Editor’s Note: An interesting thing happened at GDC this year: Valve showed up at the show to introduce their new line of Steam Machines and plans for VR. Some people at the show even claim Valve even “won” the trade show. But more importantly, it got fans hoping for a new Half-Life game again. So we felt it was time to revisit this subject. After years of waiting, why do we persist?
Ten years ago, Valve released one of the biggest and innovative sci-fi shooters ever made. Hard science fiction, monsters, aliens, socio-politcal struggles, lots of bullets, and headcrabs made up the story of Half-Life 2, the golden boy (old man) of PC gaming. It’s a game and a series that has maintained a hardcore following all these years later. Why has there never been a sequel? Where is Half-Life 3? Most importantly…
Does the world still need Half-Life 3?
This question should infuriate you. That it’s been seven years since the last Half-Life game, that we’ve been left on a cliffhanger for so long…Valve has been in a deep G-Man induced sleep for a long time. It’s crazy that we haven’t returned to City 17 or been shot at by the Combine in so long. It goes against everything a shooter franchise is.
The formula for building a successful shooter franchise is simple: Make a good product, which players drop all their money on and critics rave about. Make huge profit, which you in turn put into an even better (or exactly the same) sequel. Repeat.
In this case, it’s commendable that Valve hasn’t just put out Half-Life sequels for the money. The developer’s attitude towards its games is clear: when we think it’s ready, when it’s the best game it possibly can be, we will release it.
The name Valve, of course, goes hand in hand with innovation. Time and time again, the software company has caused waves in the video game industry. When we talk about Valve, we’re talking about Team Fortress, Dota, Left 4 Dead, Portal, Day of Defeat, and the almighty Counter-Strike, all of which have received much-deserved sequels. But none have received the amount of sequels, mods, remakes, and recognition of the Half-Life franchise. It’s fair to say that Half-Life is Valve’s flagship series — alive mostly in the world of PC gaming, which is pretty ridiculous in itself. The series gained even more popularity in the console market after the release of Half-Life 2 for the Xbox in 2005, followed by The Orange Box for Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2007. After Half-Life made it to consoles and that audience went crazy, the series was pretty much embedded in our social consciousness. Half-Life would take over the world.
I’m not going to start an entire debate on whether Half-Life 2 is the best shooter ever made or not (it is), but it’s certainly the best sci-fi shooter ever made, toppling other favorites, such as Halo, Killzone, Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein, with its intelligence, varied styles of play, and narrative. The story alone — a rebellion against the oppressive puppet government of a city-state ruled by an alien empire, which invaded Earth through an inter-dimensional portal your character accidentally opened (all this wrapped in quantum physics formulas capable of teleportation, time travel, and tearing apart the fabric of reality) — will leave you reeling when the credits roll. Not to mention the ending is pretty much the most infuriating: the G-Man puts you to sleep again, as your charming female companion, Alyx Vance, is sent flying by a wall of fire, the Citadel crumbling beneath your feet.
Luckily, that’s not where the story ended. For our patience and persistence, we were awarded expansion episodes — Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 & 2. And we were promised a third. When Episode 2 ended in another cliffhanger, amidst a tragedy, we weren’t worried. Episode 3 would arrive in six months, maybe a year, from now. The year passed. Nothing. Two. Anxious fans started to ask questions. Valve was silent.
Fast-forward to seven years later. The series is basically comatose. What’s worse is that Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the series, wasn’t even put back to sleep at the end of Episode 2. He’s still in that hangar, watching Alyx mourning her father’s death, and waiting to continue his mission against the Combine. He stands in the whiteness of time, listening to the buzzing silence.
The only reason you would think about Dr. Freeman at all is because you remember the past. You remember the alien infestation in Black Mesa, battling the Nihilanth on Xen, fleeing though the City 17 sewers, shooting your way past the zombie horde in Ravenholm, and facing the treacherous Dr. Breen atop the Citadel. Then time stopped, you slipped into a dream, and waited.
A whole new generation of gamers have turned up since then. People that weren’t playing hardcore video games back in 1998, 2004, or 2007, don’t have a reason to know Gordon Freeman or miss him. Perhaps deterioration through time is Half-Life‘s main antagonist — after all, its name is another word for decay. Gordon can’t hold on to a single moment because he is quickly rushed away to another. Slowly, in the span of seven years, the memory of Dr. Freeman is vanishing.
The argument is valid: Valve has taken its sweet time releasing a Half-Life sequel before. It took six years for Half-Life to get a proper sequel, but even then, Valve released standalone expansions in between to keep the series’ blood flowing. This time, it’s been ten years since Half-Life 2, and the last expansion dropped in 2007. The franchise was put to sleep, and one has to wonder if Valve didn’t pull the plug on the life support.
With massive game changers, such as the Steam digital marketplace and the company’s first foray into hardware, Valve doesn’t really need Half-Life anymore. One can also make the case that Valve isn’t all that interested in being a game developer anymore, and if they are, they’re almost certainly going to go with franchises that are financially viable today, such as Dota and Counter-Strike, plus the tentative Left 4 Dead sequel once Evolve puts the cooperative team-based online shooter back on the map (thanks to the aborted Turtle Rock Studios).
The point is that there doesn’t seem to be a place for the smart sci-fi shooter in today’s market. Shooters have gone the way of Call of Duty — the behemoth that makes up about 75% of our mindless FPS experience (the other 25% is probably made up of COD copycats). Even Halo, which brought the sci-fi shooter to consoles in a very big way, was never all that smart. Bungie’s magnum opus relies on planetary romance and military sci-fi to carry the story.
Half-Life is so much more than that, charming gamers with its boundless intelligence. Sure, there’s the fair amount of shooting aliens that are gooey on the inside, but there’s also platforming, puzzle-solving, and defeating your enemies with science. While the story plays out like an intense action thriller, the dialogue is riddled with physics fomulas, witticisms, turns of phrase, and irony. There’s a rhythm and pacing to the story that could belong to the best scifi novel (not that the two art forms necessarily equate, but they feel closer than ever in this game.) Half-Life, years since its release, still tells a much more complex story than most shooters today. Most shooters are just not very high on the story spectrum anymore.
Even Gabe Newell, CEO and co-founder of Valve, has recognized times have changed. And his company has tried to keep up with the consumer. He told the Washington Post back in January that:
So, if somebody becomes the group manager of X, they’re going to really resist it when X is not what you want to do in the next round of games. You don’t want them to sort of burrow into that — you want them to recognize that bein.g really good at Half-Life level design is not as nearly as valued as thinking of how to design social multi-player experiences. You’ve had them feel like they have an organization and title tied up to something when the key is to just continue to follow where the customers are leading
Perhaps the answer is in the evolution of the video game industry. What do video gamesstrive to be in 2014 as opposed to 1998? Look at some of the biggest games today: Call of Duty, Halo, Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto, and The Last of Us. These are the champions of cinematic video games — those born from classic film tropes to elevate the art form into an experience that emulates cinema.
Previously, I discussed my displeasure with the upcoming Last of Us film adaptation, arguing that the award-winning game was the epitome of cinematic video gaming — birthed from elements of the best films in its respective genre. Don’t get me wrong: The Last of Us is a fantastic game, the realization of what the industry has strived for these past few years, since Steven Spielberg, fresh from Saving Private Ryan, decided to throw his hat in the gaming ring with Medal of Honor back in 1999. Today’s big blockbuster games look a lot like movies, and that’s no accident.
But in 1998, Half-Life was the realization of another kind of video game: the video game as art from. At the time of its release, Half-Life was praised for being an expressive and naturalistic game that elevated video games to art, capable of delivering experiences completely unique to itself. It doesn’t “feel like you’re in a movie.”
Before Call of Duty and its WW2 film context, the belt belonged to games that strived to be games, providing unique experiences that people couldn’t get anywhere else. This, in turn, spawned the idea of the “video game movie,” a film genre that still hasn’t found its footing, thank God. Video games didn’t sacrifice gameplay for the “cinematic experience.”
There aren’t any fancy cinematics in Half-Life. It’s purely naturalistic. You’re not watching anything for theme or story. Instead, the experience solely comes from moving through the game. Playing the game advances the story. The game is all the context you need. You don’t stop after every level to watch a cinematic.
I’m not saying that both kinds of games haven’t been around forever (or don’t have their place). Metal Gear Solid came out the same year as Half-Life, and the whole goal for most gamers was to play through the intense sneaking set pieces in order to get to the next cutscene. It’s the only way to really get the story.
On the other hand, BioShock is probably the closest thing I’ve played to a Half-Life spiritual successor (it wouldn’t be fair to talk about Portal, which comes from the Half-Life universe). BioShock, with its steampunk sensibility and tendency to unravel its plot through philosophical tangents (not to mention time travel and inter-dimensional portals) is an incredibly smart and naturalistic game. There is shooting, platforming, puzzle-solving, and quantum physics. Not to mention a plot that more likely comes from a philosophy textbook than a film. Plus, with its weapon crafting system and faster pace, it really feels like BioShock was appointed to bring everything that was good about Half-Life into the next generation. Why play an old franchise when you can play something just as good that has also kept up with the times?
The Crowbar Collective, who are currently working on Black Mesa, the Source remake of the original Half-Life, seem to think so. What started as a couple of fans remaking the original game in their spare time has turned into a full-blown remake that will be distributed on Steam — which is a HUGE move by Valve, who until now, had no involvement with this unofficial remake. Getting a Steam release also means that Black Mesa can be considered the OFFICIAL Half-Life remake — not to be confused with Valve’s Half-Life: Source, which was a disappointment upon release back in 2004.
Crowbar Collective put Black Mesa on Steam Greenlight, Valve’s indie game platform that allows gamers to vote on video game concepts. If an indie game gets enough votes on Greenlight, Valve allows the game to be released on Steam. The fact that countless fans voted for Black Mesa assures me of one thing: there is still a need for Half-Life.
Could it be the wake up call Valve needs to bring back their most famous hero? Current-gen consoles are fresh out of the oven, so there’s no better time to plant your flag on modern consoles and PC than the present.
And if Valve were to stick to its guns, it could provide the old kind of game, one that offers an experience you can’t get in any other form of media. Half-Life 3‘s innovation would be the re-diversification of the gaming industry. We know the graphical and technological capacity of today’s video game is massive, but the industry seems to have forgotten how to tell a story without lengthy films disrupting the gameplay. More than ever, we need games that can tell complex stories, as the medium becomes more sophisticated. Half-Life 3, more than any other game, stands to bring back that balance.
Does the world still need Half-Life 3?
Now more than ever.