Note: Obviously, spoilers abound here. Do not read if you do not want either the game or the film spoiled for you. Also, there’s some bad language near the end.
Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are obvious reference points for Yager, the developers of Spec Ops: The Line. In an interview with Weekend Confirmed, lead designer Cory Davis made overture after overture to both the novella by Joseph Conrad as well as the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece. After playing the game, I went back and watched Apocalypse Now to see how true to that material the game is. Obviously there are key differences between the two mediums (videogaming doesn’t lend itself well toward quiet contemplative moments), but we can look at a few different key parts of the two narratives to compare and contrast them.
Captain Martin Walker (Spec Ops) and Captain Benjamin Willard (Apocalypse Now) start from wildly different places in their respective narratives. Walker appears capable from the start, and his calm, relaxed demeanor inspires trust in his Delta Force squadmates. He’s a fair man, and lets his subordinates speak their mind, but ultimately goes with his gut. He knows John Konrad, the “villain” of the game (we’ll get to this later), and has a reverence for him that is evident throughout the early part of the game. Walker makes the tough decisions but constantly thinks that he’s doing the right thing, even as his world deteriorates around him, spurred on by his mistakenly-ordered White Phosphorus attack of innocent civilians. This action, and the aftermath of it, causes Walker to go into a dissociative state, creating the persona of Konrad that attempts to put a ruleset on his actions in Dubai. He goes from a man looking to evacuate civilians to a man looking for someone to blame for his own atrocities. He latches onto Konrad, and becomes single-minded in his need to make somebody pay for what he’s endured. By the end of the story (no matter which end you see), Walker is broken irreparably, or dead. It’s hard to tell which is worse.
Willard, by contrast, is a lost soul when Apocalypse Now begins. We open with him in a Saigon hotel room, drunk and depressed, already consumed by the horror of what he’s seen in his life as a soldier. He’s presented with a mission to find an eliminate Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has apparently gone rogue and is now a danger to the mission in Vietnam, at least according to his commanders. Willard is quiet and introspective as the journey down the Nung River, often being content to observe the crew on his boat, taking in the surreal scene on the frontlines of the Vietnam war. As the film moves on, Willard seems detached from the whole situation. He’s there in a physical sense only. It’s only when the Chief of the boat pulls over to check on a passing boat full of Vietnamese that Willard makes any scene at all. He’s obviously against stopping his mission by that point (the toll of what he’s seen must be unbearable), and when the routine stop goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of many innocent Vietnamese, Willard finally exerts himself by executing an injured woman in order to not incur any further delays. By the time he reaches Kurtz, it’s hard to tell what’s going through his mind. He’s drawn in by Kurtz, and develops a reverence for him that he didn’t have prior. In the end, he just wants to give Kurtz a proper death. Willard is not fixed by his journey through Vietnam and Cambodia, but he’s changed for the better. His eyes are open. We don’t find out what happens after Willard returns from his mission (if he returns), but I’d bet that he disappears and is never heard from again.
The largest diversion the game takes from either Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness is in its antagonist. In Spec Ops, the John Konrad character is largely a macguffin, offering something for Walker to strive for, without ever actually having any impetus on the story. In fact, the player finds at the very end of the game that Konrad is dead, and has been for a long time, presumably as a result of suicide. You find out that the Konrad that Walker was speaking to from Chapter 9 on is made up in Walker’s mind, his own dissociative attempt to reconcile the choices he’s made during his time in Dubai. Konrad becomes the singular driving force in Walker’s life, and the confrontation is what Walker is desiring more than anything else. In reality, Captain Walker is the antagonist, taking a situation that was screwed up to begin with and making it worse throughout his journey through the game. By the end of the story he has destroyed Dubai as much as he destroyed himself, and there’s nothing left for either him or the city to build on.
In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz morphs from being a macguffin into being a real character. Willard is able to read letters and hear audio recordings of Kurtz, but it isn’t until he meets him that he fully knows what the Colonel is like. For being an obviously insane character, Kurtz makes more sense than pretty much anything else Willard encounters during his journey up the river. He encounters characters such as Kilgore (a certifiable maniac) and the men at the Do Lung bridge, fully in the throes of PTSD, and nobody sees the war with as much clarity as Kurtz. The monologue he delivers over his death (“they tell us not to write ‘fuck’ on our planes because it’s obscene”) is the perfect realization of the insanity of the Military-Industrial complex and the war effort. Kurtz is paranoid and, insane, but he sees war with more clarity than anybody else involved with it. His iconic last words (“The horror, the horror!”) have had their meaning debated since they were written by Joseph Conrad in the original Heart of Darkness novella, but whether you believe that he was referring to the war himself or the atrocities he committed in the name of it, it’s a sobering realization for both the man dying and those left in his wake.
Apocalypse Now, due to its setting, is able to do some things that Spec Ops isn’t, such as showing the experiences of other people during the war, and by giving their perspective, filling in the story at large. The USO scene, as well as the scene at Do Lung Bridge show the soldiers in their full manic desperation, either for the company of someone other than their comrades (at the USO), or for something positive to happen (the bridge). The bridge scene in particular is harrowing, as the last outpost for the Americans is basically hell on earth, with constant fire and death littered around them. The two men Willard meets when trying to find a commanding officer are reminiscent of Walker near the end of Spec Ops, shooting at imaginary enemies that they will never be able to completely kill.
Apocalypse Now is also surreal in ways that Spec Ops isn’t. The Kilgore character in particular is one of the strangest characters ever portrayed in a war story, with his love for surfing and his affinity for Wagner being highlights (if you can call them that) of his quirky, but completely insane, character. Kilgore is sadistic in his attacks on area surrounding Willard’s entrance to the Nung River, yet finds a moment to escort a baby and its mother to safety. It’s bizarre and uncomfortable, and slightly funny in its absurdity. Willard’s boat crew reacts appropriately incredulous at the situation, demonstrating the detachment from reality one endures while being “in the shit.” However, by the end of the movie, previously light-hearted Lance has his face completely covered in war paint, carrying a puppy with him everywhere he goes, dropping acid as soon as the previous high wears off. By the end of their journey, the crew of the boat is as lost in their own minds as Kilgore’s squad is, although they demonstrate it differently.
The nature of Spec Ops: The Line’s setup and gameplay doesn’t lend itself to these character moments, and it changes the game thematically. The Delta Force squad in Spec Ops is constantly a step behind the going-ons in Dubai, and this is the setting that creates the White Phosphorus attack in Chapter 8. By never finding “friendlies,” (even the CIA agents they encounter want to use them for their own nefarious schemes), the 3 members of Walker’s Delta Force unit have to retreat into themselves, especially as their squad bonds are broken down by disagreements and infighting. As they get picked off near the end of the game, the pressure mounts for the remaining members, until just Walker is left, completely lost in a literal and metaphorical sense.
Thematically, both narratives are about the irreconcilable idea of using human beings to kill each other in war. Nobody leaves a war exactly how they entered it, and the things they see and do change them forever. War is, for the troops, an impossible situation. Yet, we continue to send our young men and women into these impossible situations, with poorly thought-out or unclear plans for what happens during and after the war. Generation after generation of our most capable youth are thrown at each other, usually at the behest of politicians (both Republican and Democrat) that are catering to a populace that no longer seems to care.
The horror, indeed.