Six Days in Fallujah is Too Gameified to be a Documentary

Procedural generation runs the risk of erasing Fallujah.

I was willing to give the resurrected version of Six Days in Fallujah the benefit of the doubt when it was first announced. Sure, the claim that a video game could truly capture the complexities of the Second Battle of Fallujah seemed dubious at best, especially when the battle itself resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. But given that developer Highwire Games stated that it was building its game based on testimonials of not just U.S. military personnel but also civilians who lived in Fallujah at the time, I at least wanted to keep an open mind.

After the release of Six Days in Fallujah’s new gameplay trailer, I am far more skeptical.

It might be hypocritical for me to criticize Highwire’s decision to make a game based on real-world events when I have played and enjoyed other games based on historical events. I love games like Hell Let Loose and Rising Storm 2: Vietnam, two hardcore shooters that turn events that caused horrible loss of life into entertainment. The difference with those games, compared to Six Days, is that their marketing didn’t revolve around how much respect they’re endowing upon the people involved in the conflicts they represent and how much of a service they’re providing to the world for telling these stories.

The other major difference between those games and Six Days is that you’re not just playing as one side in the conflict. Do I, as a Jewish person, particularly enjoy playing as a German soldier in Hell Let Loose or Battlefield V? Not really. But it at least offers the grim truth born from war that when someone is pointing their gun at you, they are the enemy, no matter what flag or idea they’re representing. By Highwire focusing on the perspectives of the U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, they’re sending the message and perpetuating the stereotype that Iraqis in Fallujah were either defenseless victims or faceless terrorists.

Based on just that, it’s pretty easy to see why Highwire is drawing criticism for making what still appears to be U.S. military propaganda. But the recent gameplay trailer, which shows U.S. troops engaging in firefights with insurgents, also shows that Six Days is not even coming close to being the “playable documentary” that it claims to be.

There are two gameplay elements in particular that strike me as tone deaf, especially in the way they’re presented. The first is shown off early in the trailer, when the player signals to his AI teammates to lay down suppressive fire. When signaling, a glowy UI element pops up on the screen to show where you laid down the order. The player lays down another one on a door to tell his teammates to breach.

While these kinds of commands and how they’re represented visually are nothing new, they seem overly game-y when dropped into a game that’s being overtly marketed as a serious retelling of the bloodiest urban battle for the U.S. military since Hue City. The tone-deafness carries through into the narration, which states that it’s “as easy to direct your team as it is to fire your weapon,” minutes before an actual soldier talks about how he was in Fallujah during his son’s first birthday, and the only thing he could think was that he couldn’t die on his son’s birthday.

But it’s the procedurally generated maps that really seem to miss the mark when it comes to retelling the Second Battle of Fallujah.

The intention makes complete sense: In order to capture what it felt like for soldiers to clear houses and rooms, the game will procedurally generate the map that you’re playing on. Not only does this raise questions about how this game is structured—Is there an actual narrative? Are you just playing random “missions”? Do buildings change when you die?—but it brings into question the developer’s intentions for how it’s representing Fallujah and its inhabitants.

Fallujah is a real place. It’s a real city, and real people live in it. By changing the actual buildings and neighborhood of a city, Highwire is erasing the identity of that city. It’s turning it into yet another generic, war-torn Middle Eastern setting in a first-person shooter. One of the biggest concerns about Six Days is how it will perpetuate the harmful representation of Arabs in Western media, as Rebekah Valentine covered in a recent IGN piece. By erasing the real Fallujah and turning it into a procedurally generated murder-playground, Six Days is saying that the place doesn’t matter, the city doesn’t matter, and the people who live there don’t matter, if their accurate recreation negatively impacts gameplay.

This procedural generation is also fully in the service of recreating the experiences of the soldiers, not Fallujah’s residents, who would most likely know the layouts of their own houses and neighborhoods. The roguelike approach to Six Days’ representation of Fallujah makes the Iraqis into nothing more than NPCs who move and redecorate every time the city resets. While Highwire has stated that there is a moment in the game where players will take on the role of an unarmed Iraqi civilian, in the context of the gameplay trailer and in the buzzword-y gameplay mechanics shown in it, this perspective shift seems almost conciliatory and, clearly, not the developer’s focus.

Like I said before, first-person shooters based on real-world events are nothing new, and neither are developers thinking highly of themselves for taking war “seriously” in their billion-dollar, triple-A franchises (look no further than the creative team on 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). But there’s something really troublesome when Highwire claims it wants to really show what it was like to be in the Second Battle of Fallujah and then completely removes Fallujah.

What we’re left with, then, is another shooter from the perspective of Western military forces shooting at anonymous Arab bad guys, with some emotional testimonials from Marines and civilians mixed in to lend it some gravitas. Really, the most compelling aspects of the trailer are the interviews with the people who were actually in Fallujah at the time, whether that’s the U.S. soldiers or the Iraqi civilians, and not the generic gunplay or squad orders that look like they came from 2007. It begs the question: If it’s just going to be another crappy game, why not just make a documentary instead?

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