Games, like life, cheese and Bill Bailey, are things that I will never really understand, but enjoy anyway while I make haphazard, self-centred guesses at why I love them. Well, not so much life. Right now, I am going to coin a phrase that has applied to me since the first Valve game I played, consistent across every one of their single player releases.
The Valve Effect is like having the Fun punch you through water. I play the game and I know I'm enjoying myself. I know that the game is good, but I don't feel any attachment to the game, like the game is lacking in personality. However, wait a week and the game is suddenly solid gold. Take Portal, a game that I knew I was going to enjoy, a game I was so hyped for that I opened and completed the game the day before Christmas under the guise of "pre-loading it for Christmas morning". I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was very clever, but I didn't feel the thing.
Fast forward to a month or so later, and I've played all the bonus content, all the user maps with all their peaks and valeys, all their flaws and imperfections, and the game is somehow this beacon of artistic excellence. Playing portal the second time through was oddly, not more fun than the first, but still somehow a better experience. Compare that to its Indie doppelgänger Braid and the opposite is true; the game was a whirlwind of mind-melting fun, until I completely finished it and then I had nothing left to do. No user maps, no additional content nothing. It was over. I played it again, but it wasn't the same. I truly love Portal, but that first time, there was just something missing.
Like I said, this isn't exclusive. Half-Life was a brilliant game, but I felt disconnected. I must have gotten no more than 8 hours in and played the opening sequence over 10, 15 times over before I actually sat down at the PC one day and said "Right, I'm going to complete this fucker," and it was a good, rock solid game. Half-Life 2 was worse, due to the addition of mods. We had Smod, the Cinematic mod, the RPG mod, as well as the numerous mini-mods that added a couple of small things to the game, all of which have multiple savegames after no more than a few hours. But here's the thing; once I told myself I wasn't going to get distracted by anything else, I ploughed through HL2, Episode 1, Episode 2 and Lost Coast with a new-found purpose, and they are now very clearly some of the best games I've played. I still have to finish Blue Shift though.
The multiplayer games don't fit this category so much because they are powered by people, but Left 4 Dead is the exception, the example that made me realise this strange correlation. I think today, about 2 hours ago, the fun hit me. Maybe. I mean, I'm not playing a frantic multiplayer game; I'm playing a co-operative single player portion that differs in the fine but irrelevant details, so I'm not sure yet. I think I want to immerse myself in the joy of killing zombies instead of worrying about the monotony of it, and mix that in with more levels and play styles.
Regardless, I like making haphazard, self-centred guesses, so here's what I think. Valve games are designed with such brilliant purity that they are made sterile, without variety, without darks to complement the lights, without flaws to complement the awesome bits. That probably isn't a bad thing, because people love their games. I'm not even suggesting that they deliberately flaw their games to make them less boring, I just wish I saw them the way everyone else did. I've played a lot of games over the years - and no, that is me parading faux credentials - it's me saying that I know when I should be having fun, and the discomfort of not feeling that fun... it is very disconcerting, a feat that only Valve have achieved.