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A Marine who worked on ‘Six Days in Fallujah’ in 2009 helped us see why it exists

A Marine who worked on 'Six Days in Fallujah' in 2009 helped us see why it exists

There’s no easy way to talk about Six Days in Fallujah.

That was clear in 2009 when Konami revealed the Atomic Games project set during the Iraq War’s second battle of Fallujah, in 2004. Intense backlash led the Japanese publisher to cancel the game just weeks later. And it’s been just as clear in 2021, with Victura, a studio founded by Atomic’s Peter Tamte, once again taking flak in the midst of a fresh attempt to make the game happen.

There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of an effort to recreate one of the deadliest engagements in a controversial war as an entertainment product. But even allowing for that, it’s always bugged me that Six Days in Fallujah got canceled way back when. Very few people ever got a chance to even see the game.

If you cut past the controversy and the admittedly unhelpful recent comments from Tamte in which he stated that “nobody’s going to play” a game that captures the Iraqi civilian’s perspective — an offensive whitewashing of those who still carry the war’s burdens in a very real way — there is something interesting here. (It’s worth noting that Victura sent out a clarifying email after Tamte’s comments, stating, in part, that “players will see the effects of war on Iraqi civilians” in the game and “take the role of an Iraqi father trying to get his family out of the city.”)

The idea for Six Days in Fallujah came from Marines who were there in Iraq. Tamte had a relationship with some of those people already after Atomic worked on training software with the Department of Defense in the early 2000s. And so when these troops returned home with stories to tell and the idea of bringing those stories to an interactive medium, Tamte was the guy they turned to.

I talked to Tamte myself, and for anything else, he struck me as genuine in his desire to honor the stories that have been shared with him. But I also came away from that interview feeling like he’s maybe not the best spokesperson to help people understand why there’s something potentially meaningful here. That’s how I found Mike Ergo.

Ergo is one of the Marines whose name comes up when you dig through reporting on Six Days in Fallujah from a decade ago. He was an infantry team leader in Iraq during the second battle of Fallujah, and his team sustained heavy losses during that conflict. So for him, the game represented an opportunity to reckon with the emotional scar tissue left behind by the war.

Ergo’s no longer involved with Six Days in Fallujah as it resurfaces in 2021. He’s been on his own journey since coming home from Iraq, and he’s found other ways to unpack what he went through. Family and therapy of course, but there’s also his blog and Transitions From War podcast (which he co-hosts with fellow Marine Rich Dreyling), as well as a deep and abiding love for endurance sports.

Ergo was surprised to see Six Days in Fallujah resurface on Feb. 11, and that’s why he sat down to talk with me about his complicated feelings surrounding the game. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Mashable: One thing I’ve picked up on in the coverage of you and your personal journey, as well as in the podcast: You’ve never really mentioned your work with Atomic Games.

Ergo: I talked about it on Facebook a little bit when people heard about the game all those years ago. And then I just listened to some of the Gold Star families who were upset about it, and I listened to my other fellow Marines who were hoping it would come out. Then when it didn’t come out I was like, “Oh, OK. Well, I guess that was just something that didn’t happen.”

I’ve had a few experiences where I was involved in a project, like maybe a TV show or a book that was gonna happen and just didn’t. So I just ended up figuring it was one of those.

How do you feel about it now looking back? You know, the idea of turning these stories into something that, for whatever else the experience imparts, is fundamentally a work of entertainment.

It’s interesting. I was talking about it with some Marines on this humongous Facebook Messenger chat we have and one of the guys brought up a good point. Inevitably, I think the people who fought there are gonna be disappointed by anything that comes out because it won’t capture the full experience no matter if it’s a book, a song, a movie, or anything else. But recognizing that going in; that it’s not necessarily for us, it’s for the people who haven’t been there. In my mind that makes it worth it. 

Video games are a form of media that I don’t completely understand. I mean, I’m familiar with them from when I was growing up, but I don’t totally understand the depth that generations younger than me get from video games, and how this might impact them. But I’m willing to entertain the idea that it will make an impact on them. So that’s why I still stand behind it, and hope it is received well. 

One of my colleagues in the games media served, and he was also there in Fallujah in 2004. He talked about it recently on his podcast after the Six Days in Fallujah news broke. Same as you, he witnessed horrible things there. But he has the attitude that if there is ever any kind of media that imparts the experience of what he went through, he would rather see it buried at the bottom of the ocean. 

There are layers here, including the importance of highlighting the Iraqi perspective and all the larger political factors that fueled this conflict. So there are all these vectors for people to be really, really angry at any attempt to tell these kinds of stories in this kind of way. As someone who sees Six Days in Fallujah as a worthwhile endeavor, what do you say to that criticism?

It’s an excellent point, and I see the perspective of anyone who wouldn’t want this story to be told, especially in this way. For myself, when I came back I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to understand I had gone through something that I couldn’t describe. With all the words in my vocabulary, I couldn’t totally capture the experience I had lived through. And I have found it hard to relate to other people because of that. My frame of reference for what was dangerous, what was exciting, what was worthwhile, what true friendship and love meant. It was just different from a lot of people that I came back to.

When I came back I wanted people to understand I had gone through something that I couldn’t describe.

On one hand, I was very glad that nobody had to experience what I did because there’s some horrendous things that I experienced in Fallujah. I’m glad that my wife didn’t have to see those things, I’m glad that my brother and sisters didn’t have to see those things. But in some way I still craved being seen. Like, “Oh, you went through something that changed you profoundly.” 

Which is why when I heard that this game was gonna come out, I thought maybe this can tell the story in a way that I couldn’t, so people could understand it a little bit better. While they wouldn’t get the full understanding of what it’s like to be in combat in Iraq, they would be able to understand it just a little bit more. And so, for my friends and family, I would hope they’d be able to read about it or see a documentary about it. And then for people who relate better to video games, I hope they’d be able to look at this, or experience this, and say, “OK. I I understand a little bit more about what Michael is trying to tell me.”

That makes sense. It also brings me back to something you said in the first episode of your podcast, back in 2018. You said that coming back, you had this feeling even while the war was still going on that people just weren’t aware of it. In their day-to-day lives they didn’t really grok that the fighting was still happening, that everything you had come home from was still going on out there. 

It’s really interesting to hear that, because so much of the backlash 11 years ago was: “It’s too soon, this war is still going on.” But that was not your experience at all. 

Yeah, it wasn’t my experience. For some people, it’ll always be too soon. Especially people who have lost sons or daughters, mothers, fathers, loved ones. It’ll always be too soon. And for some people, they want others to hear that story in whatever form it takes. So there’s never gonna be a right time for everybody. It just doesn’t exist. 

I think that when we approach telling this story, we have to understand that it’s for people who are ready for it. Just like every joke that a comedian tells, it’s probably gonna be offensive to some person and it’s gonna resonate with other people. That doesn’t mean the joke’s bad. And I think that’s the same with this video game: It’s for some people, but it’s not for people who aren’t there in their stage of grief yet, or who are not there in their understanding of how warfare works.

A Marine who worked on 'Six Days in Fallujah' in 2009 helped us see why it exists

Image: atomic games

What was it about Atomic Games that made you comfortable with doing this? I talked to Peter Tamte, and I don’t think he has spoken particularly well certainly in this new round of press. He said some things that have set people off in I think understandable ways, but my personal impression of him and his character is he seems to be genuinely invested in not just telling these stories but honoring them. Is that what stuck out to you? Is there more to it than that? 

Yeah, what stuck out to me about Peter like you said is that he genuinely wanted to tell the story. When I spoke with him on the phone and when I met with him in person for the first time, I got the impression that this wasn’t just about turning a quick profit off the backs of people who risked their lives and lost friends. I got the impression that he really wanted to tell the story in a different way.

What I admired about his approach, and about Atomic Games, was that they were willing to risk this kind of backlash because they’re telling this story about an unpopular war in a format that’s never been done before, incorporating interviews and trying to make things realistic to an actual event that is in our lifetime.

Like we’ve seen Call of Duty portray World War II and Vietnam, past wars and fictional accounts of present-day conflicts. But never has anyone attempted to make it more realistic and incorporate real people in real scenarios. So just the risks they were taking and the reasons behind it, I really respected it. And even though I was uncomfortable with the idea, because I knew it would make people upset, to me, it seemed worth it to at least try. So if this is a story that can be told in this way, I want to be part of what tells it. 

Thank you. I really just wanted to hear from somebody who was involved with this project at its inception, but who is outside the PR cycle. I wanted to hear about what this game means, what the purpose is here. 

So much of the way that new video games and entertainment in general get revealed to the public is very tailored, polished messaging. There’s a place for that, but for something like this, I think— I mean, I’m looking at the backlash now and yes, some of it is rooted in real concerns, but a lot of it is people sort of knee-jerking to the idea of a thing without really understanding it. That kind of response is gonna bother me forever, wherever we all fall on the political or whatever other belief spectrum. Not taking the time to understand a thing and just dismissing it is how we all die. It’s just bad.

Oh, exactly. We see it online where people will post a link to an article, and instead of taking the time to to read the article and absorb the nuances, so many people will just see the headline and say, “Oh, I disagree with it, that’s messed up.” Can we have the conversation? Can we at least sit down and and and talk and find where we have the common ground? Because when we don’t talk, that’s what leads to situations like what happened in Fallujah, and then we ended up killing each other. 

In a way, it mirrors what we were trying to do, or I think prevent, with this video game: Tell a story so things like that don’t have to happen. 

That actually brings up another question for me. I’m not here to dig for secrets about the game that haven’t been revealed yet. That’s not what I’m here for; they’re gonna reveal what they’re gonna reveal about in their own time. But I do wonder, was your impression of this game back then that the sort of underlying takeaway was an anti-war message?

I didn’t get an anti-war message from the video game. What I got from it was that there are real consequences for war and it seemed like it was a game that would allow people to draw their own conclusions. You know, just say this is what happened. And now you know. I didn’t see any pro- or anti-war message.

If this is a story that can be told in this way, I want to be part of what tells it. 

It’s an interesting thing, because so many games like it will glorify war, like Call of Duty. I even played games like that. I really enjoyed them because it just reminded me of the things I did like about the Marine Corps. So I can’t pretend that I’m anti-combat video games. But I didn’t get the sense that it said something either way. I think it said, “These are the scenarios, what do you think about it?”

I pressed Mr. Tamte pretty hard when I talked to him about this. That’s what it kept coming back to in his responses, this game doesn’t take a position. Which, yes, that is a problematic thing to say on the surface, especially these days. But also, the idea of just showing a real thing that happened and letting people figure out how they feel about it — that seems really powerful to me. 

I don’t think it’s inherently good or bad as an approach. I think the quality of the experience is something we can talk about after it’s out, but the premise feels sound to me.

You know, I think there’s a parallel here. I’m not sure how close it is, but there’s this principle that when we have robots and AI generally, we like them helping out. But there’s a certain point where it becomes too real and too closely resembling a human, to the point where people start to get very turned off and afraid and against something like that because it’s just too close to the real thing without being real. And I think what’s happening with this game is that it’s hitting the nerve, that it’s too close for a lot of people to the real thing.

Even the word “game,” it implies something trivial. I think that video games have morphed into something beyond what people experienced playing Pac-Man or playing Contra. Games have gone to a form where they tell a story, they involve people much more than they did before. Much greater meaning is placed on the experience. So maybe with the idea of an experience like this, I think the word “game” doesn’t really do it justice. 

The thing you’re talking about, it sounds close to what people often refer to as the “uncanny valley.” The point where AI is so life-like that it seems human, but not quite there. So it’s unsettling. 

Yes. Our brain can’t easily categorize it, maybe it’s just so weird that it disturbs us. And it’s not a perfect analogy, but this experience is something that doesn’t fit neatly in a category. I mean, it’s not a documentary and it’s not just a video game. It’s something in the middle there. Some form of media that really hasn’t been out there before, at least that I’ve seen. So people aren’t sure what to do with it. 

You’re not involved with this revival, right? It doesn’t sound that way.

The game coming out this time?

Yeah.

No. In fact, I was surprised when one of the guys in my unit posted that it was gonna come out again. Man, it threw me for a loop. I saw that and I was like, “Oh, I thought that project was just dead in the water, and here it is coming out again.” I had no idea, nobody from [Victura] contacted me about it, so I was shocked it’s coming out.

Happy? I mean, it sounds like you’re pretty chill with it. 

I have mixed feelings. Personally, I have a delayed reaction with a lot of emotions. If I see something, I usually — for better or worse — compartmentalize it and then deal with it emotionally later. Probably largely due to Marine Corps training, but I think that I’m excited to see it. And I also have a bit of… What would the feeling be?

Some of it would be dread that I’ll be brought back to feelings and memories that really bothered me or still have an emotional charge. And some hesitation that it’s gonna cause sadness among some of the Gold Star families. For me, like you probably read about, the Gold Star families are so central to what I do in my professional and personal life. So I don’t want them to be upset. But at the same time, I want this story to be told. So I have mixed feelings about it, but overall I’m glad that it’s coming out. 

Last thing: If you could send a message to [Victura] and to to Mr. Tamte, what would you say to them? That you would share publicly, of course.

I think what I’d say to Peter and to [Victura] would be: Good job for having the guts to put something out that has this much controversy. Most people would shy away from something like this, but I believe that they’re doing it— obviously it’s a business and they need to make money, but they’re doing this in part because they want to tell our stories. So they’re taking the risk of offending people and making people angry in order to tell my story and other people’s stories. So my hat’s off to them. 

Six Days in Fallujah is expected to release on as-yet-unspecified platforms in 2021.

UPDATE: Feb. 25, 2021, 10:40 a.m. EST An earlier version of this story made repeated references to Atomic Games as a principal developer behind this new iteration of Six Days in Fallujah. While former Atomic principal Peter Tamte is still in a key role on the new game, it’s his new company, Victura, that’s working on Six Days in Fallujah now. Atomic Games no longer exists. Where applicable, references to Atomic in this story have been edited to read Victura.

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