NEW YORK — On Wednesday, June 7, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by an air strike from U.S. jets.
Early this week, a little more than two weeks after that event, the world will be able to play a video game about it.
The result of harried breaking-news development by a handful of game creators in New York, "Kuma War Episode 75: The Death of Zarqawi" will put players in the position of a U.S. soldier just outside the house in Hibhib, Iraq, where al-Zarqawi was killed. The game presents a first-person shooter scenario — players can either call in the same air strike that killed the terrorist leader, or test an alternate attack by rushing the guarded house on foot in an attempt to take al-Zarqawi alive. (MTV News had initially reported that the game would be released on Friday, June 23, but that deadline proved too tight for the game's developers.)
Not every game executive would describe creating a game as "reporting." But that's what Halper says his company has been doing since early 2004, when his vision for episodic game missions focused on modern combat and his team began creating what grew into 74 single- and multi-player PC missions based directly on engagements from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The company also does contract work for the U.S. military, providing game development that is used for training.
"Kuma War" has depicted the U.S./al Qaeda firefight of Operation Anaconda and the no-shot-fired capture of Saddam Hussein. Halper said the "Kuma" missions have been downloaded 800,000 times.
"Our job is to set up these variables exactly as they were at the beginning of one of these events and then allow the player to go through and do what they will," he said. "Anybody who's played a game like 'Grand Theft Auto' understands that the free-form nature is what makes this a wonderful experience. I can go in and interact with the environment and see what would happen otherwise."
The news of al-Zarqawi's death broke on the morning of Thursday, June 8. Kuma artist Ed Jeudy was riding the subway to work when he saw al-Zarqawi's dead face on the front page of the New York Post. "I was thinking, 'Wow, I bet I'm going to hear about that today at work,' " he said.
On Friday, Halper returned from a trip to California, and the 10 men at Kuma who would design the game met in a conference room in a Park Avenue office building, on a floor Kuma shares with Miller beer sales reps, a tennis hall of fame and a group that protects migrating fish.
The first 74 episodes of "Kuma War" had been built with a graphics technology that allows them to create an al-Zarqawi mission in one week. But there had also been plans to start making "Kuma" with the licensed technology that rendered the award-winning "Half-Life 2." Making the al-Zarqawi game with the "Half-Life" technology, which promised superior graphics, would require two weeks.
That's what the Kuma team chose. They hoped to assemble a chronology of al-Zarqawi's death, but news was still trickling in — including reports that the al Qaeda in Iraq leader had briefly survived the air strike.
On Monday at 5:30 p.m., the team met again, minus lead designer and dozen-year game industry veteran Dante Anderson, who had headed off to a pre-planned Caribbean vacation. The team's researcher, phoning in from Ithaca, New York, said there had been reports of a child found in the bombed house, and that those reports were now being refuted.
Halper had ideas for two scenarios. One would have the player on the ground, calling in the air strike: "There's no game-play in this one. It's purely about getting a front seat in this important event."
The other approach — storming the house — was inspired by a question he'd seen posed to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about why soldiers weren't sent in to capture a target who would have been more valuable alive than dead. Rumsfeld had said that there was a risk al-Zarqawi would have escaped; Halper wanted his game to help test that theory. "Then you've got something that feels more like a video game," he said.
Another designer suggested that the player could be racing in to grab al-Zarqawi in the scant minute or so between the first bomb of the air strike and the second. "See, that would be fun," said Halper.
The Kuma team often finds that even detailed news accounts don't provide the specifics needed to render a three-dimensional, historically accurate environment. What did the house look like on the inside? Were there windows in the back?
And what should the game sound like? The air strike happened just after 6 p.m. local time. Did that call for night sounds? Asked Jeudy, "Are there crickets in Iraq?"
Thursday — just eight days before the game's planned release — brought another Kuma team meeting. Halper had conferred with Thomas Wilkerson, a retired Marine general who often advises Kuma's mission creation. Wilkerson had pointed out that any plan to capture al-Zarqawi would not have involved an initial aerial attack from a 500-pound bomb if a person inside the house was wanted alive. The "Rumsfeld scenario" would have to happen without any bombing runs, and therefore without a race against the clock between a first and second bomb.
Meanwhile, the team's artists — who had been working feverishly on the project since the first meeting — were getting more comfortable with the "Half-Life 2" engine. The house was coming along, and the model for al-Zarqawi looked real. Somebody had rendered a virtual teddy bear because of the aforementioned report of a child's remains being found in the bombed house. In the interest of accuracy, Halper told them to scrap the bear; the child hadn't been there.
Animator Zancois Rice had developed a stumble for the al-Zarqawi character, and a shell-shocked look. He was working on movements that would depict American troops capturing him. "Make sure the soldiers are acting in a professional manner," instructed Halper. "No Guantanamo Bay sh--."
Four days before launch, Anderson was back with a tan and rallying the team. The project was coming together, and he said it would be done on time. The cricket question had yet to be answered, but guns were working in the game, cinderblocks were rendered and artist Mike Thompson was able to run a character through the tree-lined area near the house, kick open the door and run into the room where the al Qaeda leader would be waiting.
Since the game was coming along, Halper was now free to speculate on the "Kuma War" project's merit. He knows Kuma has its critics.
He said one Iranian newspaper accused his company of being a government front; he denies this, though he notes the company's contract work for the military.
There are also people who bristle at video games being used to depict current wars, as well as the larger question of which subjects are appropriate for gaming (see "Columbine Victim, Game Maker Speak Out About Controversial Role-Playing 'Massacre' "). "If we're making a movie about it or if we're writing a newspaper [story] about it, I think people wouldn't be quite as concerned," he said. "I think it's our responsibility to use these new vehicles for storytelling to get these stories across."
Halper lobs back a critique of his own: Traditional news outlets can't provide news the way his video game can. "When we come out with a 'Kuma War' episode, we're providing reams and reams of news information," he said. "We're telling people what happened. We're telling them the forces involved. We're giving them the history of the area. We're showing them satellite maps — the kind of things that they are very unlikely to tune into C-SPAN for an hour and a half to get."
"Kuma War Episode 75: Death of Zarqawi" is expected to launch this week as a free downloadable mission for PCs at www.kumawar.com.