Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is an entirely choice-based game. There are no real heroes or villains among the humans and apes you play as, and no right or wrong paths to take towards the conclusion of this choose your own adventure. Atypical of storytelling games, though, there's a multiplayer element that's almost meta. Not only do you have to resolve conflicts within the game, you also have to do it within your own living room, debating, persuading and occasionally forcing other players to accept your point of view to move the narrative forward.
The origin story of Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is one of fortuitous timing. Former VP of Disney Interactive Martin Alltimes had planned to leave his post with the goal of setting up a nimbler, independent studio focused on narrative-driven games. Andy Serkis' The Imaginarium, a production company specializing in motion capture, had finished work on Ryse: Son of Rome and thought an in-house video game arm would be a sensible expansion. A few pitches later and The Imaginati Studios was born, with Alltimes at the helm and a license from 20th Century Fox in hand.
The game is set between the events of the last two movies in the rebooted franchise. It follows a shrewdness of apes that left San Francisco after their chosen leader, Koba, was defeated by protagonist Caesar (the climax of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Fearing reprisal, they journeyed hundreds of miles to the Rocky Mountains to start their own community, arriving in spring. We join the story as winter is setting in and food is scarce, forcing the apes to come into contact with a human compound occupied by mid-western farmer types that are themselves most concerned with quiet survival.
Both camps have similarly messy internal dynamics, and it's your job to decide how those take shape and, ultimately, how interactions between the groups play out. On the side of the apes, you assume the role of Bryn, one of three sons of troupe leader Kahn. On either side of him, you have the aggressive and warmongering Tola, and the fearful Juno, who has a genetic deformity that makes other apes see him as weak and expendable.
This simpler, high school-esque hierarchy is in contrast with the more political power struggle looming over the human camp. Jess' status as leader is vulnerable, since she inherited the title from her late husband. She's a relatively diplomatic member of the group, and must contend with more pragmatic views and manage the aggressive nature of trigger-happy, ape-hunter types.
By playing as both races, you are encouraged to empathize with each side, making no decision truly black or white. And Last Frontier is all about decisions. It's more like an interactive movie in that respect, as choosing what road the story takes is the sole gameplay mechanic. When Last Frontier is released later this year (no firm launch details as yet), it'll be priced to reflect that. I'm told around the $20-25 mark -- somewhere in between the cost of a cinema ticket and triple-A title.
Alltimes was inspired to go all-in on the storytelling side of things by some of his favorite games, such as Until Dawn, Life Is Strangeand particularly, Heavy Rain. "I thought what they did at Quantic Dream was really groundbreaking. They took a big risk. They put storytelling front and center, they didn't rely on traditional game mechanics," he said.
Setting a narrative game in the Planet of the Apes universe felt like a good fit. The Imaginarium already had a long relationship with 20th Century Fox, the technology to capture lifelike and emotionally engaging performances for the game, and it was an easy way for investors to understand how that expertise could be leveraged by an in-house development team. Importantly for Alltimes, though, it's a compelling storyline.
"[Planet of the Apes] gave me a great basis for a choice-based game because it meant I could have legitimately interesting endings. So you've got this morally ambiguous universe where both sides of the story have good and bad sides to them and where there are legitimate reasons to their behavior -- because bottom line, they're both trying to survive."
Keen for Last Frontier not to appear as merchandise, the game includes an all-new cast of characters and isn't timed to coincide with anything from the film franchise. And by doing the exact opposite of sticking an ape on a horse, handing it a machine gun and turning into an action game, Alltimes hopes it'll be judged on its own merit. Making you play as both sides of the conflict and toying with your loyalties is also key. "Otherwise, there's no tension. There's no drama."
The sheer simplicity of the game design is precarious, of course. It relies completely on A or B decisions, mostly guiding the narrative but occasionally a real-time action that must be judged upon swiftly. The rest is just watching. Since there's no 'detective' element to the game, The Imaginati felt adding manual character controls, just for the sake of running over to another character to spark an interaction, was unnecessary.
Alltimes hopes this simplicity will broaden the title's appeal beyond the traditional console gamer. The yang to that yin is that there'll also be plenty of pad warriors that'll ignore the title for exactly the same reason, regardless of the price. At some point during the development cycle, The Imaginati realized that the straightforward mechanics presented an interesting opportunity. "If I'm not directly in control of this character, then other people can vote with me, and that's what lead us down the route to multiplayer," Alltimes recalls.
What changes during a multiplayer run is up to four people get to choose the next course of action independently. This part is blind, but when everyone's made a decision, their names appear on-screen next to their preference. Only a unanimous choice will advance the story, unless one of the players spends their override token (my words) to force A or B through. This power-up resets when everyone has assumed the role of dictator once. On PS4, the game works with Sony's PlayLink, meaning players can use their smartphones instead of a pad if there aren't enough to go around. This feature is also very mom-friendly since the choices are mirrored on the smaller screen -- you only need one finger to play, effectively.
Multiplayer doesn't alter the story one bit, but what it promises is as much action taking place off-screen as on-screen, with players debating, persuading and trolling each other with their trump cards to move the story forward. Alltimes calls it "a more intimate experience" that adds a thin layer of strategy to the mix. "You can't underestimate what people bring to it, what their personalities bring to it. You can't plan for that, you can't design for that, it just comes out naturally."
"We can have a social experience around the television that used to be part of console gaming and has now largely gone away with online." That social experience, of course, could mean having a nice time sitting through an interactive movie with your friends. Or it could mean a heavily charged debate that ends with you overriding everyone else and watching them squirm as an orangutan gets beaten half to death with a metal pipe on your orders.
In this way, there's potential for the game to be a case of resolving conflicts between players, and not the apes and humans on the other side of the glass. "Some people are mischievous, some people are very collaborative and sincere, and that changes the dynamic every time you play it." Replayability is something The Imaginati focused on during development. Removing any player-controlled movement keeps the pace consistent, making for a relatively bite-sized two-to-three-hour total playtime.
The upside of this -- as far as the pitch goes, at least -- is that you're more likely to revisit it. There are three main conclusions you can arrive at, with another layer of endings beyond that depending on things like who you've killed along the way, you monster. Whether you'll want to replay the story when your first attempt ended in a family shouting match is another matter entirely, of course.