Boîte l’Orange

In a just universe, all the press and marketing attention devoted to Halo 3 would’ve been saved for The Orange Box.

Now, I realize that’s kind of ridiculous — I’m skeptical that Valve is in any way strapped for cash. And Half-Life isn’t exactly some obscure title that needs passionate fans to blog about to get the attention it deserves. And, I would imagine, Microsoft-sized sales strategies aren’t 100% compatible with the company philosophy that Valve keeps trying to project: take as long as you need to put out something highly-polished and innovative.

Still, I’d feel a little better if the stuff that Valve is doing were put forward as the public face of videogames, if we had baffled parents and grandparents going into stores asking where they can buy “one of those Half-Lifes” instead of the Nintendos or the X-Boxes. To say that this is the kind of thing we’re all trying to do, to some degree.

tf2spy.jpgI still haven’t played the latest of the Halos, but I’ve seen screenshots, and they’re beautiful. Beautiful, but kind of dull. You can’t dismiss it, since it works, and a ton of work went into making it. But then you look at Team Fortress 2, and just the expression on the Spy’s face alone is more compelling and imaginative than anything I’ve seen in the whole of the Halo series.

But I’ve already effused about Team Fortress 2 on here enough that it’d make the dev team feel creeped out if they ever saw it. I already had the PC versions of the Orange Box as an extremely appreciated gift from a friend at Valve, but I went ahead and bought the Xbox 360 version as soon as it was released, just because I was so impressed with TF2, I wanted to be sure to give the company more money.

So far, I’ve played TF2 enough to realize that I’m spectacularly bad at it, and show little signs of ever improving. (But it’s still fun). I’ve played through Portal twice, once on the 360 and once on the PC, haven’t hit the bonus missions yet. And I’m about two or three levels into Episode 2.

portalicons.jpgPortal is another example of blatant excess. It would’ve been a perfectly fine and innovative puzzle game without adding character and story-telling elements to it, but they had to do it anyway. The main gimmick of the portal gun is intriguing enough, and you spend most of the time at the beginning of the game feeling completely disoriented, as if your brain is being uncomfortably stretched. Then they take it even farther, subtly inserting signs that there’s even more going on than what you can see.

It’s a fantastic example of world-building and presentation. And it’s a concrete example of that holy grail of story-telling game design: tying story and character into a game mechanic, so they’re delivered simultaneously, and build off each other. You’re stuck in a completely artificial environment, with the level designers’ hand clearly visible, and are focused on a set of obvious puzzles. At the same time, you get flashes of character and peeks behind the scenes, until it all comes together. As somebody with a vested interest in four-to-five-hour storytelling games, I’m extremely impressed.

If I’m being completely objective and critical and all that, I’ve got to say that it didn’t 100% work for me. I was absolutely loving it for the first 80% or so, and then it started to fall apart. The pacing is a little off; some of it seemed to go on way too long. Some of the stuff around the climax was really frustrating, because even though I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, I didn’t feel like I was given a good enough opportunity to actually do it — it required several cycles of die-and-try-again, which killed the mood. The very last set of puzzles was tedious, and had the same do-the-same-thing-three-times feel as a billion other games. And I was disappointed with the tone of it, which got less and less subtle as the game went on. It wasn’t bad, and most of it was pretty funny, but seeing as how Team Fortress 2 got the tone exactly right throughout, towards the end it seemed like Portal just went for straight-up wacky.

Which is all kind of like winning the lottery and then bitching about having to pay taxes. Because it’s a great game, and it’s already got legions of devoted fans, and it does kind of invent a whole new genre, the first-person action comedy puzzle game. I really hope they’re planning more puzzle packs and expansions, because I’d be happy seeing more of the first 17 levels. And I’m really hoping the rumors across the internets are true, and they’re planning to bring the Portal gun to Half-Life.

As for Episode 2: I called Valve the “Pixar of videogames” before, and that’s proving to be pretty accurate so far. That game was the big draw of the Orange Box for me, so I was already pre-disposed to like it. The only question was whether it was going to be great, or outstanding.

When I started it up, I wasn’t all that impressed. Sure, it looks perfect, and your objectives are clear, and they know how to push things forward, and how to provide enough details so you feel like you’re in a real environment with a real story going on around you. But I kept thinking, “Great. More antlions. And scripted events. What else you got?” I was already tired of just seeing excellent production values; after the bar was raised by TF2 and Portal, I wanted something to really surprise me.

And I was reminded of Finding Nemo, for some reason. Not in the setting, but my reaction to it. I went in just expecting the typical level of competence from that movie, but didn’t find the setting all that compelling, and I wasn’t expecting much. But before I knew it, I was completely drawn in, and all my skepticism was gone, and the movie could have its way with me.

So far, Episode 2 had one of those moments, with a completely low-key scripted event that wasn’t designed to impress, but just to make the story and characters more real. I was climbing a ladder out of a long pit, and all of a sudden a Vortigaunt pokes his head over the edge of the pit and says something like, “Ah, it is not a pit without The Freeman climbing out of it.” Maybe I’m just a sucker for goofy non-sequiturs, but they had me from that point on. And I haven’t even gotten to the driving yet.

0 thoughts on “Boîte l’Orange”

  1. I’m going to go one hyberbolic step further and say Valve has moved beyond the classification of “Pixar of Videogames”. Because for all that Pixar does correctly, they give me exactly what I want — an extremely well crafted, but conventional film. And to a certain extent, this is what I feel TF2 and EP2 (so far) are delivering; something that is executed nearly perfectly, but still conventionally.

    Portal, on the other hand, is giving me something I didn’t even know I wanted. But now that I completed it, I definitely want more. The biggest compliment I can give Portal is that it has that old Nintendo vibe at moments — that “Wow, I can’t believe I did that!” feeling of newness when you do something that sounds relatively simple. Not because I just got a headshot or blew up three tanks, but because I just jumped through a portal at the correct spot. (In fact, it’s when things start blowing up in Portal that it becomes less interesting.)

    So I don’t know what’s after “Pixar of Videogames” — “Google of Videogames”? The latter company is certainly capable of delivering apps which I had no idea I wanted, and also employs a lot of really smart people. Or in Portal’s case, a few really smart kids who just got out of college.


  2. Holy smokes. Portal = GOTY. I loved Bioshock, but it goes 90% of the way to awesomeness then fails to deliver the last 10%. Portal delivers 100%, then punches you in the face and gives you 100% more. It’s just astonishing. We ended up having a bit of a cake joke thing going at my work, which I posted about on my blog. It was hilarious. People who hadn’t finished Portal had absolutely no idea what was going on, but people who’d finished the game had a laugh.

  3. See, Steve? Compared to the gushing that’s going on over the rest of the internets, I’ve been harshing on your company.

    But I’d still be willing to write PR, if it helps get the expansion packs & sequels & puzzle sets done faster.

  4. And Matt, I’m sticking with my Pixar analogy. Because Pixar takes technical perfection just as a given, and then puts in all the extra stuff that takes it over the top.

    Take for instance the screenshot from Episode 2 at the top of this post; in most games that’d be your money shot, put in at the climax. In Ep 2, it’s an establishing shot at the beginning of the game in a section designed to move you along and away from it as quickly as possible. And then they take shots like that and put a whole Combine army marching across, that you can only see through your super zoom binoculars, a subtle thing that makes you feel like you’re really there and wouldn’t be obvious when you’re just playing through. I’ve already been through three more “daaaaaaammmmn!” moments in Episode 2 (including when you first meet an Advisor) that prove they’ve got the technical stuff down; they’re focused on how to push a game further into genuine storytelling.

    And if Portal had just been a college project, it still would’ve been a really neat and compelling game. The genius was applying art and comedy and storytelling to that.

    Just felt the need to reiterate on that, since elsewhere in real life and on the internets I’ve had people shocked that I would dare to criticize Portal.

  5. “Take for instance the screenshot from Episode 2 at the top of this post; in most games that’d be your money shot, put in at the climax. In Ep 2, it’s an establishing shot at the beginning of the game”

    Nowadays in games you gotta put your money shot right up front. Most reviewers write their reviews based on the first 3 levels.

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