It is the 10-year anniversary of The Orange Box, the game collection released in 2007 which brought Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress to consoles and, most importantly, introduced us to Portal.
It is strange now to think Valve had to trick us into playing one of the greatest games ever made. But in many ways, that is what they were doing by including Portal in The Orange Box.
In an interview with PC Gamer this week, Valve developer Robin Walker talked about how The Orange Box allowed the company to introduce Portal to many players who wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise.
“The Orange Box really solved Portal’s biggest challenge, which was to explain itself to players," Walker said. By putting it in The Orange Box, we didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining to people why they should buy this thing that was unlike anything they’d played before.”
Valve never could have expected that the little game tucked in beside its cultural behemoth Half-Life would become the phenomenon that it did. For many gamers, playing Portal the first time was an experience they will never forget. It was clear from the moment you started using the portal gun, looking at an infinite line of Chell’s lined up in front of you, that you were playing something ground-breaking.
As wondrous as messing around with the portal gun was, it was the puzzles which really brought it to life. This was a game which somehow managed to walk the razor-thin line between being challenging enough for the hardcore yet understandable enough for initiates. Looking back, the puzzles are borderline genius in their design – they would often be baffling at first, but somehow never stumped you in that infuriating throw-your-controller way that some puzzle games do. (I'm looking at you, The Witness.)
They were the kind of puzzles you wanted to share with friends and family. Nothing was better than handing them the controller and grinning smugly while they struggled to figure things out. It's nice to feel temporarily superior, even if you had struggled just as much five minutes earlier. My brother and I used to joke about the “portal test”, in which we would test the stability of our relationships by having our partners play Portal in front of us. We would gauge how successful our relationship was by the degree to which we got exasperated.
But it was more than just these mechanics that made it brilliant – every aspect of Portal was a revelation in of itself. The story has had as profound an effect on gaming and popular culture as the portal gun and puzzles did. For years, you couldn’t browse the Internet without being confronted by references to “the cake is a lie”. Unfortunately, it has been beaten into cliché through 10 years of overuse, but it is worth casting your mind back to the prominent beats of that game, and trying to remember the first time you experienced them.
The moment you got your companion cube, casting it into the fire, your escape, running behind the walls – it is hard to think of another game with such a unique premise, told through such interesting story moments.
Gameplanet writer Joel Lauterbach reviewed The Orange Box at the beginning of 2008 and said, "There are few gamers that would feel that The Orange Box was not money well spent." It's a sentiment that still rings true today.