Apocalypse Now: The Game. Yes, that is officially a thing that wants to exist. As of January 24th a Kickstarter campaign to adapt Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 psychological Vietnam War drama into the videogame format is underway. Do we get a scene where we press A to smell napalm in the morning? With a goal of $900,000 and at the time of this writing roughly $60,000 covered, it remains to be seen whether this project will actually come to light, but the concept and campaign spark an interesting train of thought about videogame adaptations of film. Can something like Apocalypse Now bring anything new to the table as we’re actually playing it?
Everyone Gets Everything He Wants
Licensed material hasn’t historically had the most graceful process going from film to game. People like to pull out the infamous example of Atari’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial out, but more often than not the games are simply mediocre: Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Fight Club, Catwoman, any number of Disney platformers for the SNES and Genesis. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s own filmography isn’t safe from mediocrity: The Godfather and Bram Stoker’s Dracula were each underwhelming titles in their own ways.
In taking into account why so many movie adaptations are mediocre, one can often see that it’s because these games try to fit into familiar videogame molds instead of forming their own. For instance, The Godfather was a Grand Theft Auto clone. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an action-platformer, not exactly the way to craft the erotic dreamscape that the film tried to be. Instead of experimenting with modes of play, these adaptations often seem to consider themselves tangential to the “main” experience of the source material. They don’t care so much about innovation or making themselves stand out in their own right. Adaptations are often lazy, an excuse to cash-in on marketable material. Well, thankfully that’s exactly what the developers of Apocalypse Now: The Game are trying to avoid.
Horror and Moral Terror Are Your Friends
Directed by Montgomery Markland, executive produced by Lawrence Liberty and written by Rob Auten, Apocalypse Now: The Game advertises itself as “an immersive, psychedelic horror RPG”. Seems like it will have more in common with Pathologic and S.T.A.L.K.E.R than Call of Duty. Imagine an Uncharted where Nathan Drake takes a minute to let the amount of people he’s killed sink in and copes by snorting amphetamines. Or Far Cry 3 except the story is actually good.
As other writers have already explored, Apocalypse Now is already an influential presence in videogames without having a straight-up adaptation. Which begs the question, what does this source have to say that will be better understood in as an interactive experience? The developers claim that one of the ambitions of the game is to bring the Apocalypse Now experience to a new generation. But we, uh, are still capable of watching movies from the 1970s. Regardless, it is high time for more games about the horrors of war, so perhaps this is where it will find its greatest strength.
Beyond Timid Lying Morality
The clearest parallel to Apocalypse Now thematically is Spec Ops: The Line, a disturbing psychodrama dissection of war shooters in the guise of a standard modern shooter. Spec Ops: The Line tackles the oppressive moral grays of war with something close to fervency, constantly throwing you into difficult situations without clearly good or bad outcomes, your player-character becoming increasingly disturbed and ridden with post-traumatic stress. It has a great deal in common with Apocalypse Now but for its setting. While it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing to see a retread of the themes dealt with the Spec Ops: The Line, the unique context of the Vietnam War of Apocalypse Now may create a more grounded and historical approach to said themes.
Now Spec Ops: The Line wasn’t an adaptation of anything. It dealt very much with videogames as a medium in particular, much to its benefit. Apocalypse Now: The Game should also understand that it’s a game first and an adaptation of a movie second. War is handled in interesting ways in videogames: It’s turned into sport. Many games simplify the experience of war and combat in general, in the process of turning it into an interactive and competitive experience. Games like Spec Ops: The Line try to muddy the waters, but it’s a hard pattern to break. The developers of Apocalypse Now: The Game need to keep in mind the unique relationship videogames have with war and adapt the film accordingly. Again, videogames don’t give a 1:1 translation of their source material. And videogames themselves as a medium communicate their themes and narrative differently than movies. There is room for cinematic experiences in Apocalypse Now: The Game, but it can’t be just a movie with game elements slapped onto it. It will have a fine line to walk in making sure it maintains and equilibrium between its source and its medium.
The team is made up of the “creators, designers, directors, writers and producers of Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher, Neverwinter Nights 2, Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Everquest, DC Universe Online, PlanetSide, PlanetSide 2, Star Wars Galaxies and many more classic games”, so one can gain a general idea of the direction Apocalypse Now: The Game is heading in. The campaign’s reason for existing, “because the traditional game publisher system won’t let this happen”, bodes well for its promise to be unlike the straight-up war shooter it may have been in an earlier generation.
The range of WRPGs listed above suggests that Apocalypse Now: The Game will have branching paths, moral alignments, factions and a complex, sprawling plot. It may work. It may also feel like a Fallout game with a Vietnam War filter. It’s too soon to tell, and though films adapted as WRPGs are rare, Apocalypse Now: The Game strictly as WRPG feels strange. We feel its influence across many genres and it only seems fitting to be a hybrid accordingly. The open world of Far Cry 3, the complex plot of a WRPG, the exciting action of an Uncharted game, the self-aware mechanics and themes of Spec Ops: The Line. In a way, we’ve already made Apocalypse Now: The Game in pieces. The question now is whether it works in its entirety.