Earlier today, Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams announce at the DICE summit that they are looking into partnering on games and movies going forward. The announcement came from a discussion on storytelling across platforms in which they analyzed differences between storytelling in TV and film versus video games.
As the conversation concluded, the duo revealed that this is something they wanted to become “more than talks” and Abrams said he has an idea for a game that he wants to pair with Valve for. Newell added that the pair will also “figure” out if they can collaborate on potential Portal and Half-Life films in the future.
Throughout the talk, both Abrams and Newell used examples from each other’s area of expertise to illustrate the different mechanisms for storytelling. During the talk, Newell showed a clip from Cloverfield, which used “found footage”-style camera work to display the disaster in a city.
Newell stated “Movies take away from the notion of this agency. When I am a gamer, I am in the game.” After showing the Cloverfield clip, he added, “I understand the narrative device, but as a gamer I’m saying ‘put down the camera and f**king run’ and I can’t do that.”
Abrams countered by showing a clip from Half-Life 2 in which the player picks up random objects and throws them at the heads of NPCs. “Players are often driving the scene in the wrong direction, you have a story going on and you’ve got characters teleporting and sh*t and throwing things at people.” He added that this is great for a game, but tells no real story.
Newell responds, “In games, players are in control of what happens. They control their action”. Abrams countered and explained that talk should be the focus of a story, not the experience, in which he then showed another clip from Half-Life 2 where Gordon, a silent protagonist, didn’t respond when being introduced to another character.
“Does Gordon know him or not?” Abrams asked. Players are often asked to relate to empty vessels, characters that don’t communicate behavior in a way that you would. It’s as frustrating [as film]in a lot of ways, but at least in films we can have compelling scenes and dialog,” which a silent protagonist can’t. Abrams added that “in a movie or TV show, when it’s well done the ambition is always to tell a story that has set ups and payoffs. There’s machinery you’re hiding. Things you’re purposely hiding.” Abrams showed a clip from Jaws, explaining that while it’s a nice character moment, it actually serves to set up a plot point from later in the film, but the goal is to distract the viewer from that fact.
Abrams goes on to explain that as a fan of film, he likes to analyze things frame-by-frame and often thinks “what can we hide?” when setting up a shot. He showed an example of a Star Trek clip that showed R2-D2 in some space debris. “We do that all the time. 90% of that stuff people don’t find. It’s not as rich as what Valve does but it allows people to have different experiences.”
“Focus is super important” Newell replied. “We had to spend a lot of time with playtesters [during Portal 2]. It’s incredibly obvious you can shoot portal to the moon, but players felt brilliant for figuring it out.” He used an example from Portal 2, in which Wheatley walks the player through a science fair, mocking potato batteries made by children. “You think it’s a throwaway gag about potato batteries. But it turns out potato battery is a critical plot point,” Newell said. He explained that it also sets up Wheatley as insecure about his intelligence.
Their debate goes on for a bit longer but ultimately both of their views are valid and interesting. It’s unknown exactly what type of collaboration we’ll see from Newell and Abrams, but it’s clear that storytelling will be a major consideration when looking at the project