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With clever writing and imaginative gameplay that challenges players to “think with portals,” the Portal video game series, produced by Valve Software, has been a favorite of gamers since the first game’s release in 2007. And Portal 2, which was released last April, sold three million copies in its first two months on shelves.
Central to the game’s premise is the concept of a device that can create “portals” between locations, enabling you to walk through one magical hole and emerge anywhere else. Add a physics engine and some crafty puzzles to that idea and it becomes an engaging, addictive adventure that’s strikingly different from normal first-person-shooter fare.
It also becomes fodder for the imagination of fans — including director and Totally Rad Show co-host Dan Trachtenberg, who began shooting a short film inspired by the franchise two years ago. Following a premiere for TRS fans at Comic-Con, he posted it to YouTube (s GOOG) this week.
Using, among other things, Terminator 2 as an inspiration, Trachtenberg’s take on Portal strips the franchise down to its central elements — a girl and her portal-making gun. This means that No Escape lacks the whimsical humor of the original games, which is the primary criticism of the short, based on Twitter and Facebook commentary that I saw. Instead it has flawless visual effects that capture perfectly the potential of the Portal gun in a film context. For the first time, I believed that Portal as a movie could actually work.
I’m not the only one who feels that way. The film caught fire upon its release on Tuesday, receiving huge blog coverage, massive amounts of retweeting and a YouTube front page feature. It was even aired in full on cable channel G4’s Attack of the Show (I am currently a writer for the show but had no involvement in the decision to air it). As of writing, it had over 3.5 million views and nearly 150,000 thumbs-up ratings.
Most of the commentary surrounding No Escape‘s release online has taken the form of “Someone just give Trachtenberg a whole bunch of money and let him make a real Portal movie already.” And these days, that’s not such a strange idea — indeed, there’s some precedent for that path, the most recent example being Kevin Tanchareon’s take on Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat: Legacy started off as what would technically be a fan film (despite the participation of Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan and Michael Jai White) and then was picked up as a 10-episode web series by Warner Bros. And sure, a web series isn’t a feature film. But Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which was distributed by Machinima, has received more than 46 million views, according to a Machinima spokesperson.
The question is, though, Is it really possible for Portal to get the same treatment?
In an interview with the blog Very Aware, Trachtenberg not only mentioned his inspirations but also addressed that criticism I mentioned earlier, about No Escape’s lacking the Portal games’ quirky humor:
Well it’s certainly redundant to say I love the game and its universe, but to be honest, I was more excited about seeing the technology in the game in a different world. The video game is very whimsical and somewhat cartoony — I really wanted to explore the idea of taking the fundamentals of Portal and placing it in a much grittier, serious place.
Going gritty was also part of what impressed Warner Bros. about Tanchareon’s take on the Mortal Kombat franchise. But what was truly key to the web series’ getting greenlit was the fact that Tanchareon brought a fresh approach to the concept. There will be those who argue that it’s not really Portal without an insane AI playfully threatening to murder you at the start of every level. Those people might include the folks at Valve, which appear to retain the film rights for the franchise. But with No Escape, Trachtenberg has shown Valve that if it wants someone with an original voice to adapt the franchise, he’s probably the right man for the job.