Specopalypse Now: A Transmedia Journey into the Heart of Darkness

Warning: extremely long and spoiler-ridden.

Intro: Yesterday I spent 11 straight hours watching Apocalypse Now and playing through Spec Ops: The Line for the first times. I wanted to compare the transgenerational, transmedia adaptations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to understand both how film and game choose to depict similar themes, while also taking note of how those themes are adapted to fit different societal issues and situations. I ate a large breakfast immediately prior to playing, and then essentially remained immobile for the duration of my journey in order to generate anxiety as the time wore on. I logged my experience periodically as I reached important moments, and I’ve made virtually no changes to the entries so as to best convey my states at each point. These were written hastily, so any questions I would be happy to answer.

10 A.M. I’ve done little more than research Heart of Darkness to begin my experiment. I’ve read the plot synopsis in order to understand the baseline from which the film and game are working, though I haven’t read the original novella. I intend to begin first by viewing Apocalypse Now, the “Redux” version, and then by playing through 8 hours straight of Spec Ops: The Line. I will pause only to use the bathroom and drink water. I am interested mostly in examining the choices of themes to have been emphasized by the Vietnam-era film in comparison to the post-9/11 game, as well as how the different media affect how the story is told. This is not a scientific experiment. I am going to report entirely on my subjective feelings and opinions at various break points throughout the day, and try to make comparisons as best I can between the two works. My analysis will be relatively infantile and will not be based off of any extended research into the works; rather I will be dealing mostly in what I personally find striking at an initial, face-value. I’m feeling anxious about this. I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to hold myself particularly reliably to consistently staying interested in these works, and I’m already feeling pretty compelled to just give up. Oh well time for the next 11 hours.

2 P.M. Finished Apocalypse Now. I watched the film knowing that this would be a comparison to video games, and the biggest thing I noticed was the level of control. The camera angles were tightly controlled in the most powerful scenes in conjunction with the lighting. Specifically, during a scene near the end of the film when Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando first meet, the characters are shown with their eyes in either the light or shadow. The film carries throughout a theme contrasting light and darkness, in this case reflecting the souls of the individual characters. By the time Martin Sheen kills Marlon Brando, his character is surrounded almost completely by darkness all the time. During a battle scene earlier in the film, the characters are trapped in a makeshift trench while one blindly fires at an enemy. The camera is kept low. You cannot see anything over the wall, yet one of the soldiers continues to fire despite being limited to the same perspective as the camera. A soldier wielding a grenade launcher is called over, who kills the defiant North Vietnamese soldier using only the sounds of his screams. The light and darkness theme is central to the savagery vs. civilization theme of the film.

Look with your special eyes
Colonel Kurtz’s eyes are depicted in shadow, even when he is illuminated with the same light as Capt. Willard.
Marlon Brando you're really fat.
Captain Willard’s eyes are illuminated when he first meets Kurtz, though they are more often thrown into shadow as he is kept Kurtz’s prisoner.

The version I watched included a ~45 minute section near the end where the main characters come upon a generations-old French plantation still populated by its owners. It is a jarring imposition of “civilization” taking place directly after the death of a teenage protagonist and a disturbing scene involving Playboy bunnies abandoned with soldiers for weeks. The characters bring Martin Sheen to dinner, where they discuss politics and the folly of American foreign policy while he simply stares at them. As the soldiers make their journey upriver, murder, rape and greed all become actionable possibilities in their eyes. However, these seemed to me to be presented as failings of society, rather than the jungle turning “civilized” men into “savages”. The brutality in the film is largely committed by the Western soldiers, either by Kurtz or by Willard’s men (Or the soldiers that they encounter on their journey). Kurtz rationalizes his behavior as the only way to win the war that America has started, the only way for their objectives to be achieved. This strikes me as pretty different from much of the recent media critical of war, and I am interested to see how Spec Ops takes this and turns it around.

3:10 P.M. I’m currently playing through the opening stages of the game. I haven’t completed the intro, but I do have some things I want to take note of. First, the menu screen of the game consists of a guitar version of the American National Anthem being played over loudspeakers to a destroyed Dubai, similar to the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now. The game opens with a helicopter crash in a sandstorm before going back in time to the arrival of our player characters, on foot, to the highway outskirts of Dubai. They’ve come at the behest of the Kurtz character, John Konrad, after a distress signal was received. He had been silent for months after vowing to stay and help evacuate Dubai from the sandstorm. We’ve come to rescue him. Our characters find some Farsi-speaking (presumably) locals who are immediately hostile to the characters after learning that they are friendly to the missing battalion. After a firefight, the game prompts the player to execute a knocked down opponent. This is done by stomping on his neck, breaking it. There is nothing said about this moment, it’s just another kill.

3:57 P.M. While chasing down a soldier that the hostiles had taken, my squad started fighting inside of a hotel. There was a radio playing inside, and a DJ interrupted Deep Purple’s “Hush” to announce that “the cease-fire” was called off, and that any “insurgents” who wanted to surrender should report to the nearest military outpost for processing. Seems to be a martial law situation. I was chasing down a CIA agent who appeared to be leading the “insurgents” against the Army battalion. Caught up to him forcefully interrogating a soldier, who managed to kill the CIA agent after I distracted him. The soldier thought we were with the CIA and escaped. He found his unit, and they attacked us immediately after he convinced them that we were with the CIA.

4:30 P.M. There’s been a pretty noticeable shift in the behavior of my squad. Initially, we gave significant amount of leeway to everybody we found. We’d announce our presence, say we wanted to help. However, lately we’ve only extended any courtesy to unarmed people. I just had an encounter where we walked up behind two guys on a balcony, sharing gum and talking about how beautiful the city was. I had no option to talk to them, only listen to their conversation. Of course I waited for as long as possible, and then at the end one of them says he needs to go upstairs (Where we were). I popped out from behind my cover and immediately he announces my presence. I wound up dying in the ensuing firefight and restarted back where I was before. This time I killed the two soldiers while they were still talking about gum, allowing myself to move past them unannounced. I was treated to another conversation about the overall status of the forces. I’m finding it interesting that my character has not only quickly moved to shot first tactics, but the game is actually encouraging me to kill everybody I come across.

5:00 P.M. I’ve been under the impression that I’m getting shot at by everybody because nobody knows who I am. However I have heard some battle chatter by enemy soldiers shouting about “Delta Force”, so it sounds like they know who I am. My squad encountered several hallways piled up with dozens of bodies lining the walls, as well as some clear soldiers who had been executed against an American flag. There apparently was a schism amongst the soldiers, making the total number of factions here 4. Eventually I get caught in a trap meant for another CIA operative, where the guy that my squad thinks is leading the enemies, “Radioman”, explains via intercom that he’s going to kill me because he doesn’t know who I am. Said CIA agent then saves my team. Once I escape, the first thing the squad is greeted to is dozens of Army corpses strung up from lamp posts, which they date as earlier than when the CIA arrived, meaning that the “insurgents” that the CIA has recruited were already at war. The area was covered in revolutionary language.

5:45 P.M. The game just gave me a moral choice between saving the CIA Operator who just saved me or saving a couple of thankless, faceless civilians. I chose the civilians after a short scene where each of my squadmates wanted me to pick each option. This led to a bit of a scuffle between them. That CIA guy is never going to see his family again. His body’s going to be buried by the sands of time and be mummified for thousands of years. The civilians’ families were probably already dead. Jesus. Slightly before this scene I and my squadmates had to fight through a cloud of white phosphorous as civilians all around us were burning alive on the inside and out. The first thing the game made me do afterwards was use a white phosphorous mortar myself on an entire company of soldiers. Then walk through them as they burned alive.

5:50 P.M. They were good guys. These are children. Oh my God.

6:15 P.M. I’m not even sure if I deserve to win this game. I don’t know what winning means. I was just forced to choose between killing a civilian who stole water or killing the soldier who arrested him. I killed the soldier. Where are the good options?

6:50 P.M. So the CIA agent I’m teaming up with right now (since he isn’t trying to kill me) is having us steal these two water trucks that presumably hold all of the water in the city. I guess it’s because if the army doesn’t have them, then they’ll fall apart. All of the civilians running after us crying don’t seem to agree with this strategy.

7:15 P.M. I may be misremembering, but I’m pretty sure that as this game has gone on my main character has gotten substantially more angry in his battle chatter. I think he started with just standard “Target Down!” kind of stuff, whereas now he straight up screams things like “Got the fucker!” That’s a nice attention to detail. Oh and we were stealing the water and Konrad blew up the water trucks, so no more water for this entire desert city. The CIA guy got hurt. I shot him in the head. I’ve also pistol whipped a guy we were interrogating and am now going to kill Radioman. So we can tell people it’s time to evacuate. Somehow. Our justification for wanting to kill Konrad is “He’s trying to kill us”, while I’ve killed over a thousand other human beings so far.

9:11 P.M. I finished the game. I reached the end. Everybody is dead because of me. Because I needed to be a hero. This game is about death breeding death. In Call of Duty, you win by killing the bad guys. In this game, there are no bad guys. Everyone’s a bad guy. You get to the end and you realize you’re the worst person here. There’s a twist ending and I’m not even mad. War is Hell. That’s where Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops: The Line are the same. Nobody is a good guy. Apocalypse Now is about the futility of war, about the paradox of a “civil” war. Spec Ops is about the futility of death savings lives. Apocalypse Now says you have to cross the line. Spec Ops asks you where the line even is. What’s ok? Is it worth it to find out? Apocalypse Now was written in not only a post-Vietnam era, but also a post-World War II era. The “glory” of World War II was still strong in peoples’ minds. They didn’t see war as bad, simply the Vietnam War. Spec Ops is much further removed from World War II, and as such it questions so much more. We want to bring civilization to the world. We want everybody to live in their own New York City. But we’re willing to kill their families, to kill our friends, to make it happen. Where is The Line? Do you feel like a hero yet?


Next Day: So I’ve had some time away from this experience, and I’m feeling like I’m able to actually discuss some of the more technical aspects that were involved here. Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops: The Line are aesthetically difficult to compare because they go for two different visions. The film is tightly controlled, with motifs and themes expressed not only through narrative, but its visuals as well. The light and darkness aspects are dominant, and a limited perspective is used in many situations to try to demonstrate to the viewer how difficult life in war can be. Spec Ops adds a degree of criticism of shooter video games as well, and as such borrows much of its color pallet and visuals from games like Battlefield 2 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare‘s desert environments.

I like my deserts like I like my color pallet: monotonous, boring and dry.
Spec Ops provides the player with a generic shooter art style and uninteresting color pallet.

It generally gives a straightforward, “stereotypical video game” aesthetic, drastically enhancing its commentary on what exactly video games demand from and encourage in the player. Much of its power comes from being played by gamers, by evoking generic experiences and applying unique consequences. Where Apocalypse Now tried to show the horrors of society by placing characters in a desperate situation, Spec Ops: The Line just puts you into a regular situation and keeps demanding you reflect on yourself.

  3 comments for “Specopalypse Now: A Transmedia Journey into the Heart of Darkness

  1. Dylan Tibert
    February 28, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I’m rarely ever interested in first person shooters, but now you’ve got me itching to play Spec Ops simply to be able to better explore these conscience-tearing options. Having read the original Heart of Darkness novella a while back, I’m picking up on some really interesting parallels between the European colonialism present in Heart of Darkness and the American “world police” presence in Spec Ops. The game adds much to the commentary of losing one’s inhibitions in the absence of one’s native social regulations, except from what I’ve read in your article this is added mainly through the experience of the player, who is presumably the Marlowe character. While Konrad, the Kurtz character, seems to be similarly lost in his own melting inhibitions, just as he was in the original Heart of Darkness, I want to see for myself if the game forces you to watch Marlowe descend through ultimately gruesome choices or if it allows you to have Marlowe resist the maddening descent similarly to how he managed to scrape by in the novella.

    Either way, it sounds like this game experiments wonderfully with player agency as well as mixing up the notion that a shooter game needs to be packed heavily with the patriotic ideals that might be easier (and certainly more comfortable) for the average American player to immerse themselves in.

  2. Allison
    February 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    With so many interpretations of Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness and Spec Ops, from movies to video games, and Ben you mentioned the novella for Heart of Darkness, I am curious to know which experience within the plotlines is richest? Was one way of rendering the story more cathartic than another? I wonder if different things would be conveyed by say reading the novella at the exclusion of the game or movie, vice versa.

    • bharris
      February 28, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      It really depends on you. Both Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops are not only reflections on human nature, but also their forms of media. Spec Ops is very much more powerful if you play a lot of modern warfare video games in your free time, like Battlefield or Call of Duty, to the point where I don’t think you’d feel it as much if you aren’t a big fan of those games. Apocalypse Now is a lot more general; you don’t need to have seen The Green Berets or Tora Tora Tora! to understand or feel the impact of the story, but it’s still very much a film adaptation. I’d recommend starting with the original novella, that would probably be the most universal place to start.

Comments are closed.