There’s no real story to be found in Ape Out, at least in the traditional sense. At first glance the top-down viewpoint and stylised visuals present an action game that is one-part Hotline Miami and one-part Planet of the Apes. Where a rather irate primate that you control, escapes from a lab and has no choice but to violently dispatch with any guards or human bystanders - that get in the way. From there the political undertones of the iconic film series, and the era in which the original film was released, can be found in subsequent locations. Ranging from corporate towers to military prisons and even jungle guerrilla (or, gorilla) conflict.
Digging a little deeper though and Ape Out, when viewed as a whole, is as much an interactive jazz experience as it is an action game. Probably more so. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. A series of records where rhythm underpins the on-screen carnage, where bursts of violence and general momentum act as the instrumentation and improvisation that sits on top of the intricate rhythmic and frantic drum score. A saxophone solo here, one involving a guard strapped with grenades hurled towards another aiming their gun to have them both explode. A trumpet phrase over there, represented as a sneak attack on a patrolling human, pushing them into a nearby wall. Splat and cymbal crash.
No matter your stance on jazz as a musical genre, Ape Out is a fantastic representation of how jazz music and musicians working together create harmony and a larger picture seemingly out of chaos. Where rules are thrown out and structure is what you make it. Of course, there’s structure to Ape Out. Linear levels with random layouts and enemy placement bring you one step closer to freedom. The mechanics are simple, one button to grab and another to push or throw. Both working together to create an arrangement of reactionary movement and flow. Even as a straight action game, one that requires skill and precision and combat creativity, Ape Out makes for a fantastic and challenging experience.
That said, the genius of this side of Ape Out comes down to the score and procedural music. Drumming and rhythm that not only changes and grows as more acts of violence take place but drumming that explodes and surprises with force and style. From a visual standpoint Ape Out features art that looks in many ways like many jazz albums from the 1950s and 1960s come to life. Verve and Blue Note, the works of Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Cannonball Adderley. Geometric shapes, clean flat shading, a few colours, figures masked in shadow, realism through popular culture. A hefty dose of film-grain and dirt added, giving off an even more authentic era-specific vibe. The level structure, broken up into musical tracks across multiple two-sided LPs further highlights the aesthetic.
But in Ape Out, it’s more than an aesthetic. A game that would feel incomplete without audio. Without, all that jazz.
Jazz drumming from the bebop era, which introduced more tribal rhythms to jazz music can be found throughout Ape Out’s wonderfully frantic soundtrack. Timing signature changes, drum lines, and music that evolves according to the on-screen action. There’s an interplay between both that harkens back to some of the very best bebop records from the 1950s and 1960s – with all of it a call to action. Having the music stop and slow down to a quiet brush over some cymbals as the action stops, invites you to actively engage and kick-start the next musical flourish. It’s clever in ways that isn’t overly showy and builds into a climax that lives up to the promise of its foundation.
Now, all of this comes with the addendum that you don’t need to be a fan of jazz music to enjoy Ape Out. The simple mechanics and clear rhythmic focus results in a hard-to-put-down series of challenging levels. Although slight, with the main game able to be completed in under a couple of hours, there is plenty to keep you coming back. Especially if you’re a fan of the music, and, yeah, jazz. Here the procedural generation of randomised levels works in favour of the unpredictable nature of the music. And it’s here where once you understand the rhythm and feel of a level, the splashes of blood and primate rage truly becomes an instrument.