As the rebooted Planet of the Apes movies march on – the most recent blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes having released just a couple months ago – they’ve received universal praise for the digital effects work and the motion captured acting prowess of the phenomenal Andy Serkis. Thankfully, considering the rocky track record of movie tie ins, the accompanying game that’s set to be released later this year looks like a fascinating foray into interactive storytelling.
Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier came about through almost pure happenstance and good fortune, as Martin Alltimes, Head of The Imaginati Studio explained to us. Inspired by Heavy Rain, he planned to set up a game studio centre around digital distribution, and “I happened to tell someone who was an agent that I was interested in doing this crazy thing, and he said, ‘Well actually, I represent Andy Serkis and his company Imaginarium. Andy’s been in video games and he’s really interested in video games, so why don’t you have a conversation with him?’
“So I got on a plane to go and see Imagnarium and pitched them this slightly insane idea, and to cut a long story short, it wasn’t that straight forward because they’re a film company. [laughs] They were looking at me like this was interesting, but why would they do this? The thing is that Andy has obviously been involved in video games and is such a proponent of motion capture, so they didn’t dismiss me out of hand and allowed me to convince them that it made sense [to collaborate].”
The game splinters off from the film series roughly a year after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second of the three, as a family of apes look to find peace and solitude away from the raging war in the Rocky Mountains. However, it doesn’t take long before they’re forced to venture closer to human territory in search of food, and heading into conflict as a consequence.
Describing it as interactive storytelling is apt, as it takes the style of graphic adventure that Telltale Games popularised even further than before. You’re completely bound to the narrative that the game wants to tell to the point that you’re not controlling the characters movements, but merely injecting your own thoughts and personality through two way decision points and the occasional staccato moments of action, which make for their own binary act or don’t act decisions.
Last Frontier an unexpected game because of it, and some might scoff at the notion of such an uninteractive form of the medium, and yet it’s through this pared down and minimalist approach that the game can potentially reach as broad an audience as possible.
“The first thing we decided to do was to remove direct control or navigation. The reason why we did that was two fold, really: If you look at what these games are about, the core mechanic is choices that have the consequences for the outcome. You start to say, ‘well, why do I need to move around then?’ In Heavy Rain and Until Dawn, there’s a mystery, so it’s legitimised as finding clues, but if you don’t have that and you remove the navigation, you suddenly have a really simple interface. […]
“Part of the inspiration for that was my partner. She loved Heavy Rain, but she couldn’t play it, so she would sit there and watch me being engaged in the story, but could never do it herself. So I just thought wouldn’t it be great if I could make it so she could play the game? And then from that, what would be even better is if we could play it together.”
Last Frontier is a game that you can play this game with up to four people, sharing the burden of each decision to be made in a democratic fashion. Though the game is coming out for Xbox One and PC as well, you won’t need four controllers in order to play the game on PS4, thanks to Sony’s recently introduced PlayLink system. It uses a smartphone or tablet as a screen input, in this case allowing for the simple inputs at decision points and during action scenes.
What’s important here, as with so many other graphic adventures, is that many of the choices are morally ambiguous and difficult to choose between, especially if there’s the potential for real peril – “Creatively, what you want to be able to do is kill off characters,” Martin said. “If you have a game where the main character cannot die, that’s just not as interesting.” Even in our brief play time with Martin, there were numerous occasions where we disagreed with one another on the path to take, causing us to discuss back and forth a little over the course of action that we should actually take, so that we could break the impasse.
“There are good humans and bad humans, good apes and bad apes, and the reason why people behave badly is legitimised. They’re not simply bad people, so Koba [from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes] who is a bad ape has been victimised and mistreated by humans his whole life. The reason why he doesn’t trust humans or believe what they’re doing is understandable. Similarly, human kind has had 90% of the population wiped out, so in the film they’re scared and afraid when they see these apes, but they also need power and electricity because they can’t survive.”
It’s for this reason that you get to see both sides of the story in this game and play as both humans and apes. There’s bound to be an interesting give and take here, as you make one set of decisions with one camp, only to see the repercussions for the other and have to try and deal with it from a different perspective. “Hopefully you empathise and understand that these things aren’t quite so simple,” Martin said. “Therefore, we have an ending where the humans win, where the apes win, where they find peace and several other endings depending on who lives and dies. It just presents a much more interesting narrative arc.”
For the apes in the first short section I played, it was the older human hating brother Tola arguing that they needed to steal a cow, much to the distress of Juno, the youngest brother with a congenital deformity. As the middle brother, it’s up to you to argue and decide whether to go for it and whether to try and take a stealthy approach or attack outright. A much more difficult and troubling segment from later in the game surrounded the torture of an ape by the humans, with you deciding just how far to push things, while not truly knowing the limits.
Playing with others, you can force the issue. If you ardently believe in one particular direction and cannot persuade the other players to change their stance, then you can use a limited number of vetos to decide for the group. It’s there as a kind of social lubricant to keep things moving, but it also opens up a way to explore different endings, even if playing with others.
Martin said, “I like lots of endings, but apparently I’m quite unique in that I will play these 10-15 hour games three times, where as that’s apparently not normal. So we decided to deal with another problem and reduce the length of a game to the length of a movie so that it becomes like an interactive movie.”
That, at its core is what will make Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier interesting to some people and a turn off to others. Personally, I really quite like the idea and see how it can push the genre in a slightly different direction, or at least remove the facade of meaningful player choice and interaction that some games give you. There’s also the much more social side to the game that intrigues me, and with a length that won’t outstay its welcome, it feels like Last Frontier could be a perfect gateway for gaming novices.