Here’s how to make good Portal and Half-Life films: Don’t make them like games
Force Awakens director JJ Abrams recently threw a pebble into the gaming pond, mentioning during a promotional interview for 10 Cloverfield Lane that writers are working on film versions of Valve’s Portal and Half-Life series.
“Not yet, but they’re in development,” Abrams told IGN when asked if he had a status update on the projects. “We’ve got writers, and we’re working on both those stories.”
Film versions of two iconic games series, produced by one of Hollywood’s leading directors, is more than enough to set Twitter’s heart aflutter. It’s also enough to get executives making cash-register gestures. After the success of Deadpool, Hollywood has learnt there’s money to be made in catering to the internet and its echo chamber of geek culture.
Of the two series, Portal seems ripest for the straight-up film treatment. While the game is built up from a series of puzzles, the world of Aperture Science and the portal gun would lend themselves nicely to a CGI head trip in the vein of Inception, albeit with more humour (if Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek’s script for Portal 2 is anything to go by). In fact, Portal has already been the subject of a short film, made by none other than 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg.
Half-Life is a trickier proposition. Translating the secret-test-facility-gone-wrong plot of the original Half-Life or the resistance-against-aliens plot of Half-Life 2 directly into an action movie would likely result in a clunky, retrograde plastering of Half-life’s aesthetic onto a stock sci-fi romp. What makes Half-Life great isn’t the story as it’s told by characters, but as it’s told through pacing, environment and level design, and these hinge on player involvement.
Why do we want films of games anyway?
Picturing scenes from Portal and Half-Life on the big screen is fun, but why do we want film versions of these games at all? These titles work fantastically as games. Surely the medium is beyond the stage where it needs artistic validation through cinematic appropriation?
The excitement over film adaptations of games, and the frequent disappointment over the results, says a lot about the experience of playing. When we inhabit protagonists it’s tempting to roleplay, if only subconsciously, through the dominant visual medium: we like to pretend we’re in a film. This is particularly the case in “AAA” games, which frequently wear cinematic influences on their spangly sleeves. A lack of imagination in both industries means it tends to be these sort of games that are made into films: Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, Max Payne, Doom, Prince of Persia, Resident Evil and so on.
It’s a beige no man’s land of entertainment.
It’s a beige no man’s land of entertainment. A film of Half-life would no doubt be a perfunctory blockbuster, but if there are going to be film adaptations of games and vice versa, wouldn’t it be interesting to see these pulling from opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum? An espionage thriller set against the kaleidoscopic geometry of Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, for example, or an RPG set in the interior mind of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name.
These would not work as straight reworkings, and that’s precisely the point. It’s not about meeting in a homogenised middle – it’s about recognising the differences between cinematic and architectural storytelling, between the dark dreamspace of cinema and the tricksy agency of a game. It’s about pulling in completely different directions – less of an adaptation and more of a provocation.
So while film versions of Portal or Half-life might be easy to envision, the further away from the middle ground of action-gaming, the better the results could be.