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Q&A: Director J.J. Abrams might have what it takes to make it in video games
Q&A: Director J.J. Abrams might have what it takes to make it in video games
February 6, 2013 | By Kris Graft

TV and film director J.J. Abrams wants to take the dive into video games -- but this isn't quite the same as other Hollywood-to-games forays. This time, Valve Software is involved.

At the DICE Summit in Las Vegas this morning, Abrams took the stage with Valve boss Gabe Newell, announcing (almost nonchalantly) that his company Bad Robot Productions and Newell's Valve were in talks to create movies based on Portal and Half-Life. And the two companies are also in talks to create games together.

Gamasutra had the opportunity to talk to Abrams more about the partnership, as well as storytelling in TV, movies and video games. Abrams has a respect for video games and their potential, but he also exhibits an underlying understanding of interactive entertainment. This is a collaboration that has real potential to be fruitful.

So the announcement about Valve and Bad Robot -- are you in the initial discovery phase with that?

Yes, we are talking about doing Portal and Half-Life movies, and we're talking to Valve about doing games together.

What's driving the interest behind that? Why do you want to get into game making and have this exchange?

Valve is obviously one of the greatest minds and producers of games that I've experienced. Their games have awesome humor, inspiring scope and characters that make you laugh and think.

I've been up to their offices. I like their culture, the way they think. It feels very much in line with how we work at Bad Robot. We've met enough times and have had enough discussions about various collaborations. As Gabe said, it was time to start making the stuff, and stop talking about it.

In games like Half-Life and Portal -- it is more about the characters with Valve, isn't it?

Yeah. If you look at almost everything they do, there is a level of sophistication and respect, not just for the characters and the worlds they create, but also for the audience, the game players, to put pieces together to figure things out.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with shoot-'em-up games where that's all it is -- Valve is good at [shooters] too. But the idea that we want to do, and what excites me about working with them, the way they make games inspires me. The way they make their games, that's something to aspire to.

What are the opportunities that you see in interactive entertainment?

Frankly, I'm someone who loves being able to work in film and television. I love working in music, I'm a fan of photography and painting and sculpting and letterpress, and all different forms of expression. I dabble. I don't think I'm particularly good at anything. I just enjoy the experience of making various things. And games are something as a player, I've loved and appreciated for years. So the idea of being able to get involved and learn from a group like Valve.

Bad Robot has already been in the interactive world with the Action Movie FX app for iPhone. The idea of going deeper... I think we already took the first step into the pool with the app, and we're ready now to dive into interactive. Dave Baronoff, who runs Bad Robot Interactive, is leading the charge in that regard. And we're excited about the opportunities there.

When you're thinking about goals or what you want to achieve with this foray into video games, are there any pillars to your strategy that come to mind?

Obviously, and this is not unlike the way you approach anything, but it's "What do you want to experience?" Not "What do they like," but "What would you like to experience." So it's about trying to figure out a game or a movie, you think about "What is the world? What is the drive? What are the stakes? What is the ticking clock? What am I rooting for? What do I hope happens? What am I afraid would happen?" The most fundamental, obvious things.

In line with that, there's the fundamental question of "What's not out there?" and "What isn't being made?" I don't think you can necessarily be creative deductively. I don't think that you can say "What doesn't exist? Let's try to fill that space." But still, I don't know a writer or a game designer who wants make something that exists in the moment.

It's human nature to want to try to push the boundaries of what is possible technologically or what is available experientially.

There is a debate in video games right now. There are people who make games who feel that storytelling and interactivity just don't really jibe. If you're entering that debate, what's your argument to say "This can work"?

Well, the good news is, there are a lot of cautionary tales -- games that feel very old school, where suddenly and clunkily, you get taken into a cut scene and you suddenly feel the mechanics of what's happening, and now you're forced to sit there and listen.

I think the key to any game is whether or not is it true to its format. Is it taking advantage of what's available. I'm not saying the game that we produce -- and there are a lot of different things that we are talking about in regards to gaming at Bad Robot -- I'm not saying what we're doing would solve that problem.

In fact, the game that we're talking about -- while we're smart enough to be aware of things that we definitely don't want to do, and mistakes that we've experienced as players that we don't want to repeat -- part of what we're talking about doesn't necessarily have the issue that you're describing...

What are the specific titles have helped spark your interest in games?

Back in the day, one of the games that first really got me, and this was hundreds of years ago now, I loved the Infocom text adventures. They were brilliantly done, it was a simple parser, but they were wildly immersive and really fun. I was a huge, huge fan of what those guys did in Cambridge.

One of the first games that I really fell in love with was Tribes. I just love the idea of flying all over the place, and play capture the flag.

There's a new one out too.

Yeah I know. Mind-blowingly cool. Then I fell in love with Tomb Raider and I played that non-stop. Over the years, a lot of things that I've been experiencing game-wise are games that my son plays.

But I've been inspired by some games like Journey, which was incredible. It was just crazy emotional, wildly beautiful. A true experience. I love that game. I love Limbo, the mood of it. I just thought it was genius. It took the whole side-scrolling thing and took the level of moodiness and tone in a way that it all worked as a whole. Everything from the music to the sound effects, the whole visual desaturated look of it. I loved it.

It's hard not to look at what people are doing with the graphics of stuff like Call of Duty or Dead Space. You can't help but be blown away by what's possible. But to me, as much as the visuals will continue to improve ... the sense of being in a place. It's insane what's possible if we all just extrapolate where it's going. In no time, it's going to be photorealistic to the point of preposterousness. At that point, it's irrelevant.

So I'm not looking at the graphical stuff. That's going to happen anyway. What I think is critical is gameplay and the emotional connection to the characters.

The games you say you like, that's encouraging to me. The games like Limbo and Journey are the kinds of games that leverage the strengths of video games -- of interactivity, of connectivity, instead of a video game trying to be a movie, which we're all familiar with.

Yeah, but I've seen this often with movies and TV shows, where there is an idea sometimes that is really just better off being a movie rather than a TV show, and vice versa. A lot of movies or shows that don't ever come to fruition don't, because they should never have been those things to begin with.

There are some ideas that would just be better off if they were songs. There are some ideas that would be much better of if they were a poem or just a discussion, where there is nothing necessarily produced or experienced by others. We've all seen shows, skits or movies where we think "Yeah, I can see how that discussion went in the room, how they thought this would be cool... but they really should've stopped there."

One of the things that's really appealing about working with Valve is that they've got great taste, and that we will have the ability to work with people and not impose what we do on them. We're not looking to make movies in the game space. We're looking to make great games that take the strengths of what we know -- characters, world-building, creating a sense of emotional connection -- and trying ways to try to exploit that in the gaming space, which is a very different animal that movies and TV.

The game industry feels like it's still trying to find its own identity. There are nuggets here and there where we see video games' potential going forward.

I think that as the gaming industry evolves, it will become whatever it becomes, because the stuff that works, in a Darwinian way, will prove itself.

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Rob Wright
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I too am encouraged by Abrams' affinity for Limbo and Journey. Looking forward to seeing what he and Valve can do together.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Tom Baird
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The answer to the very first question in this article is: "Yes, we are talking about doing Portal and Half-Life movies, and we're talking to Valve about doing games together". The last part of it is just as relevant as the first.

Same as Rob, I like that his choice of games are all very game-like, and seems to show a respect for games as games, and not just games as QTE movies (which seems like it could be the case when a director looks towards games).

Jason Gray
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JJ is killin' it. On all fronts.

Tom Abernathy
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So I assume, Kris, that you're gonna give those of us who take issue with that statement about the incompatibility of narrative and interactivity a chance to respond, yes? ;P

Kris Graft
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Oh, I'm on the side that thinks it can jibe! But yeah Tom, I'd love to hear what you (and other narrative designers/writers) have to say on this topic. You know how to get a hold of me :)

R. Hunter Gough
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Sweet! A video game by J.J. Abrams! 20,000 different mysterious quests, none of which actually have a solution! :)

Carlo Delallana
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The journey is the reward!

(and something about lens flares and floating typography over vast cityscapes and whatnot)

Michael Joseph
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"I think that as the gaming industry evolves, it will become whatever it becomes, because the stuff that works, in a Darwinian way, will prove itself."

It bugs me when people make statements about evolution that casually perpetuates the erroneous "survival of the fittest" myth. That is what is being done when we attribute value statements (such as "proving" ones worth) to species (or products) that survive and proliferate. Whether a species or a product survives and grows in numbers says nothing about the "value" of that species or product. Ineed we all know that lots of things we deem as good fail and lots of things we deem as bad, succeed. So to talk about something proving itself in a Darwinian way ends up being a statement that has no meaning. If in the end survival is all that matters, then I think that is a fairly primitive and out of step world view. We are a species that has formed complex cooperative societies and institutions and struggled to be more than our animal instincts by putting society ahead of any one individuals desires. J.J should remember the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Yeah i'm making moutains out of mole hills again I guess. But most of his responses felt like professional bs-er responses. A few name drops here and there laced with a few insanes, awesomes, crazies and amazings.

Erin OConnor
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A more accurate way to put it would be "Survival of the survivors."
good, bad, ugly does not matter.

Tom Hunt
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is it just me, or is J J Abrams giving everyone the finger in that pic?

Jimmy Albright
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I always felt Half Life and portal stood out (for me) due to the convincing world and settings they created. Personally the actually story for me isn't 'in the picture' enough to really praise it. Similar to Journey, for me the experience of it is what makes it enjoyable. Perhaps I need to refresh my memory but hardly ANYTHING in Half-Life is explained. Maybe there's a wiki or something I need to pick up but we still don't know who or what Gman is. We don't know where the combine are from, why they're there or really even WHAT they are.

I appreciate games that make me dig a bit and don't insult the viewers intelligence but it's been 10 years and there are still so many questions with no answers. I suppose the fact that I actually care so much about these answers means Valve's way of telling a story is successful.

Alan Rimkeit
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Between Star Trek 3 and the new Star Wars movies how is JJA possibly going to find the time to make video game movies???? 0_o

Michael DeFazio
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never played a game and thought:
"geez i wish they'd make a tv show or movie out of this"

...on the other hand, i have watched plenty of tv shows and movies and thought:
"this would be great as a game" -- because the characters and environment are such that i'd want to explore and learn more about (on my own volition) (Archer, Django Unchained ...)

take a game that you participate in for 20-100+ hours like portal,half-life 2, halo, skyrim, fallout 3, ... then take control away but replace it with a story where i cannot participate and it becomes much less engaging. (and now, instead of considering myself as the "silent protagonist", i have some A list hollywood guy speaking and making decisions "for me")

seems the general public thinks an IP "arrives" when it gets the hollywood treatment (It's OK to like Spiderman now since he's mainstream with a big budget movie) ... i wonder if in the near future we will consider that an IP has arrived when it has a big AAA blockbuster GAME attached to it (like Batman:AA& AC)