Ape Out Review: Harmony from Dissonance
“A gorilla evades captivity to a free jazz soundtrack” may sound like a cacophonous experience, but this game hits all the right notes.
Ape Out is one of a very few games that speaks the language of videogames with perfect fluency. It’s the rare experience that harmonizes all of the disparate elements that make up a videogame and pushes them all toward the same goal. If you’re watching a video of the game or looking at screenshots, Ape Out may appear overly abstract or experimental. If you’ve heard a reductive description like “it’s Harambe meets Buddy Rich,” you may consider it a novelty. But don’t be fooled. Like all great videogames, this work only reveals itself once you’re controlling it. And when you do, you’ll find a confident and arresting experience that expresses the spirit of a frantic escape with perfect clarity.
As the title subtly implies, Ape Out is about a gorilla trying to break loose of captivity. You play as the titular ape and must blindly navigate your way through labyrinthine levels to get to safety while encountering enemies set on killing you with rifles, shotguns, explosives, and more. You can attack these enemies by flinging them across the room (a move that also kills them if they collide with a wall or another enemy) or you can grab the enemies to use them as a human shield or to reposition them before flinging them in a different direction.
The action is scored with a lively jazz drums soundtrack that responds to your actions. When you fling an enemy and they hit a wall, the soundtrack responds with a cymbal crash. If you grab an enemy (which causes you to move more slowly) the background beat gets softer for a moment. If you die, the song crashes and resolves with a simple outro before falling silent.
All of this is brought to life visually with a bold yet simple cut paper art style that sort of resembles a Matisse made from construction paper. The background is a constantly changing texture with walls that are a darker solid color, while the characters are simple, bright, angular two-dimensional shapes. The colors of this world shift occasionally to highlight a change in mood, for instance an alarm blaring in an early level changes the background from a cool dark blue to a hot bright red.
This all may seem like a strange mashup — Rampage meets a Miles Davis record meets a Matisse cut out — but it works because although each element is stylistically unique, they all contribute to the same overall goal of creating the feeling of a chaotic, desperate escape. The free jazz inspired drums give a feeling of unpredictability, but the cymbal crashes on the attacks create a sense of loose control amidst the chaos. The simplistic art style aids in identifying enemies, but it also perfectly reflects the stark tunnel vision a creature fighting to survive would have. Most remarkably, the sprawling, semi-procedurally generated levels create confusion, but they also force you to improvise — to dive in and make it up as you go along — just as a jazz musician does.
This level of cohesion is an especially rare feat in the medium of videogames. Having to master the subtleties of so many different artistic elements means that something in a game — be it music, visuals, sound, whatever — usually ends up getting short shrift. But Ape Out proves that if you’re extremely mindful of the elements you include (and, just as importantly, exclude — note that there’s no dialogue and very little text in this game) and you give each of those elements precise, laser-like attention and you consider how those elements play off of each other when mixing them, you can makes something that conveys an emotion that can’t be put into words. I can try to describe that emotion as “the spirit of a chaotic escape” or “the desperate improvisation of a cornered beast,” but words don’t do it justice.
One of my definitions of art is “the communication of the incommunicable.” Ape Out is a simple, arguably silly example of that definition, but it’s an example that’s crystal clear nonetheless.