Debut developer Imaginati has revealed Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, a standalone cinematic adventure game set between the events of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes. It will be released for PS4, Xbox One and PC this fall.
Published by the new games division of The Imaginarium - the performance capture studio run by Planet of the Apes lead actor Andy Serkis, who executive produces here - the game is even being developed on-site at the company’s historic Ealing Studios headquarters.
Set around a year after Dawn, the game centres around a breakaway faction of apes who take refuge in the Rocky Mountains from the ongoing human-ape war, but are forced to descend into a human-owned valley as Winter draws in and food depletes. The story takes its cue from the films, aiming for a morally ambiguous take on the ensuing conflict, with no black and white decisions or clear heroes and villains. Players will take control of both humans and apes - who, because of the game’s standalone story and cast, can live or die based on your decisions - with multiple endings possible depending on their actions on both sides.
So far, so familiar: but while the game’s focus on choice and consequence in a standalone licensed game is reminiscent of recent adventure games (see: Telltale’s entire oeuvre), the approach it takes is somewhat different.
Following a visit to the studio, Imaginati’s goal for the project is clear - to create a closer intersection between games and films. Aiming for a movie-length runtime (the developers estimate between 2-3 hours, hoping for multiple replays), the player’s input into the game is entirely choice-based, with no exploration sections or puzzles, nor any direct control over characters.
The goal is to instead offer players far more control over and access to the intellectual side of their characters. The mechanical upshot of that decision is that the player’s choices per scene - and the number of ways scenes can diverge as a result - should be much higher. Imaginati’s rule of thumb is for players to be making a choice, whether that’s a conversation or physical action, every 15-20 seconds.
“The pace of the storytelling is just super-intense compared to any of these other games,” explains Imaginati founder Martin Alltimes. “There’s no opening and closing drawers, no searching through inventories. It’s all about you making choices that affect relationships with other characters and, in the long term, how those relationships play out, and how the story plays out. It’s a creative risk, but when we talked to everyone on the team, they really believed in it. It would have been very easy for us to copy what had gone before.”
In visiting the studio, the other benefits that decision offers is already clear. Built in Unreal, the game’s filmic approach - taking camera control away from the player and having director and Quantic Dreams veteran Steve Kniebihly frame every shot - means that processing power can be pushed more heavily into smaller details.
The aim, as Alltimes sees it, is to create a photorealistic final product comparable with the Apes film series. Having played some in-development scenes, the game isn’t quite hitting those heights, although the ape models in particular are impressively well-rendered compared to those of Imaginati’s adventure gaming peers.
The other benefit lies in the fidelity of performance capture - every character is played by a separate mo-capped actor and, with The Imaginarium’s world-class facilities available, as little character motion as possible is being left to traditional game animation to allow for the most realistic look possible. That even applies to action scenes, with a full stunt team brought in to choreograph and perform the game’s more extreme scenes.
It’s an approach that’s apparently fed directly back into the game’s story. Lead ape actor Neil Newbon describes the respective human and ape acting teams as “families”, even saying there was a certain amount of tension when the two groups met in real life for their first shared scenes. Characters, key moments, and even the characteristic sign language used by the apes have been created and fleshed out through performance, not just a writing room - it’s a process much more familiar to movie-making than game development.
“Traditionally in video games, the writer is the last person hired,” says Alltimes. “In our game, they were the first person hired, because all our games are about is storytelling. The roots of what we’ve done is built on the heritage of Quantic Dreams’ or Telltale Games’ products. But we have a very specific angle. I saw the opportunity here was pure, cinematic-style storytelling, rather than traditional console storytelling.”
There have been a lot of games that tout themselves as ‘playable films’, but Last Frontier is making one of the more convincing pitches for that title. Alongside the overt directorial control over scenes and concentration on performance, the developers also want players to focus on their feelings about a situation, not a completionist feedback loop (so don’t expect any Telltale-style statistics or “they’ll remember this” prompts).
Above and beyond anything else, it’s a bold move. As with any new take on an established idea, the creators are clearly expecting to face some resistance:
“From a publisher perspective, we realise we’re taking a risk,” explains Imaginarium head of games, Gina Jackson, “but it fits so well into the way The Imaginarium thinks and the way that we like to tell stories, and the fact that performance is really at the heart of everything we do. We’re really supportive of what Martin’s doing and how he’s trying to push this genre in a different direction. It just makes perfect sense for us.”
“They’ve put a lot of faith in me,” agrees Alltimes. “This is a company whose heart and soul is making movies, but they saw that there was an opportunity to use technology to tell stories in new ways - which is what The Imaginarium’s all about. It’s all about using digital technology to create stories that could never have been told in the way they are.”
It remains to be seen if the finished version of Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier will live up to that billing, but there’s no doubt that it’s a genuinely new approach to the design process - that’s worth celebrating.