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Apocalypse Now won’t be a shooter

It’s a journey

Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now
American Zoetrope

It endured a set-destroying typhoon, payroll theft, one lead actor suffering a heart attack and the other so overweight it changed the ending, but somehow Apocalypse Now went on to become what some believe to be one of the greatest films of our time.

And now Francis Ford Coppola wants to turn his creation into a video game.

But why?

Even after talking to those involved in development, the answer isn’t exactly clear, though the process of turning the anti-war war movie into a game — already nearly eight years in the making — is stumbling its way through its own sorts of adversity and lengthy development.

I was surprised to find that the game concept started out not as a pitch from game developers, but when Francis Ford Coppola’s son Roman reached out to noted game writer Rob Auten for some advice.

“I was in Hollywood and the phone rang,” Auten told me recently. “It was Roman and he said ‘We are interested in turning Apocalypse Now into a game.’

“After I picked my jaw and the phone up from the floor, I said ‘OK, that’s interesting.’”

It was early 2009 and games like Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Fallout 3 were proving the power and potential of games as story-telling devices. Those games also gave Auten hope in the potential of turning the nuanced film into a meaningful game.

The concept for the game is a fascinating one.

The movie, based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, tells the story of war and of Vietnam both of which serve as a backdrop to the main character’s journey down a river into the heart of darkness and toward a man who comes to represent the inherit evil and insanity of war. At its most superficial level, the movie is about CIA operative Captain Benjamin Willard being sent into the jungle to find and kill Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has gone rogue and is commanding a unit of Montagnard soldiers who see him as a god.

The map of Apocalypse Now
Erebus LLC

The game, Auten tells me, will explore that same story, but lean heavily on the interactivity and reactivity of video games to deliver a more personal view of Coppola’s hell.

“The most interesting element of the story is the evolution of the relationship between the characters as they move down that river,” said Auten, who is the writer for the game. “We want a game that is as deep as it is narrow. Players will have the ability to get out of the boat, have interactions.

“A lot of games are about the acquisition of stuff. Apocalypse Now is about the acquisition of relationships.”

Most importantly, the things Willard does will impact both how the characters on the Navy PBR treat him and, ultimately, what Willard faces in Kurtz when they finally arrive at his encampment.

“I’m excited about having the ability for Kurtz to be the culmination of your personality,” Auten said. “He will talk to you and treat you based on your decisions, whether he should know what they were or not.”

In 2010, a team of developers built a working prototype of the game using CryEngine technology, but misfortune sidelined the game sending it into “stasis,” said Lawrence Liberty, the game’s executive producer whose previous work includes Fallout: New Vegas. The team struggled to find funding and in 2013 decided to recreate the entire prototype in the Unreal Engine. Working with a skeleton crew, Liberty said, it took two years to get the game into its current re-pitchable state.

Apocalypse Now tone video

It may be surprising to learn that the game still doesn’t have a publisher or a budget. Instead, the developers and Coppola’s American Zoetrope film studio are asking for $900,000 in funding through Kickstarter to deliver the game in 2020.

That’s because, Auten said, all of the publishers they went to either turned them down or asked for the game to be something very different than what they envisioned.

While it’s set in a war and there will be gunplay, the team says they don’t want to make a first-person shooter. Instead they want to create a game that will be more about exploration and interaction. A game that Liberty describes as survival-horror with a dash of role-playing. That’s, Auten said, what will separate it from 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line, a video game that draws heavily from Heart of Darkness to deliver a bleak look at war in the Middle East.

Games like the award-winning Gone Home, sometimes derided as a “walking simulator,” helped to validate the team’s ideas that navigating a limited environment — in that case someone’s childhood home — can still deliver a lot of meaningful choices and a powerful story.

“People are used to being presented with giant, huge decisions in games,” Auten said. “We are ideally tracking subtleties.

“If we can track those values and fill out content and that enables us to have characters feel different about you, then that’s being true to what the game and the film aspire to.”

But why a game when the film, so perfectly created, already exists?

Liberty seems to have the best answer to that question.

“It’s a fantastic challenge,” he tells me when I ask. “But also something that I think at its heart can be a fantastic game.”

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.

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