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?

Link: 2013 D.I.C.E. Videos by Variety -- YouTube

[via First Showing & Movieline]

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Your Comment


I personally think video games have suffered gameplay wise, because of the current obsession with mimicking movies - it's like the canned theater era all over again.

Nevertheless as video game creators become more sophisticated (by ironically hiring professional writers), we will see more video game franchises successfully make their way to the big screen, like comic books already have.

February 18, 2013 at 6:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I don't fully agree with mr. Levine. I mean, yes, it's true for the most part, and I really appreciate the full first person experience of Bioshock, which could very well be the best game ever made.But, Far Cry 3, although not a perfect game, would have been less intense drama-wise if the cutscenes would have been replaced with free-move-around-and-throw-a-grenade-in-my-face "Valve style" storytelling tools. Clive Barker's Undying comes to mind too, those cutscenes were really gripping, really making you feel like you're part of a great story, they were cutting edge at the time (2001). And the examples can go on. I think it's all a question of choice. Nobody should condemn them. Some games are better suited for a full first person experience, others shine better with cutscenes. I really think movies and games are completely different types of experiences (so are books). And while both may be dwelling in the same universe in some cases, it's imperative that they focus on different aspects. It's certainly a very interesting discussion that has crossed my mind quite a few times. I think all of us would better understand the whole issue once somebody actually makes a GOOD, PROPER Bioshock film. I wonder if that will ever happen.

February 18, 2013 at 6:43PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Cosmin Gurau

I've thought this for years, that one day film will adapt to the watcher, like gaming. With stories either moving in conflict with a watchers expectations, or along side it.

What if you were guaranteed to be surprised by an ending of a film? Imagine being able to decide who ends up with each other in the new rom-com.

February 18, 2013 at 7:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great talk, and the words Gabe said at the end gave me kind of goosebumps.

February 18, 2013 at 9:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


By the way, I've always loved the way Valve managed to tell stories in first person, and the way you were actually sucked by that world (something that doesn't happen very often even today). I was lucky enough to experience those stories for the first time when they came out, and I've always wanted to recreate them in a film. I remember with a friend of mine we made a device to place an HV20 on our heads and a marker for our eyes to be able to frame our hands. We wanted to do a Half-Life 2 esque narrative short film, but never managed to.
Which brings to my mind a short film that kinda succeeded in doing that:

February 18, 2013 at 9:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Adored that short from the minute I saw it. Awesome stuff C:

February 18, 2013 at 9:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Dave Kendricken

I don't know if I've ever seen a video game adaptation that's held up with its original story, either in terms of scope vs. duration or perspective.

One thing filmmakers can take away from video games as a storytelling method is the reliance nowadays on action predicating the story, in that, the story is revealed as you experience the characters, setting and plot. As a writer, it's important to show the audience as much as possible and only rely on expository dialogue as deemed necessary. That kind of technique is really apparent in video games.

February 19, 2013 at 6:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Merry Christmas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMF9Ws_FLNE

This is fantastic example of combining a story of film for a game. You can see clear differences (example there is more exploring and discovering in game that would make for a boring film) but both medium ould translate well form one to the other I expect, but I would think the film>game transition would be better.

February 21, 2013 at 10:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thank you for finally posting something like this! I've always loved comparing storytelling in video games and movies. Mostly because of how different they are, but also because of how storytelling in video games almost universally sucks.

I believe Bioshock's creative lead got it correct. A video game is an interactive experience. Cut scenes serve only to remove the user from that experience for however long it takes for it to end. That's not to say cut scenes are all awful. In the Mass Effect series, seeing the Reapers come down upon earth in a massive cut scene was breathtaking and frightening at once. But it's only because of the story that you the player have built up to that point.

Lately there's been more push for video games to be more movie like, and I always cringe when a AAA title brings a movie director on as the creative director. Unless he's versatile and adapts to how different a video game, the game will immediately suffer as a result. Even bringing a movie writer can make it suffer. They tend to think too linearly. "Point A has to lead to point B which leads to the ending." Like in a movie. But in Mass Effect 3, point A can lead to point B and C and D all at once, and each of those points can lead to EFGHI, and so on.

Hopefully Hollywood will keep improving the writing aspect of video game stories, but only as long as they realize it's a different type of storytelling all together.

February 19, 2013 at 9:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Im not much of a gamer but I fell that what Telltale is doing for their video games is the future of both storytelling and video game playing. I played the walking dead series and it always keep me on the edge of my seat. Even though there is very little action/killing of zombies like other video games. I think the aspect of letting the user choice the path they want to go in makes up for the action of just running around and killing people (like borderlands 2). It made me feel like I was part of the conversations of the game, that at times I was given a choice on who to kill/ who to save. Now if that could be brought to the filmmaking world, I think it could be a great user experience. An example; instead of the audience watching a film the way the director/writer intended, why not give the audience the choice of were they want the story to go or what the talent should say next. I could see a movie theater changing just one or two of their theaters into a film-gaming theater experience. The audience would have remotes (like how they vote on "who wants to be a millionaire") Then all the votes are counted for and combined and whatever option got the most votes wins and the story moves on in that direction. What I think it might do is create a different experience ever time. Im pretty sure it would take a lot of energy to create just a thing. But look at were we are today.

February 19, 2013 at 10:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Skyrim, Fallout 3 - then this argument would be fair.

Love both, this is how I spend my time!

February 19, 2013 at 11:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I have to go with film/video as a story telling medium for now. Never liked console game controls or console games near as much as a good PC game with a HQ joy stick. Xwing VS Tie fighter was my favorite game of all time and I ctually played against other people online it was great and all on 56k. I would love to see that game reincarnated for high speed internet. Awing alliance was cinema like part of the time and had a good story to follow and You could fly inside and blow up the death star blah blah. But no video game to date for me has had the energy and immersive story telling experience of a well made motion picture. Motion picture people are moving around expending energy to make their product and game designers are literally sitting on their asses I can not help but think the to mindsets are completely different for each situation and that is reflected in their work.

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