How did one of the most successful anti-war movies of all time become a computer game? We dig into the story of Platoon.
“The first casualty of war is innocence”, read the tagline to Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie Platoon. The director’s personal experiences serving in Vietnam shaped the film’s anti-war message. He had originally written a screenplay called Break, intending it to be backed by the music of The Doors with singer Jim Morrison playing a lead role. Stone’s next script, called The Platoon, was to have been filmed with Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet – but without studio interest, Stone was hired to write the screenplay for Midnight Express instead.
After the success of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, producer Dino de Laurentiis saw the script (renamed Platoon) finally found a way to give it the go ahead in 1985. Cast and crew arrived in The Philippines just two days after President Ferdinand Marcos had fled. The actors underwent a gruelling 30-day jungle training camp before filming, digging foxholes, carrying out patrols and even simulated ambushes with blank ammunition and explosive special effects. Filming went ahead – in chronological order – with a modest budget of $6 million.
Grossing over $138 million at the US box office, Platoon picked up four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. “Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War”.
And then it became a computer game.
Film buff Gary Bracey had joined legendary computer game publishers Ocean as Software Director in 1985, and he used the role to work on several licensed games. This included the Sylvester Stallone film Cobra, which you can read about here. Gary was aware that Oliver Stone was a hot property and Platoon could be a lucrative license. Contacting Orion Pictures, Gary was given access to still photos from the set and the finished script.
There was time pressure on the game, thanks to another idea of Gary’s. The VHS release of Platoon in the spring of 1987 was the perfect time to launch the game, and so viewers of the video would see a short advert promoting Ocean’s computer take on the movie, while the loading screens of the home computer versions would promote the VHS release. And there was more than just the game in its large box. A second audio cassette contained ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, a song from the movie soundtrack that also appeared in the film’s trailer. The original game release also contained a poster of the cast and a still photo from the film.
So how do you turn a blood-soaked 15-rated film about a rookie soldier in Vietnam – Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen – into a computer game? Likewise, this was also taking a Vietnam War story and trying to turn it into a piece of gaming entertainment.
The responsibility fell to artist Simon Butler, part of Ocean’s in-house team. He attended a private screening of the film organised by Orion Pictures in London, and left with that very question in his mind. Simon’s response was to create a storyboard containing elements of the film and an early form of design document. Contributing to the ideas and brainstorming were Gary Bracey himself and Simon’s flatmate Mark R Jones, a fellow artist at Ocean.
This was one of the first Ocean games to take scenes from a film and break them down into separate sections with different gameplay approaches. It was a template that worked well for the company over the next few years. Simon acted as producer, overseeing the in-house development of the main Commodore 64 version to follow his storyboards. Choice Software in Northern Ireland carried out the conversion work.
Programmer Sean Pearce remembers an epic 72-hour effort (what the modern games industry would call “crunch”) to produce the master tapes for ZX Spectrum and Amstrad, with Gary watching over his shoulder. Choice subsequently created Amiga and Atari ST versions.
The first section of the game was the jungle, with the patrol making its way towards a village. Enemy soldiers lay in wait, rushing in from the screen edges or popping out of trapdoors. Also hidden around the jungle screens were tripwires, drawing directly from a dramatic sequence in the film. The player was controlling the whole patrol one soldier at a time, and could switch between them using a menu.
Each soldier had a separate ammunition count (bullets and grenades, the latter for destroying trapdoors and tripwires) and could take four wounds before being killed – but the tripwire explosion killed outright. Dead enemies occasionally dropped first aid kits to heal a wound, and extra ammunition. The player also had to find explosives to place on a bridge and blow it up. Losing a patrol member in the first section was carried over to later levels, as were any wounds sustained.
Another factor was the Morale meter. Shown onscreen as a decreasing bar, its inspiration was how Taylor adapted to the madness around him. As patrol members got injured and died, morale dropped. Shooting innocent villagers by mistake made morale drop even quicker. Run out of Morale and the game ended, or when you lost all five soldiers.
Hidden in the village was the entrance to the underground tunnels – searching the huts revealed a torch and the tunnel map. The tunnels were based on the real network of underground passages and chambers the Viet Cong dug under Vietnam, allowing troops and supplies to move around. The tunnel sequence in the film was very short, with Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe) exploring them, but in the game it became a significantly large level. If the player had not found the map in the jungle section, then it would not be displayed until the player found one, and entering the tunnels without the torch made it harder to see.
Tunnels were viewed from a first-person perspective, but the technology did not allow for the smooth 3D seen in modern games. Instead movement was in ‘steps’, with the player rotating the view at junctions. Reflecting real-life conditions, the tunnels were permanently flooded with water. Enemies appeared in the distance and at junctions, and must be shot by moving a gun sight over them before they wound the player. Making the player jump was the occasional soldier hiding under the water, leaping up to stab them if they did not react quickly enough.
This jump-scare was the suggestion of Mark, based on his memories of playing 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81.
Located around the tunnels were a series of rooms. Here the player could pick up extra equipment (including ammunition and first aid kits), plus the important compass and flare gun for later. One room had the tunnel map on the wall to be collected; another contained a radio and secret documents. Some rooms were occupied, and the player must be quick on the draw when they woke up a sleeping soldier. The final task was to find the exit.
Next was the night attack sequence. In the film the patrol occupied a defensive position, and a flare was fired to spotlight the encroaching enemy. In the game the player had multiple flares to fire off – provided they had picked up extra flares from the tunnels. The enemy gave themselves away by muzzle flash in the darkness once a flare burnt out, but the player must return fire quickly once an enemy was spotted or they would suffer more wounds.
The final part of the film saw a napalm strike called in that saves Taylor from the crazed Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). In the game this became a race against time, with Barnes hiding in the safety of a bunker. The player made their way through a complicated maze of screens filled with mines, barbed wire and enemies, helped by the compass if they have picked it up. Barnes must be blown up with grenades before the napalm hits.
There was no interpretation of the moving ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber, but the game soundtrack contained a series of atmospheric tunes by Jonathan Dunn. These were written for the Commodore 64 and then converted to other formats. While most versions had a static picture or text at the game’s completion, the later NES version published by Sunsoft emulated the film’s ending to include a short sequence of Taylor flying off in a helicopter and saluting.
Ocean returned to the Vietnam War with its 16-bit game The Lost Patrol, known internally for a while as “Platoon 2”.
This built on the theme of controlling a whole patrol of soldiers and was much closer in design to the Cinemaware games. The good relationship between Gary Bracey and Orion Pictures – and high sales of the Platoon computer game – led to Ocean buying the rights for another Orion film. That became the massive hit RoboCop. Gary’s access to film sets would even lead to him appearing as a monster – wearing prosthetics – in horror film Nightbreed, based on Clive Barker’s novel Cabal.
In 2002 a new PC strategy game called Platoon, also licensed from the film, was released but it received poor reviews. The original Platoon game remains a significant gaming milestone, though, and received good reviews, even if it did not completely put across Oliver Stone’s anti-war message…
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