Valve's Orange Box will be released on 12th October (and apparently the 10th in the US) and it gives us a number of reasons to be cheerful. It's a bundle of games – and that's something we don't often see these days, especially when all three games are brand new. We can look forward to Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal all at once: which one will you play first? You can barely imagine another developer being able to do this: to deliver three different games, each with its own palette of potent ideas, for release on the same day. Valve are beginning to scare me.
After the clickhop: some rambling thoughts on the Valve box of goodies. (Because I am a thought-rambler.)
I have to admit that, having had a Half-Life 2 overdose over the last couple of years I'm not overly excited about Episode Two. Well, I wasn't, until I realised that this is Valve's take on the “slightly-wider” FPS. Of course it's not going to be as sprawling as Stalker, but the fact that a large tract of the game is set in open countryside and gives you a patched-up off-road Dodge Charger to, er, charge about in, suggests that this is Valve having a go at making their chronically linear FPS a little more open-ended.
Gaming for me has always existed in two forms: one is a kind of arcade space where I'm simply reacting to stimuli, beating the game of reactions and releasing lots of chemicals into my brain (I'd count Quake III and Robotron as in the same space), and the other is that of exploring something that has been dreamed up by someone else. Often these two forms collide and they sometimes do so at the expense of both. That's one of the reasons I think linear-FPS games have been so problematic for gamers. The more linear they are, the more that have to keep propelling you forward to keep the flickering flame of exploration from going out. When the inertia dies, the illusion is gone, and you have neither action nor exploration to satisfy you.
Anyway, I'm hoping that between World Of Warcraft and GTA we're going to see a big swing across game development into wider, explorable spaces. It seems to be happening all over – with Gearbox talking about randomisation and wide-open spaces with Borderlands, and Id doing much the same with Rage and the megatexture cleverness they developed for Enemy Territory's great-big maps. (Harvey Smith tantalised my earlier in the year talking about he wants to make Blacksite 2 into a 'city' game, with each level being a couple of blocks open to move through at your own pace). Episode Two sees Valve dabbling with this kind of design, and that's really exciting. They're already going to be working on what comes after Half-Life 2, and I've love to see their peerless production and design cleverness having a go at improving on what we've seen in, say, Stalker.
Of course what most people are excited about with Episode Two is simply the chance to see Alyx, Dog and the others in action. As beautiful as Bioshock was it still demonstrated that no one has been able to do AI characters quite like Valve – and for good reason. They are quite an achievement.
(And I don't know what happens in Episode Two, but I'm putting my money on Dog being killed.)
And then there's Team Fortress 2. You've all caught a glimpse of the trailers, but that's really just gloss. The really important story here is that of a mod team that went pro, and then spent ten years at Valve while (possibly) developing a sequel. The original Team Fortress was a Quake mod that ended up inspiring the team to go pro, only to be bought up by early Valve. Now they've made a Fortress game with an essentially unlimited budget. You can't really not be envious/excited.
Team Fortress 2 will, I think, leave me agonised that I no longer have time for clan-based gaming. The same is true of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars – these are both games that will scream at me to get organised, and execute tactical play as part of an organised team. ETQW might be better for casual gaming because of the size of its maps and the awesome contextual mission system, but then again I suspect that we'll simply have more people playing TF2. How can anyone resist those Pixar-gazumping characters?
Of course Valve have continued their project of buying up amateur teams that take their fancy – which was what they did to create Portal. I recently interviewed Kim Swift, the original project lead from proto-Portal student project Narbacular Drop, and talking to her made me realise that, well, they really were right out of college. Valve have mixed up fresh blood with very old, and taken a huge chunk of their creative team from projects that excited gamers. One of the reasons I'm excited about Portal is I think it's an example of a games company accessing what's most vital about gaming: the enthusiasm for weirdness and difference that you find in habitual gamers.
The other reason I'm excited is that I had a chance to play an early version of the game when I visited Valve last year. Even then it seemed meticulously solid. A first person puzzle game draped in black humour – the one thing that worries me is that the slow-minded masses simply aren't going to understand what they're missing if they don't play this game. The other possibility of course is that everyone plays it, and everyone understands. Even if like, say, Katamari, it becomes unrepeatable, it nevertheless becomes one of those games that we all refer to, that will remember with fondness, and that one day inspires something else fantastic.