IGN is reporting that Six Days in Fallujah, the first game to focus directly on the war in Iraq, is finished and ready for release. The controversial title by developer Atomic Games was announced by Konami last April and cancelled three weeks later following criticism from a variety of groups and organizations. Atomic Games is a division of Destineer Games which, among other things, makes training tools for the US military.
Atomic doesn't say so directly, but it appears they're looking for a publisher willing to step up and publish the game. I say it's time for a publisher to do just that. It's time for someone with vision, conviction, and cash to unequivocally lay claim to creative autonomy and freedom of expression as fundamental imperatives for games. It's time for a publisher to publicly assert, with money as its marker, that games can resonate culturally only if they're free to explore unexamined ideas and challenge our comfort zones.
Plenty of people have argued on behalf of Six Days in Fallujah, citing a double standard separating games from film and television. Why, they say, should games be prevented from going where films like Battle for Haditha or The Hurt Locker have gone?
This is a useful observation, but it relies on the increasingly threadbare argument that games deserve to occupy the same culturally respectable space as other media. Claiming it doesn't make it true. It will never be widely seen as true until games finally elbow their way to a place at the table. No one is holding that place for us. No invitation is forthcoming. You gain your place at the table by forcing your way in and then making yourself essential to the conversation that ensues. We aren't there yet because we haven't demanded to be there.
Six Days in Fallujah is that elbow to ribs. I don't know if it's a good or a bad game. I haven't played it. What I know is that the developer interviewed 70 people with intimate experience in Iraq, including returning Marines, Iraqi civilians, enemy insurgents, war historians, and senior military officials. I know they hope to convey through the player's experience an emotional and psychological arc that reflects something truthful about what happened in that battle.
The game may or may not deliver on its ambitions, but success or failure are beside the point in this case. Konami didn't cancel the game because it fell short of its design goals. Six Days in Fallujah was canceled because Konami decided it had more to lose than gain by publishing it. It bowed to pressure from people who made (mostly) baseless or uninformed claims about the game.
Several phrases recur throughout the criticisms leveled at Six Days in Fallujah - a game, by the way, that not a single critic has played. The most common among these are: "exploiting," "trivializing," "glorifying," and "too soon."
I don't mean to diminish or overlook the suffering that many of the game's detractors have experienced. I understand their objections stem from real, heartfelt concerns. But these are the very places artists must go. There is no safe way to explore these painful issues. In fact, the safe way is the surest way to oversimplification; the surest way to telling lies.
The fact that I charge an audience money to see the art I create doesn't mean I'm "capitalizing" on a painful event that caused great suffering. What fuels an artist's fire may also be the cause of human conflict or desperation. The artist is drawn to these places. He has no choice. His freedom to explore the world using the tools of his art must be assiduously protected, encouraged, and, yes, even funded.
The charge that Six Days in Fallujah trivializes or glorifies horrific events will surprise no one. It stems from an assumption that games lack the capacity for any other response to violence. Games have done little to challenge that assumption, and no amount of blog posts or GDC roundtables will convince anyone otherwise.
Six Days in Fallujah is an opportunity to begin tearing down that wall. If we believe games can be, or do, or say more, then we must produce those games and push through the inevitable resistance to them. If Six Days fails, we learn what can be learned from that failure, and we build the next game better.
What's needed now is an enlightened publisher willing to facilitate that process, clearly articulate the stakes, and take the inevitable heat. Maybe it also means losing money. I don't know if such a publisher exists, but for the sake of dangerous games, I hope so.