There's an 'Apocalypse Now' Game Coming – But Haven't We Already Had One?

There's an 'Apocalypse Now' Game Coming – But Haven't We Already Had One?


'Spec Ops: The Line' was published in 2012 and came close to capturing the visceral madness of the classic war movie

'Spec Ops: The Line' was published in 2012 and came close to capturing the visceral madness of the classic war movie

In his book, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle Of The Gulf War And Other Battles, Anthony Swofford writes about watching war films while stationed in Iraq. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now – he understands that these films are ostensibly anti-war, but explains that as far as he and his fellow Marines are concerned, all war films are actually a celebration. "Filmic images of death and carnage," he writes, "are pornography for the military man."

This is worth pondering in light of the news that Apocalypse Now is likely to become a video game, to be translated into a medium that makes military men of us all. If you like video games and Apocalypse Now, this news is like taking part in a short, surprising thought experiment. Take me: I like games. I'd go so far as to say I believe in them – they can be transportive and beautiful. But they are also often about the pleasures of movement and violence for their own sake, and I’m almost certain that they do not have the nuance or interpretive capability to take Francis Ford Coppola’s film and turn it into anything other than a handful of bullets tossed into a campfire. It’s a strange feeling, to love a medium and be so conscious of its limitations. "These are two of my favorite things," I am saying, "and don’t you dare put them together."

Except they already have been put together.

The Apocalypse Now announcement will likely trigger a round of speculation about how Coppola's film can best be adapted for interactivity, but one game has already done the job about as well as it’s likely to be done. Spec Ops: The Line was released in 2012, a reboot of an old series with which it shares little save some guns and a name. Set in a ruined Dubai drowning in storm-swelled sand, The Line features a small Delta Force team investigating the failed evacuation of civilians from the deserted city, and - in layered homage to both Apocalypse Now and its source novella, Heart Of Darkness - the search for a military commander called Konrad, whose intercepted radio transmissions suggest methods which have become… unsound.

Aside from these nods and parallels, The Line delivers on the sense of Apocalypse Now – perhaps not perfectly or exactly, but in a way that hits the major notes of accelerating madness and the vast, inhuman technological resources made available for the suspension of civilization. In retaining something of the film’s structure – the obsessive pursuit of an elusive, mirrored figure – the game also echoes the film as a journey into self. It is faithful to Apocalypse Now in a shapeless way built on shared images and ideology that a game actually called Apocalypse Now, with all the baggage and box-ticking that would entail, might not manage to be.

It's also a bit rubbish, in places. The Line's music isn't written by Hans Zimmer, and for that we should be grateful, but it also does little more than ape the films its makers must have watched over and over – Deep Purple and repurposed Mogwai offering the same rock 'n' roll juxtapositions as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Verdi standing in for Apocalypse Now's Wagner. And the psychological fluctuations suffered by Captain Walker – our character in the game, and both its protagonist and antagonist – is a familiar trick of games as diverse as Silent Hill and Ratchet & Clank, more gimmick than damning revelation.

Perhaps most importantly, the game's shooting borders on the unenjoyable. This is crucial not just for the obvious reason that The Line is a game about shooting, but because it brings us back to the issue of war-as-entertainment, to the enjoyability of war films or games which are designed to demonstrate that war itself is something other than enjoyable. The Line answers the question "How do you make a good anti-war shooter?" although it’s hard to tell if it does it on purpose. Maybe you do it by making the shooting bad. Or maybe the shooting just turns out bad – blocky and bland, repetitive and rote - and it reinforces a philosophical point you hoped to make. The gun play never takes off, never becomes more than the sequential killing of other men, and the issue of condemning something eminently pleasurable never quite arises.

Interestingly there were plans for an Apocalypse Now game a few years ago, which wrestled with exactly this problem. Rob Auten, the writer on that project, survives to this one, and it’s likely his co-writer back then was Tom Bissell, who has spoken about working on a shooter set within "an inglorious American war" which would have featured a kind of anti-shooting. "One idea that came up was to completely remove any kind of feedback loop when shooting," he said. "By that I mean you wouldn't have any idea whether or not your shots were hitting their targets.” Would this have been fun? Perhaps it would have been meaningful, and who knows if they are the same thing.

The things that The Line does undoubtedly well tend to be things of originality and odd defiance. While the game features shooting which is not so much bad as inarticulate, it also features bad guys who are mostly American, and maybe not bad. The Line was developed during the height of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a post-9/11 world characterized by a suspicion of Islam and a vague, poisonous sense of antagonism towards the Middle East. And yet here is a game set in the Middle East in which you exclusively do battle with your own side. When easy xenophobia was powering everything from Battlefield to Call Of Duty to a rebooted Medal Of Honor, The Line rejected the slick erasure of so many Middle Eastern generics in order to concentrate on the bordering-on-unenjoyable killing of dozens of your own. This is war inspected at such proximity that the enemy is always out of view, as it is in Apocalypse Now.

Speaking of views, The Line's use of Dubai is the game's other enduring triumph. In a geographically imprecise sense, these are the sands on which a generation of Americans fought their wars, in the same way Apocalypse Now features the jungle in which an earlier generation fought theirs. The Line takes the brute force imposition of Dubai, a lavish city willed into existence against the best wishes of planet Earth by undignified amounts of money, and makes vast, dramatic backdrops out of its imagined destruction. It’s hard not to see parallels between the gleaming, trillion-dollar oasis standing impossibly against the desert, and the enormous, unnatural displacement of men and machines necessitated by war. There’s a violence to them both, these follies of man, and The Line folds one back on top of the other to build a location that feels like a constant revelation.

These are flashes of brilliance instead of the sustained quality you'd demand from a game you could recommend unequivocally, that you could describe as a classic. Spec Ops: The Line is not a classic, but it is fascinating and unique. What else should we expect from a game so intent on reflecting Apocalypse Now’s evocation of war's lucid insanity? There is something conflicted and ill at ease at its core, some switch continually being flicked between pro- and anti-war, a flawed and fluctuating sense of what the game is, and what it has to say. It is a shooter. It might not be fun. And that might be okay.