Saturday, May 9, 2009

Simple Gifts

When it was released more than a year ago, The Orange Box was hailed as the best deal in gaming. For sixty dollars, Valve was giving us Half Life 2, HL2: Episodes 1 and 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. The HL2 package alone was about 21 hours of the most exquisitely engineered action most gamers are likely to play – not to mention Team Fortress 2, a devilish resurrection of a game thought dead, and Portal, the star of the show. It was a steal at $60 for the 360, $50 for the PC –and then, one year later, Valve cut the price to $20. Last weekend, Valve sold the package for $10 on steam.

In an industry mercenary to its core, Valve is upending the marketing tactics used by its competitors and turning their games into what all art should be – gifts.

I readily admit I’m guilty of Valve fanboyism. I love the Bellevue, Wa.-based corporation, and I believe they’re one of the best things to happen to gaming. And I’m not trying to paint a multi-million dollar business venture as a bleeding-heart nonprofit. I know Gabe Newell owns a yacht. But there’s something undeniably altruistic about the Box – it feels like the studio is thanking gamers for their loyalty, and the powers that be for its good fortune.

In his seminal book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues for the decommodification of art by examining cultures whose economy was based on gift-giving. Works of art weren’t given an arbitrary, abstract monetary value; they were given from one person to another, rooted in a time, place, motive, and four pairs of human hands. This is why I’m fond of used books. The intermediary of money never plays a huge role, and the things I come across between the pages – a receipt, a plane ticket, a strand of hair – make the experience more personal.

Gabe Newell didn’t secrete a lock of his hair in my Orange Box, but it’s the closest thing mainstream gaming has seen to gift-giving, excepting freebie DLC. And it isn’t just the value. EA could bundle their greatest hits and give them away for five cents and it wouldn’t quite be the same. The contents of The Orange Box hum and glow with artistry, originality and aggressive quirkiness.

Portal and Team Fortress 2 are a pair of perfect party guests, warm, funny and memorable. The morbid humor of the former made it a meme (the cake is a lie, I hear!) while the sheer brilliance of its gameplay mechanics made critics sob with admiration, barely able to toss the garlands in their hands. Team Fortress 2 was originally conceived as a flinty-eyed team shooter a la Battlefield 2; after countless delays forfeit that field to, well, Battlefield 2, the Valve gave the shooter a bold makeover, shifting the aesthetic style from James Bond to Daffy Duck and focusing on shooter fundamentals. The result was a perfectly balanced multiplayer game with shocking verve and surprising wit. If you don’t believe me, check out these spots for the character classes.

In contrast to this stands the slick commercialism of major studios, who dump millions of dollars into perfectly identifiable shooters. Why? Because identical sells. Look at Killzone 2 – for the life of me, I can’t see anything compelling in the game. I don’t care how well it plays. It’s still WWII in space, as was Halo, as will countless other shooters yet to come. In an industry that quickly revealed itself to be anything but recession proof, I’m afraid we can’t count on the larger studios to pique our curiosity. It isn’t about making a work of art. It’s about making a good investment.

I’m grateful for Valve, and I’m grateful for The Orange Box – which, by the way, continues to sell. Instead of padding their profit margins, Valve chooses to invest in the faith and goodwill of the gaming public –returns can be measured not only in dollars, but also in fawning blog posts.