[I've been saving up rants about the Orange Box for a while now. Pretty much all of them feature the word "Paradigm", so be warned: sit down, pour a drink, prepare your rotten vegetables to throw. This one's probably the most essential one, so it's going first, just to make sure I remember to do it.]
The Orange Box: Christ, it's bloody funny, isn't it?
Now, we, as PC Gamers, were kind of expecting bits of it to be funny. Team Fortress' character shorts had prepared us a little for the tone of the game, and the graphic style was obviously a radical break from the Marines (Space, or otherwise) FPS monopoly. But when Portal was discussed, we tended to dwell upon it taking Narbacular Drop's reality warping puzzle-play and bringing it to the people - that is, we were interested due to its mechanics rather than anything else. And as for Episode 2... Half-life's Half-life. If it's funny, it's in a random character moment as a break from the normal Orwell-does-a-disaster-movie tension. We were expecting them to be GOOD. But we weren't expecting Team Fortress 2 to be as rampantly hilarious, Portal to be so funny that it's driven us all a little bit mad and even relative-straight man Episode 2 to play up its wit to an unprecedented level.
While we've a few months to go, it's increasingly looking like the Orange Box will be the definitive PC "thing" of 2007. Absolutely the heart of the mainstream zeitgeist in the way that Doom or World of Warcraft or Starcraft or the original Half-life were in their respective years. And it's funny. The heart of PC Gaming is funny.
This hasn't been true since 1991.
(Monkey Island 2, if you're scratching your head. Day of the Tentacle was arguably better, but had lost the zeitgeist to Doom.)
This line of thought was provoked from when I was passing through the PC gamer office last month. They'd done their cover on the Orange Box, which looked like this.
And I just sighed and said something along the lines of "That's a really fun cover. That's lovely." I stopped and thought a little, before continuing, "And it's good to see someone smiling on the cover of the mag. When was the last time someone was smiling on the cover of PCG?". The rhetorical question was easily answered by turning to one of the office walls, where the last eighty or so covers are stuck up, a history of where a succession of editors thought the deepest affections of the Gaming Massive lay on a month-by-month basis. The only smiling thing on the lot of them wasn't even human - it was Black & White 2's happy cow. Other than that, an endless parade of people looking very serious indeed. Serious people holding space-guns. Serious people holding Enfield rifles. Serious people holding swords +3. Serious people looking serious even though they're wearing tin-foil G-strings. Serious people, as far as the eye can see.
And after all those frowns, Heavy Weapon guy feels like sunlight.
(For the record, I can remember two covers featuring smiling just before they started the wall - a Lara Croft cover which had her smiling ruefully in half-profile and a Curse of Monkey Island Cover. Both are around 100 issues old, of course.)
No slight is meant to PC Gamer. It just reports on what people are interested in and (as often) what interesting people are doing. Now, anti-PC people make an awful lot of painful, inaccurate jokes about all PC games being various colours of brown. Which is ridiculous. Many are also Grey. The point being, while there's always been funny stuff in PC Gaming around the edges, or buried inside more sombre games (RPGs of all sorts have always leavened the stats with a little light comedy), in a teenager's lifetime it's never been so directly, so bold, so mainstream as it is with The Orange Box. And, since it's terrain we've stayed away from for so long, it feels shockingly fresh. As good as - say - Enemy Territory is, it doesn't feel like the Next Big Thing in the way Team Fortress 2 does (i.e. "Christ, people are going to rip this off"). It may even be the old-seriousness' Day of the Tentacle to the new-unseriousness' Doom of Orange Box.
(It's also worth noting despite being comic, it still feels typically PC - dark, satirical, bloody, quasi-adult. When I showed the TF2 shorts to an ex-director now-comic-writer friend of mine, entirely smitten, he described them as, "What would happen if the Columbine kids were given a free rein at Pixar".)
Why have Valve gone in this direction? I have no idea. It's possible it could be idle whim or crafty populism. It could be because of the many strong design techniques which humour and a more cartoon approach allow - like in Team Fortress 2 things like the Spy's mask conveying information efficiently in a way that any more realistic rendering wouldn't, or how Portal - being an intrinsically alienating and mind-fucking concept - requires a lot of sugar to make people swallow, so GlaDOS and the turrets and that song ease people in. I prefer to think that everyone at Valve is having really awesome sex or realised exactly how rich they are, and started laughing and never stopped.
So - the heart of the zeitgeist is funny again.
What happens now?
It's videogames. Rampant Plagarism.
Valve, being the most constantly successful independent PC developer in the world, by their actions and successes change the way other developers (and publishers - follow the money) act. That earlier "plagarism" is in jest, as this is both natural and fine. All forms of creation are a dialogue between creators, watching what others are doing - so realising what's possible - and being inspired in kind. That said, Creators are only half the equation. The Orange Box has reintroduced the idea of pure joy for the audience, warping their expectations and preparing them for what may follow. People who once rolled their eyes at "cartoon graphics" or whatever, have - unless they're terminally aesthetically hampered - had their horizons forcibly widened by a Scout Rush or seven.
Between these two factors, it's entirely possible there could be a paradigm (I warned you!) shift towards games which don't take themselves so seriously. At the least, Valve has opened up a space in PC games' ecosphere and I eagerly await to see what brave new quick-witted mammals will rush to populate it. And, yes, like all movements, if it takes off it'll eventually lead to over-saturation and a rictus of grins... but then the pendulum can swing back to the dour.
C'est la vie. For now, we should laugh and be glad we're (still) alive.