[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]
About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book. And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.
As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film. And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best. That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.
To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much. It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it. So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo. But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying. And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.
It was never clear to me what the point was. I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers. Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.
Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad. And so he does.
A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin. In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.
(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)
Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.
I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base. While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically. Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base. It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.
(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”. For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)
(Last aside: this post has too many asides. One of them should be removed.)
I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch. The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.
To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz. Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal. Then, in Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did. And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.
Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad. And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!
Just kidding, that’s not the difference.
[I know I already warned you once, but seriously, if you are a gamer who has not played Spec Ops, I strongly encourage you to do so before reading this.]
Spec Ops works because it does something the audience doesn’t expect. In Heart of Darkness, the reader is always waiting to find out “what is the deal with Kurtz?”. In Apocalypse, the viewer is straight-up told what is the deal with Kurtz. In Far Cry 2, the player is straight-up told what the deal is with the Jackal, and the only development is to find out that it is his deal for slightly different reasons than were initially assumed.
Not Spec Ops. Spec Ops tricks the player, saying “you were so obsessed with finding out what the deal was with Konrad that you forgot to think about what the deal was with you!”
As I said this works better because Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now cause you to expect one thing, so then the game is able to shock you by subverting that expectation. But what really sets it apart is its character development. Walker and his men start off as professional, calm, and elite-looking soldiers. by the end, they are broken and savage mad men. If the theme of all four of these stories is the veneer of civilization giving way to barbarism, Spec Ops is the one that most clearly shows it.
My point is, I’ve seen this story in three different forms of media now, and it is one of the video games that handles it best.