In the past few weeks, it has become increasingly clear just how chaotic the development of the next Half-Life has been since Episode Two was released almost five years ago. Gabe Newell has revealed that many ‘twists and turns’ have occurred in the interim and that Half-Life’s future has been hampered by a whole range of various complications.
Public expectations have likewise shifted gradually as year after year of persistent silence has dragged on. No one is expecting a mere episode that offers nothing more than a continuation and extension of Half-Life 2’s proven formula. We’re expecting something radically different in the form of what we now collectively assume will be Half-Life 3. We ought to. It’s been a long time, and given Valve’s history of building innovative products, there’s little doubt that they’ve become very ambitious since 2007.
It’s been interesting seeing this transition. No official announcement has ever been made with confirmation that Half-Life 3 has superseded Episode Three. The conception almost universally accepted by the fanbase, however, is that this is exactly what has happened. Valve themselves have in the last year started using the title in response to questions about the series as if in an attempt to bury the possibility of an Episode Three.
This isn’t a surprise. Valve’s decision in 2006 to pursue episodic content for Half-Life was, in retrospect, a dreadfully short-sighted mistake that has unfortunately pushed the series against the wall with little room to maneuver creatively and economically. I don’t mean to say that the Episodes are bad. They really aren’t, and I understand the reasons why Valve went down that road. They’d spent six tumultuous years trying to get Half-Life 2 done, enduring a lot of stress along the way, and they wanted to make things easier for themselves. I sympathize with that, but in their attempt to do so they lost something important.
The Episodes lost something important.
“Half-Life was MADE to be monolithic.” A good friend of mine said that to me a few days ago and it really put things in perspective. It was such an obvious thing to say, but I hadn’t really thought about it in such a direct way before.
I like the Episodes as self-contained experiences, but they are distinctly fallible in the grand scheme of the series and simply do not hold up to the same level of quality as their monolithic predecessor. They aren’t anywhere near as ambitious or as innovative or as masterfully crafted. They fall into a comfort zone that relies on a tired formula, only innovating in minor increments and thus, they do not live up to the potential expected of them. They are in many ways comparable to the original Half-Life expansion packs, which likewise took the original’s assets and weapons and themes while giving them a new coat of paint.
We don’t expect such a constrained attitude from Valve. Valve don’t expect such a constrained attitude from Valve. This realization would have undoubtedly fueled the decision to ultimately abandon the format.
Half-Life 2 is brilliant, and it was achieved precisely because the game went through such a troubled development cycle with numerous restarts and retreads over the course of six years. They kept going and going until they had it exactly the way they wanted. Exactly the way they needed. The development of the Episodes, by contrast, seemed too simple; too quick; too easy, and I think their quality shows. It’s a lesson in realizing that creating truly transcendental experiences for any art form (games included) is challenging, and requires a great deal of time and effort and passion. These can’t be shrugged off for the sake of sheer convenience.
The very existence of Episode Two and the way it ended, though emotionally significant, is a big part of the reason why the series has been put on hold for so long. Certain issues are immediately obvious. How does Valve start the next game when we expect to continue on from the point we left off after five years of absolute silence? How does Valve move on from such a cliffhanger, and build on all the set-up in a way that’s faithful to an intricate narrative spanning four games, without alienating a new audience? Do we expect people to read up on the series, or go back and play games that are over five years old? Although they arguably should, the reality is that most people simply aren’t interested in playing three different games just to find out what’s been going on. Perhaps Half-Life 2‘s detachment from its predecessor’s setting and its immediate aftermath, is what made it so simple and sublime to experience, even for someone who had never heard of Half-Life in their life.
What’s more, the next Half-Life will, to some extent, rely heavily on some of the conventions of the previous games – early on in the game, at the very least. We’re still playing in exactly the same fictional setting, and little will change dramatically in the time between Episode Two’s ending and the start of the next game. This limits Valve’s creative legroom and potential for originality. It was an incredible experience stepping into City 17 for the first time in Half-Life 2, and I don’t see how Valve can possibly encapsulate that same engrossing atmosphere of stepping into a new world and feeling awed by it when we will likely be waking up in an extremely familiar environment.
This is a huge contrast with Episode One’s ending. The Citadel’s going up in a ball of destructive exotic particles, you’re leaving behind the familiar confines of City 17 (as well as its immediate environs), and then you black out. It was a great opportunity to facilitate a fresh start. We were heading into a new environment – the Wasteland – that didn’t need to be bound by the same conventions and sensibilities we’d grown comfortable with. It could have served as a perfect transition between Half-Life 2‘s familiar setting, and a completely new world which would have sported its own style and tone.
Instead, Episode Two provides ‘more of the same’. It’s a wilderness representative of rural Seattle (rather than Eastern Europe). It’s mundane and uninteresting, and doesn’t convey any of the consequences or effects we’d expect after two decades of the Combine’s widespread and destructive dominion. It’s one of many examples in the Episodes where Valve merely allude to the state of the world without ever visually demonstrating it and that is a misstep which sadly cannot be rectified.
Episode One was, of course, originally titled Aftermath and I think it should have stayed that way. With a few changes and a slightly longer campaign it could have been a great piece of ‘bridging content’ between Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 3. In much the same way Episode One does right now, it could have set up the next phase of the conflict in the series – the G-Man’s loss of control over the player, the rise of the Vortigaunts as a major power, humanity’s liberation from Combine subservience – by getting Gordon Freeman and other key characters out of City 17 and into the unknown.
In this hypothetical situation, building Aftermath would have been necessary, I think, otherwise Valve would have had too much to juggle in a Half-Life 3. The events of Episode Two, then, could have constituted the first act of Half-Life 3. The second act could have seen the player travelling to the Borealis. The third act could have seen us going off-world to other dimensions, including the Combine Overworld. This could have allowed Valve to explore in more intimate detail many of the things Kleiner alludes to in Episode One that Episode Two ultimately fails to properly address (the Resistance’s triage centers, for one).
I think this is perhaps the best example of the potential wasted by Valve in their decision to create episodic content, and how they’ve made the transition to the next Half-Life so very difficult for all of us.