[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.

(more…)

There is a song by Sheldon Harnick called “The Merry Minuet”, often performed by The Kingston Trio.  It is very cynical, darkly-humorous in a Tom Lehrer-esque sort of way.  It includes the lines: “They’re rioting in Africa/There’s strife in Iran/What Nature doesn’t do to us/Will be done by our fellow Man”

I found myself thinking of this often while playing the 2008 video game Far Cry 2.  It should have been its epigraph.

It is very dark, nihilistic game.  I played it after reading people compare the excellent Spec Ops: The Line to it.  Both are influenced by the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  Far Cry 2 is set in an African country in the middle of a civil war.  The player assumes the “Marlow” (or more accurately, “Willard” from Apocalypse Now)  role, and is sent to kill an arms dealer named “the Jackal”.

The Jackal is, of course, in the “Kurtz” role, and he wastes no time in showing up to recite some Nietzsche at the incapacitated player.  This is followed by a lot of (to quote the ESRB rating) “Blood, Drug References, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes [and] Strong Language”.   Then the Jackal shows up again and explains that his plan is to end the violence.  And his chosen method for ending the violence is to kill everyone.

This is only slightly less ridiculous than the Catalyst’s scheme in Mass Effect 3, but for some reason Far Cry 2 didn’t generate near as much outcry. Critics have lauded it for its commentary on the nihilistic violence of video games. The violence of Far Cry is so meaningless… it really makes you think, y’know?

Except that, unlike Spec Ops, it really has nothing to say about nihilistic violence in games, except that it’s there.  Just like it’s in all the violent games it’s supposedly a commentary upon.  I wouldn’t have even thought it was making any sort of commentary, except that critics claimed it was.

conspiracy-keanu games

The point of the game, I guess, is that war is pointless and stupid.  Which I guess is often true, although surely not as stupid as all this.  The factions will often give the player a quest in a scene that goes something like this:

Oh, hey there, complete stranger—would you mind going to the other side of the country and blowing up the hospital?  Our enemies are giving out free malaria vaccines there, and we don’t want people to think they are nicer than we are.  What’s that? You have malaria too? Wow, small world.  Well, here’s your C4.  Off ya go!

And you have to do it if you want to progress in the game!  The box says you can play it your way, but that is not really the case—you have to play it the Jackal’s way; and frankly, he’s not very good at video games.

Pretensions aside, the game is a mindless shooting gallery with pretty scenery.  The most “influence” Conrad could really be said to have over this game is the African setting and the mentality of “Exterminate the Brutes”.