The bittersweet legacy of the best new game compilation ever released.
I don't think I've ever seen anything like The Orange Box before or since. For the price of a single game, on October 9 2007 Valve released a compilation that showcased the state of the first-person shooter's art. Portal was perfect execution of something entirely novel, but its brilliance almost overshadows the fact that it was also released alongside what might be the best Half-Life ever made, Episode 2, and one of the most enduring and influential multiplayer games ever made, Team Fortress 2. Each was completely different from the other, with its own visual and tonal theme.
At the time, it felt like a statement: "We are the best game developer in the business, and we can master the craft of any genre we choose."
That trio was thrilling, partly because I was a broke kid fresh out of college and the all-in-one Orange Box felt like mana raining from heaven. But also because it seemed to hint at what the future might hold, not just from Valve, but from games as a whole.
It's wasn't just that Portal was great, and it wasn't only that it was tuned to make you feel clever as you figured out its puzzles. It's that playing it offered a window into the craft of game design, showing you what a well made level and well structured tutorial looked like.
Half Life 2: Episode 2 was the series distilled to its purest essence. There was little in the game that we hadn't seen before in Half-Life 2, but each encounter was just a bit better-paced, and a little more memorable. It was perhaps the first game of the series that felt like it was driven by narrative, rather than a narrative wrapper on a technical and mechanical showpiece.
Team Fortress 2 showed you could make an authentic multiplayer shooter while leaving behind the charmless aesthetic excesses of the "Attitude Era" 90s. A game without story that was somehow packed with tons of character and heart. I somehow fell in love with what was effectively a walking Gatling gun because he was just such a harmless meathead who loved blasting things with his nerdy friend.
I couldn't wait to see where Valve was going to go next, and how the conversation around this new art form would change with each new Orange Box. Because there had to be more… right?
There was, indeed, plenty more to come. The next two winters would be dominated by Left 4 Dead and its sequel, and an almost over-inflated Portal 2 would arrive in 2011, complete with celebrity voice actors and a somewhat inexplicable National song. But I have never been able to shake the feeling that The Orange Box was the high-water mark, and also the beginning of the end for Valve as something more than a digital monopolist.
Team Fortress 2, of course, turned into an economic testbed for Valve, a game whose popularity made it primarily useful to examine players' consumer behavior, decision-making, and blind spots. What was once pure and refined started to feel, with each passing update, like one of GlaDOS's tests. My lovable gang of goofs became department store mannequins for hats whose primary role was to provide a patina of whimsy to an onging project of psychological lock-picking. The sound of Alyx Vance's weeping over her slain father became the ellipsis for the entire Half-Life franchise, until Marc Laidlaw closed the book on the series with an open letter that felt, in its conclusion, like a farewell to an era more than a franchise:
Old friends have been silenced, or fallen by the wayside. I no longer know or recognize most members of the research team, though I believe the spirit of rebellion still persists.
I always liked to imagine Valve's game design teams after 2007, and especially after releasing Portal 2 in 2011, as being a bit like Michael Douglas's character in Wonder Boys: overwhelmed by expectations, terrified of public failure, and fundamentally too comfortable and complacent to do anything about it. A studio sliding helplessly toward middle-age, benumbed by a torrent of Steam sales revenue and marketplace transaction fees.
Ten years later, Valve have never tried to surpass what they accomplished with The Orange Box. They don't have to. This is a business, after all, and it's not Valve's job to try and push a medium forward. But in 2007, it was nice to think that Valve, and games, might be something more.