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.