It’s certainly hard to remember a time when the fan response to Team Fortress 2 promotional videos and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive previews alike, didn’t consist almost entirely of feverish cries for the return of Gordon Freeman. But it wasn’t until December 1st, 2011, when game dev Chad Ekanayake (of Uber Entertainment) purportedly saw a Valve employee (who wished to remain nameless) wearing a black T-shirt, with a redesigned Half-Life 3 logo emblazoned on it, that the previously only simmering desire truly boiled over.
There were a number of factors for this – we had just passed the four-year mark since the release of the last Half-Life installment; that summer’s release of Duke Nukem Forever had bumped Half-Life right up to the top of the most-wanted vaporware project list (sorry, Beyond Good & Evil 2 fans, but you at least got a teaser trailer); and a total lack of single-player offerings on Valve’s horizon (something that persists, to this day).
Above all, though, was hope. After years of total radio silence, this seemed to be a concrete, declarative statement – “Half-Life 3 is out there”.
Though the veracity of the T-shirt story quickly became the subject of rampant internet arguments (which it remains, even one year onward), it also became a kernel around which the first hopes of a full-length sequel (as opposed to the long-promised Episode 3), began to crystallize. A few early hoaxes (which were quickly shot down by official Valve responses), as well as morsels of more reputable information (most notably, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive art assets filled with cryptic information, including names of Half-Life characters and references to the completion of unspecified projects) helped the movement grow even larger.
With the imminent Spike Video Game Awards, hosted by longtime Valve correspondent and prominent gaming journalist, Geoff Keighley, anticipation crept up to a fever pitch. Though there were no surprise appearances, videos of Wheatley’s Character of the Year speeches quickly captured the imagination of the more eagle-eyed viewers. The video feed was littered with rapidly changing sequences of numbers, supposedly data streamed from the Soviet observation satellite Wheatley was broadcasting through. Wary of April 2011’s Potato Fool’s Day ARG, community members catalogued and trawled through the numbers, but came up with nothing concrete. Others followed this up by analyzing every inch of Steam Holiday Sale banners and TF2’s Australian Christmas 2011 comics for the barest hint of a clue, to no avail.
Meanwhile, fake e-mails, websites and information were popping up in greater numbers than ever, though they were shot down just as quickly by Valve’s managing director Gabe Newell, writer Chet Faliszek, as well as Half-Life’s head writer Marc Laidlaw. It wasn’t long until the epidemic of falsified rumors largely died down, leaving the waters calm… but things were far from over for the community, as a greater fan creation entered the picture.
The A Call For Communication Steam group, created on Christmas Day 2011 and organized by longtime community members Surfrock22, Smash and Flamov. Within a month it had gained extensive press coverage, several half-serious copycat groups (not sure who’s still waiting on Alien Swarm 2), more than 20,000 members, and had a landmark event in the works – “Red Letter Day”, a massive concurrent Half-Life 2 play session scheduled for February 4th, 2012. The event reached over 13,000 concurrent players (far more than HL2 normally accumulates on the Steam charts), including Minecraft developer Markus “Notch” Persson and Valve employee/Steam administrator BurtonJ.
The group had further ambitious plans for a huge photomosaic to be assembled by its members, but scheduling conflicts for the administrators and a lack of significant progress caused the project, and the group as a whole, to lose momentum. Before the enthusiasm died down, though, more than 60,000 people had joined to support the cause of a new Half-Life.
The group’s influence remained, and had brought Half-Life 3 to the forefront of everyone’s minds, perhaps to stay. Quite a few fake reveals and leaks were made in the spring and summer months; a replica of the Shirt by Garry Newman, cryptic and long-dormant websites, and age-old mockup images being dredged from the Internet’s depths. There were honest mistakes, jokes that got blown out of proportion, and a few shameless bids for more pageviews that don’t bear mentioning, but nothing concrete. It’s all been quiet on the Eastern Front – perhaps too quiet.
Still, the past year has shown a slow but steady drip of intriguing concept art dating from 2008; vague but intriguing statements; Ricochet 2 quips, and more, from Valve itself. Combined with Gabe Newell confirming this past summer that a next-gen Source engine is in the works, I would say the future looks brighter than ever for the Half-Life series. It might sound like the same thing we’ve been constantly saying for the past six years (that’s because it is), but as Barney said in the original Half-Life: “Our luck has to change, sooner or later.” In any case, let’s not forget that they made us wait six years for Half-Life 2, as well – look how that turned out.
For further information, see the Combine OverWiki, or Kotaku’s extensive timeline of Half-Life since the release of Episode Two.