The line separating movies and games has grown increasingly thin over the past decade. The generation of filmmakers that grew up on gaming have incorporated visual cues and stylistic techniques from the medium, and some games can offer a more satisfying, dynamic narrative experience than the average summer blockbuster. But perhaps nothing has tried to so literally combine the two as Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, which is out now on the PlayStation 4.
Set before Matt Reeve’s War for the Planet of the Apes, the game follows two interconnected narratives. On one hand, a group of intelligent apes grapple with the growing conflict between themselves and humanity (and the internal power struggles that result). On the human side, a mother tries to lead her small community, and protect her son, while navigating the moral complexities of a world in which there are no clear choices between right and wrong.
The narrative conceit perfectly evokes the films, but the gaming element is where things get intriguing. Last Frontier takes an even more cinematic approach than the works of Telltales Games, the studio behind interactive takes on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Over the course of the game’s three- to four-hour run time, there are no puzzles to solve or levels to explore. Instead, the interactive focus is almost entirely on making key decisions that shape how the story unfolds. When you match this concept with the motion-capture and performance work intrinsic to the Apes films, the result is something that is part movie, part game, and part proof of concept.
So, of course, we had one of The Verge’s games critics and one of our film critics sit down to discuss what worked, and what didn’t, in Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier.
A matter of expectations
Bryan Bishop: I came to Last Frontier primarily as someone who has enjoyed the Planet of the Apes film franchise. I’ve played various Telltale titles, and when it comes to gaming, I generally find myself drawn toward titles like Beyond: Two Souls, or even the Uncharted franchise — experiences that are very clearly trying to evoke the same feeling one gets while watching a film.
But Last Frontier is definitely something a little bit different. Developed by The Imaginarium, the production company founded by Apes star Andy Serkis, and released by FoxNext, this isn’t just a game that feels vaguely cinematic. It’s an experience with a story that I thought could have actually worked as a traditional film (and in certain moments, may have even been better if it had been one). But the big question comes down to whether the game’s creators have come up with something that feels like it combines movies and games into something somewhat new. I think that answer has to be yes. What was your initial reaction, Andrew?
Andrew Webster: I went into Lost Frontier hoping for a more extreme version of the Telltale formula. Those games have always felt like interactive TV shows mashed together with classic point-and-click adventure games, complete with lots of fiddly puzzles to solve. But the interesting parts were always the choices: determining who lived or died in The Walking Dead, or deciding how Bruce Wayne should act in Batman.
Lost Frontier feels like a step toward that long-sought-after goal of making a playable movie. It just doesn’t quite go far enough for me. Most of your time is split between watching the story unfold, and making choices for various characters that can change the story. Some story and design issues aside, those aspects are great. But the developers also stuffed in a handful of game mechanics, particularly during the action sequences, so that you have to act quickly in order to shoot an attacking ape or put out a fire after an attack.
The problem is these kinds of mechanics alter how you experience the story. At times, I’d sit back to enjoy a particularly tense scene, only to be thrust unexpectedly into a pretty uninteresting action sequence. The two sides just never seemed to fully blend together. How did you get on with the more game-y elements?
The pacing problem
BB: I thought they were fine unto themselves. When I actually felt like I was in the head of the lead ape, Bryn, I instinctually wanted to jump in and take part in the sequences. Similarly, deciding to not take action — this story toys with shades-of-gray questions about whether to commit violence or not — was challenging, but in a way that I thought evoked what the character would have been feeling. There are several moments in this game where it would be much easier to opt for the violent solution to a problem, and the frustration of holding back worked really well for me.
But you’re also hitting upon something that didn’t: pacing. The first half of the game is filled with opportunities to interact. Deciding how to respond in a conversation, or choosing whether to search for food on a mountain that’s safe for the apes, or go down to the plains where they run the risk of encountering people; there are choices everywhere. But the second half of the game seems to ditch that almost entirely. There are long stretches where I was just leaning back, watching this real-time movie unfold. When I say that Last Frontier could have worked as a standalone movie, I really mean it. And at times, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how it had initially been conceived.
Properly setting expectations is a really important element that this game doesn’t really get right. If I’m expecting to jump in every few minutes and that’s what happens, I’m engaged. It it doesn’t, as an audience member I get frustrated and start to tune out. I had similar concerns about the way in which the game randomly switches between actionable characters. For the bulk of things, you’re playing as either Bryn, a principled ape, or Jess Ross, a woman leading a small town. But every so often — usually in the midst of an action scene — the game will somewhat randomly give you the opportunity to make choices on behalf of a totally different character. Did this bug you at all?
AW: Yeah, this happens a number of times, and it gets confusing because the game never clearly communicates that a switch has happened. One minute you’re a human escaping an attack, the next you’re the ape in pursuit. It’s jarring, and I often made a choice I didn’t intend because of the confusion.
It’s one of a handful of strange design decisions that holds the experience back, which is frustrating, because for the most part I enjoyed what the game was trying to do. I found myself connecting with both of the leads, Jess and Bryn, and I played the whole thing in one sitting because I just had to know what happened at the end. There’s also an irresistible layer of tension that doesn’t exist in film; it’s a lot more stressful when you have to make the important decisions yourself, as opposed to just watching Byrn do whatever he thinks is best for the tribe. Last Frontier does a good job at not making any one choice the clear and obvious “correct” option, and I genuinely struggled with deciding the best course of action during many scenes.
Unfortunately, moral dilemmas weren’t the only thing I had to fight against in the game. Lost Frontier also suffers from a myriad of technical issues: textures that pop in at the last minute, jittery transitions that cut off the introductory moments of scenes, and, in at least one insistence for me, my PS4 actually crashed just as I made a pivotal decision.
It seems that every time I really started to enjoy the game, something — a weird pacing issue, a jarring technical hiccup — would get in the way. Was I just unlucky, or did you hit these technical snags, too?
The problem with multiple perspectives
BB: I experienced them as well — and I think we may have had the exact same crash, when making a rather harrowing choice next to some train tracks. (Nothing says “immersion” like steeling yourself to actually kill somebody… only to be dumped to your console’s error report screen.) I also saw the same problems with texture pop-in. Sometimes an ape would start a screen looking like some terrifying, talking blob of plastic, only to be fully realized moments later — though it should be said that when they’re working, both the apes and humans are really well-done in this game.
I’m generally pretty forgiving about this kind of thing, but the fact that Last Frontier is banking on its cinematic feel made it hard to overlook in this case. It would ruin War for the Planet of the Apes if Caesar looked like a talking wax doll at the top of every scene, and I found myself expecting the same level of seamlessness when playing the game.
There was another thing that I found myself bothered by regularly, but this is actually a testament to how well the game works overall, rather than being a simple gripe. It goes back to the narrative structure Last Frontier employs. As we discussed earlier, there are parallel ape and human storylines, with the game cross-cutting between the two. It’s how things largely work in the films, and it goes give the game’s writers the opportunity to explore both sides of the conflict.
But when dealing with a narrative adventure like this one, forming a bond with the character you’re controlling is vital. I didn’t just want to choose between this phrase or that; I wanted to emotionally identify with the struggles, so that when something didn’t go as expected, I felt it on a gut level. I wanted to be invested — and cross-cutting between two stories worked against this. It was almost as if I felt perpetually unable to identify with either character, because as soon as I was drawn into one storyline, the game would inevitably cut away.
This isn’t a problem in films because we never have agency in movies. We’re just watching things happen. In games, there’s a different dynamic. I had a similar issue with Star Wars Battlefront II’s single-player campaign every time it would cut away from the story of Iden Versio. I found myself wanting a story that would allow for me the opportunity to take on a single role for the entire running time, giving the story more of a chance to make an impact.
Agency as a way to inspire emotional investment is a fascinating thing, and I’ve really been affected by it in immersive theater and alternate reality games. I’m eager to see what games like this can do when they really embrace that concept, because there’s so much potential here.
AW: I agree. The execution of Last Frontier is far from perfect, but the potential is so interesting that it’s worth checking out. The aspects that don’t work — the pacing, the bolted-on gameplay, the technical problems — aren’t so much an issue with the concept as with this game in particular. Fix those, and you could end up with something really special.