Posted on November 21, 2007 by psu

I originally planned to pick up The Orange Box on the strength of the Team Fortress 2 trailer videos. Here was a multiplayer game with some character, I thought. I was excited about it. The people who play games for me played a lot of the beta and seemed to love it, but then they all ended up playing the multiplayer on Steam instead of the Xbox, and then my Xbox melted. No Team Fortress for me.

Then a surprise happened. They all told me to play Portal. So when my Xbox came back I picked up the whole Orange Box to see what the fuss was about.

Note: Spoilers ahead. There are spoilers ahead, so if you have not played the game, go do that first then come back. It won’t take long.

For those who don’t know, The Orange Box is a collection of five games. I will now unfairly review each of the games, even though I have not played all of them yet:

  1. Half-Life 2. Played this on the Xbox 1. In retrospect, it had a great opening but my memories of the middle and late acts are now tainted with boredom. Too many physics puzzles, not enough shooting. The new version is just like the old one, right down to where all the level loads happen, but with higher resolution textures.

  2. Half-Life 2, episode 1. In Valve’s crack-baby lingo, this is the first part of a sequence of sequels to Half-Life 2, not the first part of a remake or a prequel or something. I don’t think anyone understands it. So far it’s more of the same: too many physics puzzles, not enough good shooting. Here’s a hint to all future game developers: those levels where all you can see is what the flashlight shows you and you need to shoot a lot of zombies are not fun, they suck. Stop it.

  3. Half-Life 2, episode 2. The second part of the not-prequel. Haven’t started it yet. I assume it’s just like episode 1, only more so.

  4. Team Fortress. I played a few games with randoms. And they sucked. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a group together soon. The whole problem with multiplayer games is you need multiple players who are not douchebags to make them good. This seems to me to be a major design flaw.

Which brings me to Portal.

Everything Pete said about Portal is correct and I agree with it all. It is one of the few games I’ve played that wins on every dimension. The core mechanic is fun. The level design is stellar. The pacing is perfect. But my favorite part of the game is none of these things. The best part of the game is how the writing and the game actually work together instead of against each other. The game helps the writing by being short. Because the game is short, the narrative can actually fill the whole game rather than only about twenty percent of it. There are no long tedious slogs through endless collection quests to get to the next clichéd plot point.

Let me repeat for emphasis: short games are good for narrative. They allow you to actually tell an interesting story and get to the end of it before I grow tired of your repetitive combat, your boring A.I., your tedious quest structure and your frustrating bosses. Portal is one of the few games whose story elements are not completely crippled by the archaic notion that the only way to measure gaming “value” is in the wall-clock time required to finish the game.

Predictably the main complaint that the “gaming press” has leveled against Portal is that it is too short. These people are stupid. Don’t listen to them. Portal is the perfect length, unlike this article, which is too long.

The writing in Portal helps the game in several ways. First, it is not about you. Second, it is not about the larger world around you. Third, it is absolutely fantastic, and fantastically presented. Like the length of the game, the writing is tightly constrained. It is also primarily focussed on one character: your tormentor, GLaDOS. She is the computer that controls the “training facility” that you are trapped in. As you play through the levels, a brilliant series of voice-only interludes and a few subtle visual clues make it clear that GLaDOS is insane.

Focusing the main story arc on GLaDOS instead of the player frees the gameplay from having to fit the narrative. That is, it allows the narrative and the gameplay to be independent while still progressing at the same rate. With the exception of a few events that happen on timers the game allows you to work through the levels at whatever speed you see fit. But your pace does not effect the pacing of the story. The little snippets of dialog in each level slowly flesh out psychosis of the main character as you finish each of the challenges. Instead of feeling awkward and strange, it feels just right. Thus, the player to figures out the game and the game’s main character at the same time. It is rare that a video game manages to integrate narrative with gameplay progression this smoothly.

By the end of the game, it’s clear that your task is not to escape each of the puzzle levels, but to escape, period. Even the final boss sequence (which was a nice boss fight, by the way) adds a few more humorous touches to the development of the main character. Frosting on the cake, if you will.

All of this combined together turns Portal into the best five or six hours of gaming awesome that I have experienced since the first five or six hours of Bioshock. And the best part about it was that it was not followed by 14 hours of relative tedium.

Out of the five experiences available in the Orange Box, Portal is clearly the one carrying the show. I hope developers all over the earth study the lessons of Portal well and learn to give us more of these tight, concentrated experiences. That will be a great reason to have a party. With some cake.