The Orange Box is Great

It’s been a long holiday for me, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Besides the standard holiday stuff, I managed to slug my way through a bout of what can only be described as SARS wrapped in a ball of Bird-Flu served with a side of antibiotic resistant Cooties.

But I’m all better now, thanks.

One other thing I did over the break was play every single bit of The Orange Box. In a nutshell, the three of you who read this and haven’t bought it yet should just go right out and get it. The compilation is incredibly entertaining.

Of course, everybody has been touting its value. But those people are right! 5 full-sized games in one package. That’s a lot of content. Even at the outrageous prices they charge for console games these days ($56?!) it still comes out to a bit more than $11 per game.

I’m not going to break down the entire package. That has been done extensively elsewhere. I just want to give you some of my favorite points.


This is now one of my top games of all time. It’s one of those high-water mark moments that you come back to as an example of a great game 10 years after it was released. It’s so rare nowadays to open up a game and feel like you are really doing something completely different.

And Portal just so happens to answer every one of my recent complaints about gender, violence, character, and story.

Games struggle with having a good “payoff” at the end of a game. Something that really gives you a sense of having accomplished something significant. The payoff at the end of Portal is… well I don’t wanna spoil it. But it’s great. As the credits rolled, even the old lady came over and sat down on the couch next to me to watch. My only complaint is that I want more, now.

By the way: The cake is a lie.

Half Life 2

(and the two Episodes).

It’s hard to say what I find so compelling about Half Life. It’s a “first person” shooter like countless others. Its plot resembles many of its peers: Inter-dimensional demons invade the world, hero finds shotgun. Havoc ensues. The gameplay is a linear progression from one scenario to the next. Lots of combat, spruced up here and there with some low-key physics puzzles.

There’s just always been something undefinability ballsy about Half Life. The way the story is told without any cut-scenes – entirely in-game. Plot elements are introduced via scripted events… things happen in your environment when you reach certain locations, or when you accomplish certain tasks. So while the story isn’t terribly original — the telling of it is. You feel immersed in events. The world feels dangerous and somehow more real.

While NPCs might not have terribly well-written dialogue (it’s fairly standard genre-shlock), the fact that your interactions with them happen only in-game, without the cut-scene crutch, makes them seem somehow more human.

Half Life is a great example of the idea of a Zeroeth Person narrative. Our hero – Gordon Freeman – never speaks and we never see his face. Other characters speak to him, and he interacts with the world mostly through his gun. But he really is a zero. There has been no development of his character beyond the basic outline.

Contrast this with Alyx Vance, an NPC who is your companion through much of these games. Her character is fairly round (as much as can be in this genre). She has relatives, friends, a history. She talks to Gordon (us) about her life and expresses fear and worry.

If this was done via cut-scene – I think it would become cloying and boring (and Alyx still does in fact suffer from occasional bouts of mawkishness, especially in later episodes).

But because her character development happens during the action of the game and directly through our camera lens as the player… it lends the whole thing a documentary feel. As if we, the player, are in part a roving camera eye experiencing the game world through the faces of its inhabitants. We get to connect with them on our own terms.

In the world of drama, there is a phrase: “Show, don’t tell.” Meaning, don’t tell the audience that something is sad, beautiful, or terrifying. Show them the action of the scene, show them what the characters do in response… and if you do it right the audience will get it.

I think eliminating cut-scenes brings the narrative of Half-Life (all of them) a little closer to that ideal. We can choose what details in a scene to focus on and who to pay attention to. And if the scene moves us, it feels more as if that reaction is arising spontaneously (even if it is still rather artificial).

Side Note for PS3 Owners

Much has been made of the fact that load times for levels on the PS3 are much longer in Half Life 2. Well, I’m here to say that most of that has been geek hysteria. The load times are a little on the long side. But I’ve seen longer, and they aren’t game-killers by any stretch. If your complaint with this game is that you have to wait 5 more seconds than your Xbox 360 or PC-using friends… well I can only pity you.


I too miss my beloved companion cube. But I had to kill it. I had to!


4 Responses to “The Orange Box is Great”

  1. Glad you’re feeling better Mr. MCP.

  2. What the old man says about Portal is true. I’m thinking about playing it now.

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