“You fool! You don’t know what you’ll unleash! You could bring down this whole Citadel - think, man, think of the people below!”
The silvery-blue orb now hovering at the peak of the Citadel’s reactor is fluctuating ominously, emitting dazzling shockwaves into the twilight. Far below, City 17 is alight with the fires of the uprising.
“No...” growls Breen, his distorted voice amplified from within the collapsing orb. ”You need me.” Sparks begin to fly from ruins of the reactor, and a high-pitched whistle threatens to crescendo.
“Come on Gordon,” says Alyx, turning to face you. “Maybe we still have - ”
The force of the explosion lifts Alyx off her feet. Just as the monstrous fireball threatens to engulf the top of the Citadel, everything stops. The explosion is caught in a freeze-frame, Alyx suspended in mid-air, and a deathly silence falls over the City 17.
“Time, Doctor Freeman?” A deep voice echoes as if from nowhere. “Is it really that time again?”
The colour of your surroundings begins to fade, the brilliant reds and yellows of the explosion turning to greys and whites. From within the frozen fireball, a tall man in a blue suit appears like a ghost. He walks calmly towards you, ignoring the suspended debris and imminent carnage around him. The G-Man’s face is gaunt, his eyes dark and sunken.
“It seems as if you only just arrived.”
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of Half-Life 2’s release. Following the two expansion episodes released in 2006 and 2007, series creator Valve has been utterly silent regarding the future of the series.
In the intervening years, the gaming landscape has changed beyond recognition. Two generations of PlayStation have been launched, and mobile and social gaming have arisen to become industry behemoths. Despite the series’s protracted absence however, it doesn’t feel like a relic. On the contrary, its single player campaign still stands as a benchmark for immersion and atmosphere in interactive storytelling, and is a truly timeless dystopia.
In this article, we’ll explore the game’s legacy, the impact of the three expansion episodes, and the future of the Half-Life series.
Welcome to City 17
From the cold steel corridors of the Black Mesa Research Facility to the crumbling Eastern European metropolis of City 17, Half-Life 2’s setting was a dramatic departure from that of its predecessor.
Victor Antonov, a former concept artist at Valve, has said that the appeal of the post-Soviet city lay in its fusion of old and new. The collision between architectural styles, he explained, coupled with the fall of communism, afforded the region “a sense of being a strongly-grounded historical place.”
This theme was taken to extremes in Half-Life 2. As the Combine’s headquarters on Earth, City 17 is a discordant fusion of derelict Eastern Bloc tenements and asymmetrical alien structures. The iconic Citadel - “thoughtfully provided by our Benefactors,” according to Breen - is a monstrous skyscraper that quite literally tears through the tightly-packed low-rise apartments at its base. Players get the unsettling impression that the Combine machinery is literally consuming the city, oblique metallic constructs eating away at peeling yellow paint.
The setting is unashamedly Orwellian. Propaganda is broadcast city-wide via huge telescreens, and Doctor Breen’s paternal gaze looms over plazas and town squares. The soldiers of Civil Protection patrol the streets clad in gas masks and carrying nightsticks, while the skies buzz with robotic ‘scanners’ and Combine helicopters.
This kind of environmental storytelling has had a huge impact, and has been cited as an influence by studios including Dishonored developers Arkane, and Crysis creators Crytek. But whilst all of Half-Life 2’s locales are beautifully rendered - Ravenholm, a town ravaged by headcrabs, and Nova Prospekt prison are both particularly unsettling - the game’s atmosphere is the product of far more than just good art direction.
The Illusion of Free Choice
The Half-Life series is, by its very nature, extremely linear. This has become something of a dirty word in recent years, having been used to describe the worst excesses of today’s bombastic military shooters. In contrast to the tiresome, borderline on-rails routine of Call of Duty however, Half-Life’s linearity is actually one of its greatest strengths.
Half-Life 2’s level design is an absolute master class in structure and pacing. Each of the set pieces, from the encounter with the Combine helicopter on the canals to the climactic strider battle at the foot of the Citadel, is delivered pitch perfect.
One could even make the case that Valve’s meticulous approach to level design adheres to the principles of good UX design - it’s crafted with such precision that it becomes almost invisible. The preset path from A to B that the player must follow is largely inflexible, but it is so intricately woven into the game’s rich environment, that its linearity ceases to become noticeable. Combined with the revolutionary interactivity afforded by the physics engine and gravity gun, this fosters a bourgeoning sense of freedom.
Rather than outright telling you where to go and what to do, the game instead makes this path seem natural. Listen to some of Valve’s developer commentaries to get a sense of just how much thought and testing go into achieving this effect. The game’s cues and prompts - an offhand remark by a secondary character, even the placement of a light source in a scene - are all delivered with such subtlety that they allow the player to believe they’re on their own.
Ironically enough, this kind of pseudo-freedom is something that players have in common with protagonist Gordon Freeman. Just as Valve pull the strings and move the pieces from behind the scenes, so too does the G-Man decide Gordon’s fate. As he remarks in the game’s final scene, it comes down to “the illusion of free choice.”
Something Secret Steers Us
The game’s narrative and story are similarly effective. Throughout Half-Life 2, there is a sense that there’s far more to its world than you are being shown.
You arrive in City 17 at the start of the game with absolutely no knowledge of what has transpired in the 20 years since the events of the original Half-Life. With just a few cryptic remarks from the G-Man to go on, players are left to piece together the story for themselves, reading between the lines of Breen’s propaganda and looking for clues in resistance encampments. It’s hugely engrossing, and a great example of the Theory of Omission in play.
This sense of awe and foreboding permeates the whole game, and is perfectly accentuated by Kelly Bailey’s brilliant soundtrack. Perhaps the best example of the series’s mystique lies in the player’s relationship with Gordon’s enigmatic employer, the so-called G-Man. He moves Gordon in and out of the stream of history as he sees fit, and speaks to him only during surreal, dream-like sequences. His motives, his allegiances, and even his humanity are completely unknown.
Even the identity of your own character is largely a mystery. As a silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman is - for the most part - simply a pair of eyes through which the player can experience the world. With no cut-scenes to break the immersion, the entirety of the plot can unfold in real-time and from Gordon’s point of view.
Finally, there are the character-driven sequences. Many of these - in particular the meeting with Eli, Alyx and Judith at Black Mesa East - are orchestrated so well as to put many of today’s games to shame. Valve invested a considerable amount of time in character animation, ensuring that scenes flowed naturally irrespective of the player’s actions, and their attention to detail shows.
Indeed, Alyx has been cited by Bioshock creator Ken Levine as “the last truly great AI companion.” Wonderfully performed by Merle Dandridge, she’s also a refreshing example of a great female character that doesn’t pander to a predominantly male demographic.
After Half-Life 2’s release, fans were promised a trio of expansion episodes that would be launched in quick succession. The first two of these landed in 2006 and 2007, but the third remains missing-in-action. As the 7-year mark since Freeman’s last excursion approaches, and with Valve’s policy of absolute silence showing no signs of abating, questions have been raised about the future of the series.
In some ways, the decision to pursue the episodic model may have actually hampered Valve’s creative freedom. Part of what made Half-Life 2 so immersive was its detachment from the original - it captured a feeling of stepping into a new and unfamiliar world. This was made possible by the original game’s highly open ending, which left the fate of Black Mesa unknown. By concluding Half-Life 2 with similarly broad strokes - Gordon back in stasis and City 17’s future unresolved - Valve ensured themselves the same level of creative freedom for Half-Life 3.
Had Episode One been a single standalone experience (as implied by its original title Aftermath), its ending would have have continued this trend. The Citadel self-destructs, Gordon loses consciousness and his train out of City 17 is caught up in the blast. Much like its predecessors, Half-Life 3 could have started with a cold-open, in a brand new environment, and without breaking away from Gordon’s point-of-view.
Episode 2, however, is a deal-breaker. The game concludes on a cliffhanger, with Alyx crying over her father’s body. If the third entry in the trilogy had ever arrived, then continuing from the point where Episode 2 left off would not have been an issue. But with 7 years having passed, and with the missing episode having apparently been superseded by Half-Life 3, Valve’s creative legroom for the third game is hugely limited.
They’ve quite literally written themselves into a corner. As Lambda Generation put it, “how can Valve build on all the set-up in a way that’s faithful to an intricate narrative spanning four games, without alienating a new audience?” Can newcomers to the series really be expected to go back and play games that are over 7 years old?
Your Hour Has Come Again
Valve do have other options. With Portal 2, they showed that they were not averse to ‘retconning’ older games to tie them neatly into their sequels. For those who missed it, the climax of their incredible ARG (‘alternate reality game’) involved launching an update to the original Portal that subtly changed its ending. Valve could, in theory, do the same with Episode 2 to set the scene for Half-Life 3.
Another possibility would be a short film to connect the two games. With the series of Team Fortress 2 shorts (if you haven’t seen them, watch Meet The Sniper), Valve demonstrated themselves to be exceptionally talented filmmakers. A Half-Life short film could resolve Episode 2’s cliffhanger and introduce new players to the series’s characters and plot. Furthermore, the exemption from Half-Life’s narrative constraints afforded by the switch in medium could provide the creative freedom Valve need. The ability to explore outside of Gordon’s worldview could be hugely valuable in setting the scene for Half-Life 3.
Indeed, these narrative constraints may be the very reason for Half-Life 3’s protracted absence. In a Q & A session with GDC Online in 2011, Valve writer Marc Laidlaw was candid about the challenges faced by the studio as a result of their silent protagonist. “Now some of Valve's most popular protagonists are silent, there’s no turning back,” he observed. “At this point we’re fully committed to it and taking it as far as it possibly could go.”
Whilst the silent protagonist may have suited the original Half-Life (in part because it did not rely on a character-driven storyline), the series has moved far beyond its humble origins. Half-Life 2 and its episodes feature richly-drawn, realistic characters and a plot driven by dialogue. This has resulted in a fusion of old-school FPS sensibilities and modern interactive narrative; one can easily see how such a formula could impede the storytelling process.
Finally, there’s the Valve factor. This provides perhaps the best explanation for Half-Life’s disappearance. The Seattle-based developer has received considerable attention in recent years for its flat organisational structure. There are no managers, and employees can move between projects at will; the desks literally have wheels on. According to their fantastically-illustrated Employee Handbook, these are “a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable.”
As a privately-owned company, Valve is not under pressure from shareholders to launch what would almost certainly be a highly lucrative sequel. The company knows there is a demand for Half-Life 3, and there is little doubt the game will be finished eventually. But unlike just about every other publisher under the sun, they have no need to push a particular game out the door just to meet a revenue target. Instead, they’re free to work on ambitious, risky projects like Dota 2, the Steam platform, the Source 2 game engine, their content creation tools, their Virtual Reality technology, and even their own games console (the Steambox).
Valve are beholden to no-one, and as such the release date for Half-Life 3 is the same as it was for every other project they’ve developed: “when it’s ready.”
I Will See You Up Ahead
Despite a seven year absence, the Half-Life series still maintains its hold over our imaginations. Every shred of information from Valve is seized upon by fans and becomes the subject of frenzied speculation. But the enduring popularity of the series is also evidenced by the prodigious creative output of the wider gaming community. Machinima, live-action films, fan-fiction, mods, and even fan-made games set in the Half-Life universe are being released even today. Just two weeks ago, artist Jeannot “Logithx” van Berlo showcased impressive screenshots of his personal project to port Half-Life 2 to the latest version of the Unreal Engine, which you can see above.
As The Guardian observed, “those awaiting Half-Life 3 want lightning to strike twice.” The 1998 original and its 2004 sequel were both products of protracted development cycles and were released to sky-high expectations. The two games now sit at the top of Metacritic, tied for the position of highest-rated PC game of all time.
Neither Black Mesa nor City 17 were built in a day. Valve’s founder Gabe Newell put it best; in a cameo for the Clang Kickstarter campaign, he is seen at a forge smithing a crowbar. Science-fiction author Neal Stephenson asks if it is almost ready: