’t without reason. Video games have a unique advantage over all other media: Their interactivity. And it’s fair to say that for a long time developers have been focused on this side of the equation. It’s understandable too. That is what games started with. For much of gaming’s early history, the technology limited how much of a story you could actually tell. At first, you might have gotten a synopsis printed on the box the game came in, if you were lucky, and the experience of actually playing the game would be so abstracted from whatever framing device the creators’ decided to attempt to lash onto it that it might as well have not been there. These days we have all the tools needed to tell a proper story, but it’s also true that not every game needs to have a great one. Sometimes the fun of playing is all you really need.
But still, in terms of the possibilities that the combination of modern-day technology and interactivity of video games allows for storytelling, the potential is revolutionary and has barely been tapped into so far. The interplay between being told a story and living it is what drives the most ambitious video games today. Most of the medium is still content to clumsily fuse the two disparate parts together, in an often predictable pattern of quality: Even the best games often have a dramatic contrast between the quality of their gameplay and their storytelling—and those that excel in both rarely manage to pull off the act of melding the gameplay to the story in such a way that they feed off each other and push everything to levels that create truly groundbreaking experiences.
A masterpiece like 2017’s God of War, for example, has some of the finest writing, acting, sound, and cinematography of any game ever made. The gameplay matches that quality. The whole package is focused, emotive, fun, challenging, awe-inspiring, and mature—in the best sense of the word. In terms of pairing up sublime gameplay with a fantastic narrative, God of War is pretty much as good as it gets. And yet precisely because of its quality, it illustrates how even the best games can show us how far we can still go when it comes to taking full advantage of the medium’s interactive nature. It’s not that there is ludonarrative dissonance to speak of in God of War—your actions are very much in line with what you understand about your character—but there are small cracks in the game’s otherwise flawless construction that reveal its limits. For a start, some of the design choices—equipment menus and quest logs for example—do have a way of pulling you out of the game’s world. You aren’t ever as immersed as much as you could be. In addition to that, the game’s themes do not always manifest themselves in the actions you perform. Kratos’ journey in God of War is one of grief, of coming to terms with his past, of bonding with his son, and of their intertwined maturation. All of those themes are explored in a rarely bettered way in the medium in the cinematics and in the story that you are told, but the story you live is mostly one of the same violence that the old Kratos has always traded in.
I’ve talked about this stuff before in my review of a game that I do think succeeds more in this regard, so I don’t want to repeat myself, but suffice it to say that when you get a game that is designed bottom-up, from to its writing to its design to—crucially—its gameplay, to ram home its themes, then you get something magical. Fumito Ueda’s PlayStation 2 era Shadow of the Colossus is one such example. There aren’t many games like that. But we are seeing more of them than ever before. Games that tap into something special, and use their interactivity to tell us stories about ourselves and the world around us, full of empathy and heart and sensitive examination of topics like death, love, grief, memory, depression—all while being fun to play at the same time.
What I’m trying to say here is that we are only just starting to scratch the surface of what games can do, and what responsibility the developers of video games have. Which is why we must now take a turn to the other aspect of video games that requires some critique.
The industry (thunder crash).
Video games are a huge business. Like, really f**king huge. In terms of revenue, they dwarf the ‘old media’ of films and TV—bringing in a global revenue total of $179.7 billion in 2020. Granted, that figure has seen a boost thanks to the year-long coronavirus lockdown, but that has only really been an add-on to the general trend of the last few years. E-sports are a juggernaut. Streaming is a multi-billion dollar business. As with any industry this size, you’re going to see a lot of rot. Some of the rot might be more specific to video games, but much of it is universal and found across the spectrum of entertainment industries (and capitalism in general)—greed, bad consumer practice, exploitative worker conditions, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and, of course, the delightful phenomenon that is toxic fandoms. And then there is the issue of the military and imperial apologia. Just like Hollywood has had a very justified spotlight shone on it recently about its decades’ long ties to the military-industrial complex, so too are games long overdue for some much-needed scrutiny in this regard.
Enter Six Days In Fallujah.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about this game for some time now.
Six Days In Fallujah is a first-person military shooter. It has been in development for a long time, and it’s been plagued by controversy for nearly as long, with various groups including the UK’s Stop The War Coalition expressing misgivings about the title all the way back in 2009.
Six Days In Fallujah’s stated aim is to ‘create the most realistic military shooter possible’, according to Peter Tamte, the president of the original studio, Atomic Games, that had been developing the game before it went bankrupt in 2011. After this, the game was in limbo for some time, with a surprise announcement coming earlier this year stating that the game was still in development, now by Highwire Games, and due to be released by publishers Victura—also headed by Tamte—in the latter part of 2021. In describing the game’s goals further, Tamte also said:
The words I would use to describe the game—first of all, it’s compelling. And another word I use—insight. There are things that you can do in video games that you cannot do in other forms of media. And a lot of that has to do with presenting players with the dilemmas that the Marines saw in Fallujah and then giving them the choice of how to handle that dilemma. And I think at that point, you know - when you watch a movie, you see the decisions that somebody else made. But when you make a decision yourself, then you get a much deeper level of understanding.
I’m gonna come back to that.
Six Days In Fallujah’s title refers of course to the Second Battle of Fallujah that took place in November and December 2004 during the American-led invasion of Iraq. That invasion remains the supreme crime of the modern political era. Words and figures scarcely do justice to the unspeakable violence and horror that George Bush and his cabinet and their willing accomplices in Britain and elsewhere unleashed upon a country and a region in order to fulfill the directives of the military-industrial complex and the demands of imperial geopolitics.
The Second Battle of Fallujah was one of the very worst episodes of this murderous, criminal invasion. Led by U.S. Marines, it was the bloodiest battle the U.S. was involved in since the Vietnam war. Crimes of an unimaginable scale were committed there by the United States and British militaries. Fallujah had once been known as ‘the City of Mosques’. The city of around 200-300,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Euphrates was home to over 200 mosques. 60 of those were destroyed in the US attack. About a fifth of Fallujah’s 50,000 buildings were obliterated. Two-thirds of the remaining buildings had serious damage. Around 200,000 people were displaced by this one battle alone. The Second Battle of Fallujah is notable for the U.S.’s use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon, with the military often firing the material at buildings as artillery, and without knowing fully what their targets were or who they contained. The use of white phosphorous as an offensive weapon is deemed by many to be a contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. A war crime. The US military used so much radioactive material of war in Fallujah that some estimates put the cases of leukemia multiplying in the city after the battle by 38 times compared to before. In Hiroshima, the rate multiplied by 17. Reports are still coming in to this day of doctors witnessing a massive and unprecedented amount of heart defects, problems with the nervous system, and defects in newborn babies.
This is the event that the creators of Six Days in Fallujah want to turn into an interactive, fun experience in which you take the point of view of the invading forces.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about this game for some time now, and honestly, I’m still at a bit of a loss.
I want to come back to what the original creator of the game said about the unique nature of video games. He talks about how in games you have an agency that you simply do not have in films or TV. That the addition of this agency can give the experience an edge and an insight that other media simply cannot compete with. He’s right. That’s what I was talking about above when I said that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the storytelling potential of the medium. Unfortunately, Six Days in Fallujah also illustrates my point about how developers have to be responsible with this power, and to not use it for nefarious ends.
According to the creators of Six Days in Fallujah, the idea for the game first came from a Marine who had actually served in Fallujah. ‘When they came back from Fallujah, they asked us to create a video game about their experiences there, and it seemed like the right thing to do,’ said Peter Tamte.
Destructible environments are a popular mechanic in video games. Six Days in Fallujah has been hyped as having a very advanced version of this technology. According to Tamte: ‘This [game] engine gives us more destructive capability than we’ve seen in any game, even games that aren’t finished yet.’ As per Wiki:
According to the developers, destructible environments are critically important in telling the true story of the events in Fallujah, as the Marines eventually learned to blow holes in houses using C4, grenade launchers, air strikes and depleted uranium shells to blindside anyone waiting within, being considered as “combat puzzles”
Combat puzzles. 60 mosques.
I’m by no means a prude when it comes to depictions of violence. I’ve been consuming violent media my whole life. I’ve been playing violent video games my whole life. Study after study has shown that playing violent video games does not lead to an increased propensity for violence in real life. So violence by itself is not why Six Days in Fallujah deserves scrutiny. It deserves scrutiny because it’s grotesque imperialist propaganda feasting off the unspeakable violence that the U.S. empire unleashed upon a region that is still smoldering from it to this day. It’s one thing to make a video game based on World War II (though the morality of that is also something that requires discussion). It’s another thing entirely to make a game that puts you directly into the shoes of the forces of an invading army that waged a war of aggression less than two decades ago, the bloody aftermath of which still continues. A war of aggression, lest we need to be reminded, is defined as ‘a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense, usually for territorial gain and subjugation’, and is classed by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as the supreme international crime. In other words, the development of a game like Six Days in Fallujah is akin to the Nazis making a game about how the Wehrmacht felt storming into Poland and about how tough it was to crack open the ‘puzzle’ of taking Warsaw.
What makes this whole thing even more galling is the justification of the game’s perspective that the creators of the game have been wheeling out in interviews, with Peter Tamte saying that they are ‘not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea.’ This is the same incoherent and morally reprehensible ‘perspective’ that leads people to try to make ‘both sides’ equivalencies between progressives on one side arguing for universal healthcare and fascist stormtroopers on the other aiming to wipe out entire populations. It is dogsh*t. The invasion of Iraq doesn’t need someone to make a ‘commentary’ on whether it was a good or bad idea. Do you think the arrival of Hernán Cortés to Mexico requires some consideration as to its respective merits and demerits, you weasel?
The ties between the military and the video game industry are not new of course. In 2002 the U.S. military developed and released a game called America’s Army, which sought to give players a sanitised taste of what it’s like to be a soldier. According to Wired:
[The game] was a hit. By 2005, some 40 per cent of enlisted soldiers said they’d had previous experience with the game, and by 2018 America’s Army, and its more Call of Duty-influenced sequel America’s Army Proving Grounds, had been tried by more than 15 million players.
It is one of the most successful recruitment tools the US army has ever produced, according to Nick Robinson, an associate professor in politics and international studies at the University of Leeds, and an expert on the political and social consequences of video games. A survey conducted in 2003 ranked the game fourth in a list of things contributing to favourable awareness of the US army - behind the war in Iraq, homeland security, and tensions with North Korea.
Violent video games might not lead to violence, but American military recruitment games do facilitate the carnage that the U.S. empire inflicts upon the world.
America’s Army is just scratching the surface of the ways that the militaries on both sides of the Atlantic have sought to use a medium overwhelmingly popular with young people in order to bolster their recruitment drives. Most recently, the U.S. Army has turned to Twitch in an effort to claim more bodies for its war machine. This has not gone unnoticed, with Vox reporting that:
In July , US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a known gamer, proposed an amendment to a House appropriations bill that would have permanently prevented the military from spending part of its budget on Twitch.
Through Twitch, “Children as young as 13 and oftentimes as young as 12 are targeted for recruitment forms that can be filled online,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a speech on the House floor.
It’s in this context that a game like Six Days in Fallujah has to be considered. Whether it’s Call of Duty or the latest game in the Tom Clancy universe, video games have a long history of military-based or adjacent titles that border on the fetishistic. Military recruiters have noticed the powerful role that the medium can play. And, as modern warfare becomes ever more remote with the use of drones and other such technologies, they will likely be ramping up their drives in order to fill out their numbers. As per the above Wired piece:
“The army has realised it needs gamers, they have mental determination and agility, excellent problem solving skills,” said major Tim Elliott - who has been credited as the “driving force” behind the growth of esports in the army - after the recent esports competition (which was won by the army). “No matter what your cap-badge or rank, every soldier needs these skills in the modern battlefield.”
I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about Six Days in Fallujah for a long time, and I think I’ve come to the only possible answer.
F**k you, Six Days in Fallujah. You grotesque, jingoistic, imperial apologia piece of sh*t.
Image sources (in order of posting): Highwire Games, Victura