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Portal or Half-Life headed to big screen

DICE 2013: Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams kick off conference by announcing a collaboration to turn one of Valve's big games into a feature film

The organizers of the DICE Summit kicked off the annual Las Vegas industry meet-and-greet with an unusual crossover, a keynote address featuring Valve president and co-founder Gabe Newell and Bad Robot Productions president and founder J.J. Abrams. Both giants in their own field, the pair came together for a session titled "Storytelling Across Platforms: Who Benefits Most, the Audience or the Player?"

Abrams began by looking at the evolution of games, likening the jump from Pong to Portal to going from cave drawings to the master works of the Italian Renaissance. But just as he was about to launch into the topic of linear narratives, Newell interrupted the filmmaker to show a clip from Cloverfield in which a character with a handheld camera captures havoc breaking loose..

"I'm looking at that as a gamer and saying, 'Put the camera down and ******* run!' Why wouldn't you let me do that," Newell said.

Abrams responded by showing a clip of Half-Life 2, where characters deliver some key story details as the player character Gordon Freeman ignores them to teleport small objects and otherwise tinker with irrelevant stuff in the room.

Newell and Abrams then put forward their defenses for the medium, the advantages of games allowing players to do what they want, while movies let filmmakers force focus on the important parts.

Abrams then cued up another Half-Life 2 clip, in which Freeman stands by with a crowbar patiently listening to characters provide exposition (before tossing a grenade at their feet). The filmmaker said it's frustrating as a player because Freeman stands there mutely, and there's no way to know if he even recognizes the people talking to him, much less feels the same way toward them that they feel toward him.

The next clip Abrams introduced came from Jaws, with a group of men hunting the shark on a boat, dropping chum into the water as they wait for something to happen. A clumsy mistake leads to canisters of compressed air being jarred loose and a stern warning about the dangers of mishandling them. That's a setup that pays off in the movie's climax, in which a compressed air canister brings the killer shark to an explosive end. Abrams talked about how movie setups like that, whether technical or emotional, provide a certain inevitability that games generally lack.

Newell said it's a lesson that games have started to apply, and cued up a Portal 2 clip where the main character stumbles upon a science fair at Aperture Labs' Bring Your Daughter To Work day. Initially, it's intended to just be a throwaway gag with the AI Wheatley mocking the use of potatoes for everything, but Newell noted the potato focus returns later in the game. One of the advantages games have, Newell said, is that by embedding those sort of potential experiences that players may or may not hit on their way through, they provide more reason for multiple playthroughs.

Abrams said the same sort of thing is put into movies, where filmmakers include cues that make more sense or would only be caught on multiple viewings. He introduced clip from his Star Trek reboot where a young Kirk deduces that the planet Vulcan is under attack and the Enterprise warps into a debris field around the planet when they go to check it out. Abrams then rewound the clip and freeze-framed it to show that Star Wars' R2-D2 was briefly visible floating through the carnage. Newell said he now has to go back through all of Abrams movies looking for debris to figure out what he'll direct next.

As storytellers, Abrams said game developers and filmmakers are always trying to hide the machinery, to keep audiences in the moment and paying attention to what the creators want them to pay attention to, instead of what's actually going on. He also talked about the superficial nature of special effects, saying it won't matter to audiences if they don't care about the characters at the heart of the matter. He showed a clip from a quiet moment of Die Hard where John McLean and his ex-wife seem to be on the verge of repairing their relationships. Without moments like that, Abrams said the pyrotechnics of the rest of the movie wouldn't matter to audiences.

Newell said Valve tried to steal that lesson from movies with Half-Life 2, specifically the game of catch with Dog and Alyx. In gameplay purposes, the player is getting the gravity gun and learning how to use it. But at the same time, it helps to humanize the characters and make players care.

Abrams agreed, saying it was the crazy mystery of who GLaDOS is that made him play through Portal. Newell returned the admiration by talking about his favorite scene in Cloverfield, in which a woman goes behind a screen and then explodes, foreshadowing what could be dire consequences for the rest of the characters. Abrams called his taste sick.

Newell said this whole discussion is a replication of one he and Abrams had been having, and the pair said it's about time to stop talking about the intersection between the storytellers and start doing something. To that end, Abrams said he and Valve are working together to create either a Portal movie or a Half-Life movie. And with that, they ended the keynote.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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