Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams talked a big game at last week’s D.I.C.E (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertainment) Summit. Valve’s founder and the director behind TV and movies like Lost, Cloverfield, and Super 8 set themselves up as the pseudo-arbiters of their respective industries in their keynote address.
The upfront discussion style they used failed to mask the intended message: that the two of them, now that they plan to work together, may represent the future of videogames and film.
I respect Valve for its commitment to innovative game design and Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions for its writers’ love of mystery. Both companies, regardless of the quality of their work, take creating entertainment very seriously and seem interested in contributing worthwhile art to our culture. Just the same, I wouldn’t point at either Newell or Abrams as the best people suited toward the surprise project announced at the end of their keynote — the collaborative film based on Valve’s intellectual properties and a Bad Robot-produced videogame proposed by the two creators.
This is partially because Half-Life, for all its strides forward in interactive narrative, doesn’t have a particularly interesting story. The mute Gordon Freeman may have attracted a cult following — becoming a fan favourite on the strength of his iconic power suit, glasses and crowbar — but he’s ultimately a pretty terrible character. Since he can never express his emotions, Gordon is nothing more than a player surrogate. His only traits are defined by what the rest of the cast suggests about him (“You’re so smart!” “You’re a hero, Freeman!”) and whatever sundry characteristics the player cares to come up with in their role as co-author. The other characters aren’t much better. Alyx, Eli, Kleiner and co. are memorable in certain ways, but are also only partially defined.
Some folks have been suggesting centring a Half-Life film on the second game’s Orwellian City 17 and that’s not the worst idea. The unseen war that leads to the police state in effect at the beginning of Half-Life 2 could be exciting and an exploration of the role that the enigmatic G-Man played in, say, the birth of the Combine forces could be interesting. These seem like workable ideas while also pretty boring ones. Once the gameplay has been removed from the equation, so much of the Half-Life mythos appears derivative, exposed as a mishmash of already well trodden science fiction tropes. Is there anything in particular that makes the game series’ resistance fighters, constant police surveillance and gnarly aliens special? I’m not so sure. Take away the novelty of gameplay and the sense of satisfaction that comes from receiving drip-fed story beats and Half-Life isn’t especially remarkable.
And a Portal movie? Both of the games have great stories, but they’ve already been told exactly as they ought to be. Remove the interactivity and the cleverness of any kind of “puzzle solving” becomes meaningless. Show Chell running through a series of laboratories and it becomes clear she’s as much of a boring non-character as Gordon. What would be the point of trying to bring this kind of narrative to a film?
I don’t think it’s likely, but maybe none of this matters. We do know that Valve has always been careful to protect the integrity of their properties and that Abrams is capable of turning casts of personality archetypes into believable people (Lost‘s heroic doctor and reformed criminal are more than the sum of their parts just as Fringe‘s boy genius and mad scientist become emotionally resounding as their story is revealed). It’s possible that he may be able to do the same with the mute scientist, the rebel love interest and the amnesiac portal jumper.
Even failing a quality production it’s extremely unlikely that Abrams and Newell would create something lazy. In the worst-case scenario a bombed Half-Life or Portal film would likely still be interesting enough to impart important lessons about how to go forward with further collaborations between the videogame and film industries. As Newell and Abrams said in their keynote, this could only be a good thing. Though Valve and Bad Robot may not be the right match-up for a truly great videogame movie, they’re at least talented and dedicated enough companies that they’re capable of providing something like a way forward for inter-media cooperation. I wouldn’t be in line on opening night for a Valve/Bad Robot movie, but I sure would be interested to see how everything would shake out in the end.