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Does Francis Ford Coppola Know Video Games?

Even if it’s a disaster, Coppola’s involvement in adapting Apocalypse Now is a uniquely interesting case study.
By  · Published on January 31st, 2017

Even if it’s a disaster, Coppola’s involvement in adapting Apocalypse Now is a uniquely interesting case study.

Francis Ford Coppola’s private film studio American Zoetrope is partnering with a crack team of game industry veterans to adapt Apocalypse Now into a crowdfunded role playing game.

Should it reach its goal of $900, 000, the project will present players with an interactive recreation of the 1979 film, where they will play as the drunk and marginally sane Captain Benjamin Willard (played in the film by the drunk and marginally sane Martin Sheen), who has been tasked with assassinating the renegade Colonel Kurtz. While some new content will be available, we’re told that core gameplay will center around the original film, and will focus on adapting its stealth, horror, and survival elements.

Pictured: stealth, horror, and survival elements.
While you’d be forgiven for thinking a big budget, slow paced, art house meditation on America’s involvement in Vietnam isn’t the stuff video games are made of, Coppolla’s 1979 film has in fact already had a marked influence on the gaming industry. In addition to its aesthetic impact on games like Black Ops and Far Cry 3, Apocalypse Now’s thematic attention to the human capacity for cruelty permeates much of modern gaming, itself rife with simulated violence, to the degree that in-game “[meditations] on the ethics of that violence [can] come off as cliché.”

An oft, and rightfully, cited exception is 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line, a faithful if spiritual, adaptation of both Apocalypse Now and its own source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Not only does Spec Ops update Coppola’s critique of American interventionism through its criticism of the War on Terror ‐ but it uses the particularities of its medium to do so: delving into the moral descent of the player’s character, and the player themselves, through level design, mechanics, and genre expectations. For example, Spec Ops’ intentionally banal combat ‐ obvious spawn points, a clunky cover system, temperamental aim-assist ‐ give the player a sense of the uncanny, an uneasy discomfort that bleeds into the disconnect the PTSD-suffering player character feels. This dissociative play is the player’s first clue that something is off. The result of Spec Ops’ use of its medium as metaphor is a damning indictment of assenting thoughtlessly to violence ‐ a bluntly put and well executed critique that holds deafening resonance for gamers.

“Do you feel like a hero yet?” ‐ ha ha no.
In light of Spec Ops’ success and the inevitable comparisons it will draw, it’s worth asking what a literal video game adaption of Apocalypse Now could offer. It’s a concern that surfaces in the Kickstarter’s comment section, and has yet to be clearly addressed by the game’s developers. What would retelling that story bring to the table to justify deliberately retreading old ground in an interactive medium?

Arguably: Coppola.

There is precedent for accomplished film directors making successful forays into video game storytelling: James Gunn did with Lollypop Chainsaw, Steven Spielberg was originally involved in Medal of Honor franchise and John Carpenter was on board for Fear 3. But there are very few examples of directors adapting their own past movies (Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and The Wachowskis’ The Path of Neo are two rare exceptions). And even rarer are big-name directors like Coppola, adapting their films without the creative limitations of a publisher ‐ as far as I know he is the first. In his Kickstarter video, Coppola explains:

At the time of its release I wanted Apocalypse Now to be an immersive movie [and] since then I’ve been watching video games grow into a powerful, meaningful way to tell stories…I learned quickly that the major game publishers have modelled themselves after the big Hollywood studios, in that they’re driven to make risk-free, formulaic, tent-pole projects that fit easily into a specific genre. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that these companies weren’t ready to take on Apocalypse Now in the way we wanted to make it.

The video game publishers American Zoetrope approached wanted the game to be a first person shooter, or be designed for the mobile game market, but Coppola, as ever, opted to pursue his own vision and forgo compromise (and possibly financial returns). In this way, what Coppola’s project offers, and what I think makes it fascinating, is a unique case study in cross-medium translation: a filmmaker adapting their own property from one form of storytelling to another without studio meddling.

I’m interested to see if and how Coppola and the people he chooses to work with faithfully adapt his source material while making the necessary transformation: from passive to interactive, from audience to player focused, from using a linear narrative to an open one. It will be fascinating to see what video game storytelling elements Coppola and his designers will use to enrich the story of Apocalypse Now. Time and time again, film adaptions of video games fail to translate their source’s stories to the big screen (to be fair, the same can be said of video game adaptions of film). And while the ambition on display in the Kickstarter is undoubtedly worrisome, I want to believe that Coppola’s project will see the light of day and succeed. And hey, even if it’s green-lit and disappoints, it will offer an informative coroner’s report on hubris.

Or perhaps, more optimistically, the project will prove that it’s less a question of rival storytelling mediums being incompatible then one of believing in and genuinely caring for the integrity of your story’s vision.

The game is projected to launch in 2020, with early access available in 2019 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the film’s original release. Check out the Kickstarter pitch:

 

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).