Even though the Planet of the Apes brand has been around since 1963, there’s never been a video game—until now.
Andy Serkis, who directed the performance capture of Ninja Theory’s 2007 game Heavenly Sword and 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, in addition to starring in games such as Risen, Volume and Squadron 42, has helped change that. His company, The Imaginarium Studios, has entered the video game industry through a partnership with FoxNext Games and indie developer Imaginati Studios. Their first game, Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, based on the latest movie franchise—where a sentient chimpanzee named Caesar (voiced by Serkis) leads a growing society of intelligent apes while humans face extinction—launches this fall across PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
“This is very closely linked tonally to the movies,” Serkis told AListDaily. “It’s of the same universe, but it’s a parallel story, so it’s not the same characters as the films. It’s not Caesar and his followers. It’s a separate group of apes who are trying to survive and a separate group of humans who are trying to do the same. Timewise, it’s happening concurrently to the world of the movies between Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, but in a different place, and they’re going through their own versions of what Caesar and his tribe are going through.”
Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is a narrative adventure game that can be played by up to four people. Rather than directly control the on-screen action, the choice-based gameplay allows players to make decisions by voting.
“The team at Imaginati Studios carried the role of this franchise,” Serkis said. “It was a great responsibility to be tasked with and given permission to make the game. They had to really reach that high level, but in their tests, they really proved that the look of it and the feel of it was going to live up to the world of the movies. So, as much as I could, I imparted information and was around for a little while to consult. But on the whole, they’ve run with it creatively, and what they’ve done and achieved is pretty remarkable.”
The game has been created using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology. Former Quantic Dreams developer Steve Kniebihly directed the game’s performance capture, which was used to bring both the apes and the humans to life.
“You can get such incredibly detailed, nuanced performances now with Unreal and with performance capture technology,” Serkis explained. “With the marriage of those two, you can really see a phenomenal amount of detail and emotional engagement with the characters and the texturing of all the fur.”
Serkis worked with Martin Alltimes, founder of Imaginati Studios, at the very beginning of the development process three years ago to prove that Unreal could support the quality of performance capture needed to replicate the level of details fans have come to expect in the Apes film franchise. Although he’s not in the game, his early performance capture tests led to the developer’s streaming technology application that brought the game to life.
“When I came back from doing King Kong, I was approached to direct the performance capture for Heavenly Sword for Ninja Theory, and it was the most incredible confluence of ideas and timing because I had come back from there thinking that I really want to further the art and craft of the performance capture technology, and bring actors and writers and directors together to create stuff,” Serkis said. “So, to sort of land in this video game world was amazing. Video games are now getting really good screenwriters to come in and write great scripts and they need great performances. With Heavenly Sword, we treated it exactly like a film shoot. We auditioned lots of actors, not because they had any experience in this world, but because they were great actors.”
The founding of The Imaginarium Studios came from Serkis’ early game development experience. After casting the Heavenly Sword game, he realized that there was nowhere in the UK that he could shoot full-on performance capture, so everyone had to fly to New Zealand to work with Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta on their first video game project.
“That’s when I came back and decided that this was an amazing experience, but we really do have to have a UK-based performance capture studio because the cameras were made in Oxford, the software is made in Cambridge, and we had to travel 12,000 miles across the world to make this game,” Serkis said.
Now things have come full circle, with Serkis directly involved in the game development business and he’s putting his movie experience to work. Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier used an extensive casting process was identical to Fox’s films. There was even an Apes bootcamp that Serkis set up, replicating the experience he and the other performance capture actors went through for the big screen adventures to get a better understanding of how apes behave.
“It’s not a million miles away from creating movies,” Serkis explained. “There’s a production process that’s slightly different, but certainly when you’re working with performance capture and actors and all of that, the shoot is identical. Publishing the game is in The Imaginati’s bag, and that’s what we’ve entrusted them to pull off. But in terms of actually bringing this story to the world, it’s the same as creating a movie, as far as I can see.”
Serkis hopes this new game is the beginning of a digital franchise, which is something Telltale Games has been able to do well with Hollywood IP over the years.
“I absolutely adore this franchise because it’s the perfect metaphor for us as human beings,” Serkis said. “Apes are 97 percent genetically the same as us, but that 3 percent difference and how they look so totally different allows us to see ourselves through fresh eyes—through a different prism. I was always blown away by the films, and I love that for each generation—this franchise is now 50 years old since the original 1968 Planet of the Apes movie—they’ve changed the social commentary. They’ve always been really ‘on the money’ about what they’re talking about. This can continue into the world of games, and that’s why this moral choice-based game is such a brilliant 21st century evolution of the storytelling.”