J.J. Abrams and Valve CEO Gabe Newell Discuss Storytelling in Film vs. Video Games
Nowadays, major franchises get the royal treatment upon release. Some video game series are expanded with original novels or comic books between release dates. The opening of many big films occurs with novelizations and video games accompanying them. The problem is, I haven't seen many video game adaptations I've been able to appreciate as good films in their own right, and all the while games seem to be getting more and more realistic. How comparable, or even compatible is storytelling between video games and movies? If anybody could figure it out, it'd be "Star Wars Episode VII director" J.J. Abrams and Valve co-founder/CEO Gabe Newell. Check out their full D.I.C.E. 2013 keynote discussion below.
Here's First Showing's introduction:
Star Wars Episode VII director J.J. Abrams met with Valve founder Gabe Newell at the D.I.C.E. Summit (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) and they announced that Valve and Bad Robot would be collaborating on a video game of their own, as well as attempting to make movies out of games like Portal and Half-Life. But that revelation was just a small section of their full panel, and now Movieline points us to their entire conversation about storytelling in film vs. video games, which has been made available for us to watch in its entirety.
The full discussion is about twenty minutes, and contains a wee bit of NSFW language. Watch below:
It's really a joy to see these creators giving each other such a hard time, especially when it's obvious they have a lot of mutual respect for each other's work. Valve is often attributed to setting certain standards in interactive storytelling, with Half-Life's exclusion of traditional cut-scenes coming to mind. BioShock creative lead Ken Levine, for instance, directly credits Valve for proving games can tell their story without taking the perspective away from the player. He had the following to say to Shacknews regarding the use of full-on cinematic cut-scenes in video games (abridged):
I hate those as a gamer. I skip them. Those games, I don't know what the hell is going on. I'm not going to sit through those. But in Half-Life, I know everything that's going on. That was a big inspiration. I know more about City 17 than I know about any Final Fantasy world. Even a great game like Okami, it has 20 minutes of "blah blah blah" and I just want to kill myself. It's not fair to our medium, it's so self-indulgent. I think we have to work harder. Trust me, it's a lot harder to do what we did in BioShock than to do a 20-minute cutscene. Putting it in the world, making that work, cutting narrative down to little tiny snippets, that's harder. Cutscenes are a coward's way out. I'm a huge fan of Valve's. They have so much class and style in their storytelling.
Cut-scene cinematics constitute the closest similarity a video game may have with film: you're literally watching a movie of the game. Avoiding them in game design really illustrates some of the more natural storytelling tools unique to gaming. For example, a player may learn back story by simple world exploration, which they can take as much time as they want to pursue. Film doesn't usually allow free roaming like this: it has to move right along, and may require something like expository dialogue to get across the same information. BioShock may be a perfect example of just how different storytelling techniques between the mediums can differ, because its story so delicately hinges on the 'decisions' you make as the player. I won't spoil that game's big revelation, but suffice to say such a "twist" wouldn't be half as devastating in 'the movie version' of the story.
Then again, Portal is another example of this kind of conundrum: how on earth (or the moon, apparently) do you make the film version of what's essentially a puzzle game? It would have to frame the Portal universe in such a way where you don't find yourself saying, "This is cool and all, but really I'd just rather be playing the game right now." Furthermore, the story driving a Portal film would have to be something you'd actually prefer to watch rather than play. This is no easy task considering how downright fun it can be, placing and jumping through those portals! That said, everything Valve does seems to earn praise, and the productions of J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot likewise achieve consistent success. If any collaborators could explore and really expand upon the storytelling techniques both unique and common to film and video gaming, it's them. And from the sounds of things, both parties are game and primed to do more than just talk about it.
What adaptations of video games have you guys seen that actually hold their own as standalone films? What are other storytelling similarities or differences you've noticed between video games and films? What more, if anything, do you think filmmakers could learn from game designers, or vice-versa?