D.I.C.E. 2013: Valve’s Gabe Newell and Bad Robot Director J.J. Abrams Key Note

By Kevin Kelly

D.I.C.E. 2013 kicked off with a conversation with J.J. Abrams and Gabe Newell, who Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences President Martin Rae called, “Two incredibly accomplished storytellers who have changed the world of film, television and games.” Abrams started the ball rolling by noting that video games have gone from the days of Pong to today, which has been like going from cave drawings to the Renassaince. Newell interrupted Abrams to dispel the notion that games have been becoming more like the movies by showing a clip from Cloverfield.

“That was pretty good,” quipped Abrams. But Newell came back by remarking “As a gamer, I’m saying ‘Put the f**king camera down and run!’” Abrams then blasted back with a Half-Life 2 clip, where Freeman is playing around with the teleporter, while important story is happening behind him while he goofs off and isn’t driven forward. “It can be fun to do stuff like this, but it doesn’t really drive a story,” said Abrams.

Abrams pointed out that we see plenty of examples of idiots in movies, like the people who go outside in a Friday the 13th movie, when they know something bad is going to happen. He illustrated another point with another Half-Life clip, where a lot of exposition happens via talking heads. He mentioned that the characters don’t behave or emote like a real person would. Newell responded by saying that it’s more about the story for the gamer, such as when you’re playing Left 4 Dead, it’s not about Coach or Bill, it’s about you and me.

Abrams responded with the clip from Jaws that illustrates how Brody doesn’t really fit in on the boat: gagging while tossing chum and knocking over the air tanks. But this nicely sets up the fact that Brody is an outsider, which was counterpointed by another clip: where Brody shoots the air tank and kills the shark. “I hope I didn’t ruin the ending for you,” Abrams joked.

He pointed out another film moment, this time from Die Hard, where someone on the plane tells McClane to make fists with his toes to get rid of jet lag. Abrams said he tried that himself once in a hotel room, only to realize that the only purpose that scene served “Was to get his shoes off so he would be fucking barefoot and run through the glass later!”

Newell said that games are trying to do more thanks like that, illustrated by a Portal 2 clip where Wheatley is talking about how insecure he is with his intelligence, and a brief mention of the potato battery, which is very important later in the game. Newell also underscored how the player is in control of these moments, and can explore as little or as much as they want of the world beyond the linear game, delving into information if they want it, and he mentioned that movies should try to go more in that direction.

Abrams said that they do try to do things like that, showing a clip from his own Star Trek, where Kirk goes to the bridge to warn Captain Pike before they drop out of warp into an attack over Vulcan. When he ran the clip back and freeze-framed it, you can actually see R2-D2 flying through the debris. So, in fact, the Star Trek / Star Wars crossover that you are dreading / anticipating has actually already happened.

Newell than said “Wait, so I have to watch all of your movies again in slow-motion to see what I can find?!” I have no doubt that people have already done that. Abrams pointed out that both games and movies are trying to hide mechanisms that bring more to the audience, whether it’s a narrative in a game, or a subplot in a film, and that often game directors and film directors both use misdirection as a magician would in order to take your attention away from something, and pay attention to something else.

Another Die Hard clip was next, where McClane and his wife talk about the sleeping arrangements, which sets up their relationship and makes you care about the characters. He also mentioned how Back to the Future spends thirty minutes establishing character before Marty McFly ever goes back in time. Newell said that they have been trying to establish the same sense of character in their games, which he showed off with a clip from Half-Life, where Freeman learns how to play fetch with Dog using the gravity gun. That scene explains how Alex was lonely as a child, a bit of the relationship with her father, while giving you a cool, new weapon.

Abrams then heaped praise on the storyline of Portal, noting that the entire game is a mystery that you play through in order to find out who you are, and who GLaDOS is. Newell then returned the favor by praising the scene in Cloverfield where the woman goes behind the screen and explodes. “What that means for the audience and for that character, as well as the characters left behind, is great.”

Abrams and Newell then dropped the bombshell that they will be working on a game together, and that Valve will be assisting Abrams and team with their films, where it makes sense. Heck, we’d be happy if J.J. Abrams would just go ahead and take the reins for Half-Life 3 at this point. So what do you think? What could spring from the combined talents of Bad Robot and Valve?

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