Lambda Cubed The continuing mystery of Half-Life 3

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Lambda Cubed: the continuing mystery of Half-Life 3
January 29, 2020 sfbook

The Half-Life series of games has been the subject of praise, conjecture, and mystery since the release of its first instalment in 1998. 21 years later, whispers and theories regarding the elusive Half-Life 3 (or possibly Half-Life 2: Episode Three) have partially been put to rest with the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx. But why has this new chapter in the revolutionary series taken so long to surface, and how does it seem set to differ from what was expected?

The Half-Life games have long been considered some of the greatest PC video games ever.

To quickly preface this article, Half-Life 2: Episode Three’s absence has received so much attention and speculation over the twelve years since the release of Episode Two that it would be difficult to cover every factor or theory relevant to it. Additionally, Valve’s secrecy and general unwillingness to discuss the future of the Half-Life series until now, combined with the number of conspiracies and hoaxes created over time, make it difficult to determine where fact ends and rumour begins. With that said, we have tried to avoid presenting anything unconfirmed or uncertain as fact, and any theories discussed are just those: theories.

Now for some context. The Half-Life games have long been considered some of the greatest PC video games ever, especially Half-Life 2 (2004) and its Episodes (2006/2007). In terms of gameplay, the games are fairly standard first-person shooters (FPS) with some elements of puzzle-solving woven in as well. Where the series really shines is in its story, which follows gun-toting theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman, and the way it tells it (spoilers follow). 

During his work at the top secret and mildly illegal Black Mesa research facility Freeman is forced into a fight for survival after an experiment goes awry and unleashes a tide of alien monstrosities from a world called Xen. Upon defeating the aliens’ leader, the Nihilanth, at the close of the first game, he is met by the sinister G-Man and placed in extradimensional stasis. He is returned to Earth at the start of the second game, to find that humanity is now oppressed by an otherworldly dictatorship known as ‘the Combine’, from which the Xen creatures were attempting to escape in the first game. Gordon himself, due to his actions at Black Mesa, has become a symbol for the underground resistance, and his arrival sparks a full-on rebellion to overthrow the Combine regime.

Episodes One and Two continued this story from Gordon’s destruction of the Combine Citadel, following him and his friend and ally, Alyx Vance, as they escaped the ruins of City 17 and made the dangerous journey to a rebel base in the countryside. Throughout the two games they fight off remnants of the Combine forces and learn that the Combine rulers, manipulative creatures known as ‘advisors’, have disturbing contingency plans which are being set into motion. At the close of Episode Two, Gordon and Alyx are about to set off in search of the Borealis, a ship which vanished many years ago during an experiment by Black Mesa’s rival, Aperture Science. However, just as they are boarding a helicopter to leave, the Combine ambush them, killing Alyx’s father and Gordon’s colleague Eli Vance, before being driven off.

It is on this tragic cliff-hanger that the game, and indeed the series, ended. Episode Three was scheduled for release later in 2007, but it never appeared. All the signs were that Valve had the game in development, from published concept art, to the tie-in with the Portal games, to interviews with Valve staff such as Marc Laidlaw, lead writer for the Half-Life series. 

However, over the last twelve years almost the entire team who worked on the original Half-Life series left Valve. While there was never an official cancellation of Episode Three, it seemed highly likely that the game would never be completed or released. In 2017, Laidlaw published a short story titled ‘Epistle 3’ on his personal blog, a year after his departure from Valve. Written as a letter from ‘Gertrude Fremont’ to ‘Dearest Playa,’ it implies what may have been the planned plot of Episode Three, with character and place names altered. It seems this was a way of making the story of the game public despite Episode Three never being released.

And yet, speculation continued that the most notorious piece of vapourware since Duke Nukem Forever (2011) might still be in the works. Valve generally refused to discuss the matter, but even as recently as late 2018 lines of code were being found in SteamVR updates referring to Xen, Vortigaunts, and ‘HLVR,’ which was taken to suggest a virtual reality game set in the Half-Life universe was in development. Such a theory was not without precedent, as Valve have historically used the Half-Life games to showcase new technology. Half-Life was the first game to use the GoldSrc engine; and while Counter Strike (2004) was the first game to utilise its successor, Source, Half-Life 2 was the first to truly demonstrate the engine’s potential beyond mere FPS combat. Most notably, Half-Life 2’s ‘Gravity Gun’ was an excellent way to demonstrate the physics capabilities of the newly-developed Source engine. Based on these past actions, and Valve’s current work on their own VR system, it was not hard to imagine that a new instalment in the Half-Life series would utilise VR technology.

And sure enough, the trailer for Half-Life: Alyx released on 21st October confirmed that the return to Combine-controlled Earth will take place through the medium of virtual reality. For the first time, the series will see the player take on the role of cocky and tech-savvy Alyx Vance rather than the silent yet determined Gordon Freeman. As a non-player character (NPC) in Half-Life 2, Alyx primarily used her skills to unlock doors and bypass security systems to help Gordon. In Half-Life: Alyx, it seems that the player will gain this hacking ability, with manual inputs required to properly hijack Combine technology. The game also seems to be set before Half-Life 2, and could thus give an interesting insight into what shaped Alyx into the character we know. The Combine invasion of Earth occurred when she was an infant, and she was raised to adulthood in a world where alien vermin and cybernetic enforcers are commonplace. Whatever Half-Life: Alyx has in store, its sudden announcement has had an extremely positive reception from Half-Life fans across the globe.

Of course, this does not change the fact that it has been twelve years since the last official Half-Life game, the delay becoming near-legendary in status. Interestingly enough, the fan-made remaster of the original Half-LifeBlack Mesa, has suffered from similar development troubles to the official series. Originally a 2012 mod for Half-Life 2, it was later released by a team called Crowbar Collective as an early-access standalone through Steam in 2015. The game is a near-complete remake of the original Half-Life using the Source engine, with environments and characters rebuilt from scratch to take advantage of the newer software. However, the final levels of Half-Life, those occurring in Xen, were left out of Black Mesa, originally scheduled for release at Christmas of 2017. The Xen levels still have not surfaced, although there was admittedly more communication from Crowbar Collective on their progress than Valve ever gave for the main Half-Life series. The Xen levels of Half-Life are generally considered the least good part of an otherwise excellent game, and Crowbar Collective have repeatedly stated their intent to improve upon them. In their most recent preview of Xen in Black Mesa, slated at the time of writing for a late 2019 release, the area has become a six-hour long experience of an otherworldly realm, vastly different from the 30-minute conclusion of Half-Life.

While Episode Three is still arguably unlikely to appear, Half-Life: Alyx proves that interest in the setting and the story is very much alive at Valve.

The Half-Life series is far from alone in suffering such delays. What kind of factors cause these problems? Black Mesa’s developers have been slowed by the requirement to greatly alter and improve a maligned yet vital part of the game, a process which obviously takes time. This same argument was often made regarding Valve and Episode Three, since it is clear from the concept art, ‘Epistle 3,’ and a few interviews with staff members that the team behind Half-Life had a distinct vision for the game. However, with many of the original Half-Life team having left Valve, how much of this vision still exists, or how much drive there is to realise it, is questionable. This becomes particularly relevant when the unusual ‘flat’ organisational structure of Valve is considered: employees are free to work on whatever projects they wish to. It seems, however, that over time the desire to create a new Half-Life game did not vanish, but simply changed. While Episode Three is still arguably unlikely to appear, Half-Life: Alyx proves that interest in the setting and the story is very much alive at Valve.

Another, and perhaps more cynical, view some took to explain the absence of Episode Three was that of the profit motive. It makes sense for Valve as a business to focus on those projects judged potentially most profitable. The digital platform Steam, originally intended as a simple updater for Valve’s own games in 2003, has since adapted and grown to be the largest online game store and library, complete with its own form of social media services and annual events. Steam has dramatically changed PC gaming, has contributed to the digitisation of the industry’s distribution, and made Valve at one point the most profitable company (in revenue per employee) in the United States. It was easy to believe that Steam is the reason Valve mostly appeared to stop producing games after the release of Dota 2 in 2013 (Artifact did eventually follow in 2018, but rapidly faded into obscurity). Indeed, alongside the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx came a substantial update to Steam, enabling local multiplayer over the internet.

Steam has dramatically changed PC gaming and made Valve at one point the most profitable company (in revenue per employee) in the United States.

Valve are also somewhat notorious for long delays when making or updating games. Team Fortress 2, originally shown at E3 in 1999, was not released until 2007 as part of The Orange Box after the entire game was overhauled from the ground up. Initially intended as a realistic modern warfare simulator, akin to Arma (2006), the game was reworked into something far more comical, with its focus more on game mechanics and entertainment than realism. The delay and rework of Team Fortress 2 undoubtedly helped both its popularity and its longevity, since even twelve years after its release it is still consistently one of the most-played games on Steam. While updates from Valve have become few and far between, with the recent announcement confirming that Valve currently has nothing more to add to Team Fortress 2, the game is still supported mostly through community-created cosmetic items which are added in seasonal events.

Other developers besides Valve have of course demonstrated the merits of delaying a project to ensure the best result possible. The 2016 reboot of Doom by id Software was first announced as Doom 4 in 2008, but after various tweaks and iterations was restarted from scratch and eventually showcased simply as Doom in 2014. The full release of the game in 2016 was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from fans and critics alike. The sequel, Doom: Eternal, has been similarly delayed, for the stated reason id Software wish to “make sure [they’re] delivering the best experience.”

However, delays do not always equate to quality upon release. Duke Nukem Forever (2011) was in development for fourteen years, during which time the developer and publisher both changed. Upon release, the game was widely considered a let-down. Could concern over a failure such as this have been a significant factor in the absence of Episode Three and the long wait for Alyx? Fan expectations for the Half-Life series have been incredibly high since the release of Half-Life, and as time has passed the expectation that an Episode Three or Half-Life 3 would be nothing short of perfection only grew. It is likely that Valve did not want to under-deliver on such expectations, and had difficulties meeting them. Now, however, Alyx acts as a bold statement, not just returning the series to its roots of showcasing new software and technology, but also proving to all that Valve has not abandoned the Half-Life series.