So, Apocalypse Now is getting a videogame. It’s being made with the cooperation of director Francis Ford Coppola and his film studio, American Zoetrope, with veteran gaming industry talent, and it’s raising money now on Kickstarter. This raises a lot of questions, but the most important might be, Um, why?
Look, I love Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s embattled war epic takes Joseph Conrad’s moralistic fable and gives it depth and resonance. As a meditation on the horrors of the Vietnam War in particular and human cruelty in general, it’s paradoxically both sprawling and precise. As a film, Apocalypse Now still has a lot to offer 40 years later. But it’s unclear what, if anything, it has to offer videogames.
It’s a problem of precedent. Apocalypse Now, after all, has already been massively influential on gaming, and all war-related media in general. Its aesthetics–the wide, humid wilderness of Coppola’s funhouse vision of Vietnam, rife with shadows and death–have filtered into the background of gaming, from Far Cry 3?s Pacific jungle island of evil (the politics of which were, uh, questionable) to more direct translations in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Far Cry 3 even features a helicopter assault scene set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
It’s not just the look or sound of Apocalypse Now, either. Its thematic preoccupation with the morality of violence and the human capacity for sadism is absolutely everywhere in gaming. Since so many videogames use simulated violence as a primary means of interaction, meditating on the ethics of that violence is a natural step as writers want to tell smarter stories. That step has been taken a lot, so much so that any attempt to do so now just comes off as cliche.
Then there’s Spec Ops: The Line. Developed by German studio Yager Development and published by 2k Games. This 2012 shooter is a very direct adaptation of Apocalypse Now, modifying its setting and structure to fit the medium the same way Coppola’s film modifies Heart of Darkness. It’s set in Dubai, substituting apocalyptic sandstorms for the claustrophobia of Vietnam’s jungle, commenting on the War on Terror and American interventionism in place of the film’s Cold War politics. With sharp, aggressive writing and a design entirely bent around its theme of moral descent, Spec Ops: The Line works hard to adapt the ideas of Apocalypse Now into an interactive medium. It’s not perfect, dabbling a bit too much in blatant didactics for its own good, but it’s largely successful in its goals of making the outline of a Heart of Darkness story function in a videogame.
So, do we really need an Apocalypse Now videogame? I’m not opposed to adaptation, and creators are certainly welcome to make whatever they feel they need to make. But it’s difficult to imagine what a direct adaptation of the film would add to the medium. Anyone who has ever studied poetry (bear with me) understands the concept of a “dead metaphor.” It’s a metaphor that has lost its original meaning, through age or, more frequently, overuse. Use a piece of figurative language too much, and it stops having any deeper meaning. It just refers to itself. It can happen to stories, too. Told too often, their elements pulled apart and used in other stories, a narrative can lose its vitality and get lost in familiarity and self-referentiality. Retelling that sort of story doesn’t do much. It just adds to the noise.
What do you do when a story dies? The same thing you do when you find yourself using a dead metaphor: You find something else to say.