The other night I had the pleasure of getting both Rob Auten, the writer of the Apocalypse Now video game project, and Montgomery Markland, the adaptation's game director, to chat a bit about their current passion project. You may know Auten from his work on Battlefield: Hardline and Gears of War: Judgement. Montgomery Markland, on the other hand, used to work at Obsidian Entertainment. If you want a bit of a background on the project, you can see our two previous posts for a quick catch-up, or check out the Kickstarter campaign.
Straight off the bat, I decided to go with the question many of us have been asking, "if this game has been in development for eight years, why start a crowdfunding campaign now?"
According to Markland, when the idea was pitched to Francis Ford Coppola eight years ago, "we knew we wanted to make something that felt like an authentic take on the movie. When Mr. Coppola made Apocalypse Now he financed the movie himself so he has exclusive rights to making any adaptations of the movie." Which puts this game in the unique position of not needing a large publisher to get rights to the film, since those are owned privately by Coppola himself. Markland continued, saying "we want to continue in that tradition" by getting fans to finance the project themselves, rather than leave it up to some executive who "may have never seen Apocalypse Now at all." Essentially, this game will live or die at the hands of gamers everywhere. I wonder though, at their insistence that the game can't be published by an AAA publisher. Markland was quick to say "I could never sell a game where the protagonist fires his weapon twice to Activision or Ubisoft" which is probably a fair assessment given the lineup of Activision and Ubisoft projects all tend to be pretty action-heavy. But there are other publishers Apocalypse Now would fit well with. That said, there's always something nice about doing a thing your own way.
Although the idea of making an Apocalypse Now video game is around 8 years old, Markland assured me that all of the prototype footage and campaign art has been made within the last year. The previous years of work on the game were mostly of everyone involved trying to agree on how the game should play out. "We took years deciding how to do it and what way to do it, and in that time, huge parts of the gaming industry no longer exist."
Markland then compared the game to the script for Dallas Buyers Club, which was finally produced a full 17 years after the script was first written.
When it came time to describe what exactly we will be getting from an Apocalypse Now game, Markland was very firm on insisting that the game would be "authentic and accurate" to the film, but still "give players control," which almost all of the most enduring games do, intentionally or otherwise. "That is in keeping with Mr. Coppola's work as a director, he trusts his audience to follow along with him."
The design team, including Markland and Auten, have decided to make Apocalypse Now into a single-player survival horror game, which "makes you more vulnerable, creates more stress, and becomes rough in places" which requires that gamers be invested in the story enough to stick around through the stress and the horror, the horror.
The go-to games that the Apocalypse Now team wanted to use as inspiration were quite easy to guess. Silent Hill for combat avoidance, Planescape: Torment and Fallout which fell outside the confines of traditional gameplay, where you can get through the game how you want to. "We won't offer as much freedom as Fallout does," Markland said, "but we will offer a tremendous amount of player agency given what they do moment to moment." If you decide to shoot everyone or talk to your crew, if you get to the end point of finding Kurtz with most of your crew in tact or none? Players will even get to decide if they want to kill Kurtz or not and how they go about doing so. They could talk to him first or go the traditional route and take him out with a machete.
Markland and Auten wanted to stress that they wouldn't be penalizing players for extra kills, as they want the game to be rather authentic, but they would reward players for avoiding confrontation much like Willard does in the film (he only fires his gun twice and takes Kurtz out with a machete, other than that, he's a bit of a pacificst for an American soldier in Vietnam). "You are travelling through a war zone, there's danger and unpredictability, but how you get to the end, that's your choice."
As much of the action takes place along a river, the game won't be "Open World" but "Open River" where you can wander as you please around checkpoints along the river as your progress through the story. "It must be authentic to the movie, or its not worth doing," seemed to be the team motto here.'
In terms of plot, most of your version of Captain Willard's story will be determined by interaction with the non-hostiles in your environment, mostly centering around the crew of your boat. But also how you deal with Colonel Kurtz. He is, in some way, a vision of Willard's future, and Auten was keen to remind me that the story of the Fisher King will be as relevant in the game as it is in the film. So maybe we all better brush up on our Arthurian legends before playing?
Markland's take was that "Everone has their own war, everyone has their own river to travel up… we are all on our way to meet our Kurtz." So, maybe that'll save us some reading, right?
I asked Auten to explain a bit more about how that pitch meeting went with Coppola. As you may have seen floating around on the internet, the idea for an Apocalypse Now game originated with Francis Ford Coppola and his son Roman, who reached out to Rob Auten in the first place. "They wanted to make an Apocalypse Now game for some time and felt that games had finally reached the right place for that to happen," Auten recalled.
Markland stepped in to mention that much of the development team had actually met years before on a shelved project for Obsidian called Aliens Crucible which was an Aliens universe take on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness which was served as the backbone for Apocalypse Now. In many ways, Apocalypse Now the Game is the spiritual successor to that unmade Aliens game.
When asked for a few words to fans, Auten said "We will make this game great or we will die trying," which is a pretty solid statement of devotion from a team that's been working on this project in some fashion for almost a decade. Let's hope they can live up to it.
The prototype footage Markland spoke of is below: