There is perhaps no other game in history that has taken gamers on such a seemingly unending rollercoaster ride of emotions as Half Life 3. Ever since the conclusion of Half Life 2: Episode Two, players have waited for a resolution to one the biggest cliffhangers in gaming. But with the departure of yet another key member of the Half Life development team earlier this month, it’s clear that Half Life 3 may never see the light of day.
The final nail in the coffin came when Chet Faliszek publicly announced he had left Valve after working there for over a decade. His short tweet said it all: “I was with Valve for 12+ years, but a fan for even longer. Can’t wait to play what is coming next.”
As a writer at Valve, Faliszek’s credits included work on both Left 4 Dead games, Half Life 2: Episode 1 and 2, and both Portal games. His exit from the company marked the end of an era for Valve with Faliszek being the last remaining member of the Half Life 2 writing team.
At the heart of the Half Life universe was Marc Laidlaw, an accomplished writer who was solely responsible for the plot and dialogue of Half Life and Half Life 2. Though Laidlaw remained the lead writer on all Half Life games, he was joined by Faliszek and another long-time Valve employee, Erik Wolpaw, on the subsequent semi-sequels, Half Life 2: Episode One and Two.
Laidlaw was the first of the three to leave back in January 2016 to return to writing on his own. He was followed by Wolpaw in February 2017, who left to work on the upcoming Double Fine game Psychonauts 2. Faliszek was the last to depart in May 2017 after spending the last few years at Valve championing their expansion into virtual reality.
Over the years, other key members of the Half Life 2 team have left Valve, but due to the secretive nature of the company it’s hard to say exactly how many of them were working on Half Life 3 before they left. Valve as a company is just as mysterious as you’d expect.
What we do know is it’s been nearly a decade since Half Life 2: Episode Two came out there has been virtually no solid news about its follow up. It’s starting to feel like the death of Half Life 3 is all but confirmed. So the real question is can we piece together what happened by assembling all the broken promises and leaked materials?
WORKING ON VALVE TIME
The first thing you have to know about Valve is they work on “Valve Time”. Gamers first got a taste for it while waiting for Half Life 2, which remained in development for six long years after the first game. Adopting a ‘it’s done when it’s done’ attitude, Valve set expectations high for the sequel to the 1998 original, but when Half Life 2 did finally arrive in November 2004 it was nothing short of revolutionary.
Widely considered one of the greatest games of all-time, Half Life 2 was more than worth the wait. It also marked the launch of Valve’s new online storefront, Steam. It was becoming clear to the higher-ups at Valve that the video games market was changing. Players were getting used to having always-on internet connections and easy access to new content.
In a press release from May 2006, company founder Gabe Newell stated that a follow-up to Half-Life 2 would be a shorter “four to six hour experience” and delivered in 18 months. He noted that this approach is more in tune with what gamers want rather than “waiting six years for another monolithic product”. Also in the press release was the confirmation that there would be “a trilogy of episodes” that expanded on the Half Life 2 story and “conclude by Christmas of 2007”.
Developed concurrently, Half Life 2: Episode One and Two were ambitious projects for their time. Episodic gaming was a fairly new concept, and one that had already proven too much for some developers. One of the more high-profile failures was SiN Episodes from Ritual Entertainment (which was distributed by Valve), that promised nine episodes yet delivered only one before biting the dust.
But Valve stayed true to their word and released Half Life 2: Episode One in June of 2006, and despite the quick turnaround, there were no signs of rushed development. Episode One was both a critical and commercial success.
The development of Episode Two proved trickier than expected though thanks to Valve’s new project, The Orange Box for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This epic collection included Portal, Team Fortress 2, Half Life 2, as well as Episode One and Episode Two, and would be released alongside the standalone PC version of Episode Two. Problems with the console conversions meant Episode Two was delayed until October 2007.
When it did launch though, Episode Two was another huge success for Valve. Fans praised everything from the visuals and updated physics engine, to the engaging storyline and characters. The Orange Box was also met with high praise and showed once more why waiting for Valve could be worth it – provided they actually delivered.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF EPISODE THREE
Speaking with Eurogamer after the launch of Episode One, Newell said he knew there would be three episodes and that was how “we planned the products out.” Narratively speaking the games were clearly designed this way too, with the Episode Two ending on a huge cliffhanger that gamers were eager to see resolved.
By now every gamer who cares about Half Life has seen the end of Episode Two. The stars of the show, Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance, have somehow managed to fend off the Combine invaders once more, and In this brief moment of calm, Alyx’s father Eli gives the pair a new objective. They must destroy the icebreaker ship Borealis, which contains a powerful weapon the Combine can use to subjugate the rest of humanity. This revelation connected the Half Life and Portal universes, with the Borealis now making an appeareance in both games.
Suddenly, a pair of Combine Advisors appear and brutally extract information about the Borealis from Eli, killing him the process. Alyx’s robot sidekick Dog swoops in and rescues her and Freeman, but ultimately it’s too late. The damage is done. Eli is dead, the location of the secret weapon (possibly a different kind of portal gun from Portal) is known by the Combine, and any hope the human resistance had of winning the war is gone. The screen fades to black as Freeman watches Alyx, quietly sobbing over her dead father. All hope is lost.
In short, the ending of Episode Two was like the end of dark, gloomy ending of The Empire Strikes Back, but this time there was no Return of the Jedi to conclude the story.
Episode Two built upon everything that had come before it. The mysterious G-man was still a threat, the repercussions for humanities uprising against their alien masters was coming to a head, there was so much at stake and questions left unanswered. The stage was set for a tale of bitter revenge and harsh justice in Episode Three. And players were told they’d only have to wait until Christmas 2007.
Speaking with Gamereactor in 2007, Newell reiterated Valve’s plans for the episodes, saying that their next goal for Half Life “is to get through these three episodes” and that they were “really interested in exploring this episodic approach to see if gamers prefer it.” He went on to say that once they had released all the episodes Valve would ask fans what they thought of this new episodic approach. Around this time the Half Life episodes, which were once called Half Life: Aftermath for a short while, are also soon being referred to as Half Life 3 by Newell in interviews.
Christmas 2007 came and went, and not a lot of information about the reason behind the delay could be found. Valve had gone silent. The next big wave of Half Life 3 hype would come in March 2008 as new concept art appeared online thanks to Andrea Wicklund, an artist at Valve who uploaded her illustrations to Picasa before quickly removing them. But it was too late. The internet never forgets and fans had seen what they hoped would be concepts for Half Life 3.
Later that same year a video game art contest called Into The Pixel features entries from Valve artists Ted Backman, Jeremy Bennett, and Tristan Reidford which reveal the first official concept art of Half Life 3. The images spread across the internet and briefly reignite interest in the possibility of Half Life 3 eventually coming out. The rules of the contest mean the artwork must be for a game that is either out or in production, which helps to solidify in gamers minds that Half Life 3 is coming.
Things go quiet once more until August 2009 when Newell tells the Steamcast podcast that “Episode Three is sort of this victim of our willingness to experiment, but as soon as we have stuff that we’re ready to talk about, we will”. Little pieces of information continued to trickle out here and there, with Newell even telling one interviewer at GamesRadar+ that Half Life 3 will return to the series’ horror roots, but nothing more substantial surfaces.
IT’S DONE WHEN IT’S DONE
A few years after the initial Christmas 2007 launch date, Newell and the rest of the Valve staff began to talk about Half Life 3 in more guarded terms, but that becomes difficult when employees began leaking information. In 2010, an anonymous source told Game Informer that there “won’t be any game from the [Half-Life] franchise in 2010, and what will finally come out is still unknown”.
In an interview with News.com.au that same year, writer Chet Faliszek told a reporter “we’re not prepared to talk about [Half Life 3] at the moment” – continuing to tow the ‘no comment’ line, but not denying the games’ existence. At Gamescom 2011, Gamereactor interviews Newell again and asks about the state of Half Life 3, to which Newell responds “I’ve got nothing to say about Half Life”.
In early March 2011, Valve’s Director of Marketing, Doug Lombardi, tells AusGamers.com that “You will see [Half Life 3]. We are not done with Gordon Freeman’s adventures. I have nothing other than that to tell you today, but hang in there with us”. The silence returns once more.
Over the next few years, the ‘Half Life 3 Confirmed’ meme starts to take of. Seemingly anything that can add up to the number three is shown as proof that Half Life 3 is still in production. Fans continue to scrounge up clues wherever they can, including a leaked Valve email list in 2013 that shows 46 of about 300 employees being listed as working on Half Life 3. Voice actors confirm they’ve recorded lines. New continues to leak out, but still no solid proof of Half Life 3 emerges.
The last piece of major news comes in July 2014 from the YouTube channel The Know, who claimed to have a source from Valve that confirms work on Half Life 3 has stalled and that the company had only ten people working on it. In response, Valve writer Marc Laidlaw seemingly debunks the report, saying “I can never report on the state of projects at Valve except in the context of product release publicity … It is possible that whoever the anonymous source is might be or have been a Valve employee, but nothing I’ve heard leads me to believe they know anything relevant.”
In January 2017 Gabe Newell took part in a Reddit AMA, which naturally included a number of questions about Half Life 3. In the end, Newell chose to respond to only one Half Life 3 related question, answering a user who claimed they heard it was canceled. Newell responded “Yes. I personally believe all unidentified anonymous sources on the Internet.”
Half Life 3 new drys up once more for the final time.
UNDER THE RADAR
It’s widely known within the industry that Valve is a great company to work for because of their flat corporate structure. People are free to move around and find projects within the company they’re passionate about. While it’s great for those inside Valve HQ, it also means that people must choose to be actively working on Half Life 3, or else nobody is.
In 2015, during a podcast hosted by Geoff Keighley, Newell said that “the only reason we’d go back and do like a super classic kind of product is if a whole bunch of people just internally at Valve said they wanted to do it, and had a reasonable explanation for why [they did].” Essentially this means Half Life 3 may not have been worked on in quite some time if nobody internally at Valve is pushing for it.
What little has come out over the years all points to the development of the game stalling to the point of standstill. There is, of course, no way those of us outside of Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, can know this for sure. But until we hear otherwise, it’s the safest bet.
What we do know is this – Half Life was, and will forever be, an incredible series. It set a new standard for first-person shooters in both design and storytelling. And it’s because of that it’s so hard for gamers to move – they were set up to expect more, then constantly told to not expect anything.
Perhaps it’s better Half Life 3 remains a mystery and stays in development hell instead of clawing its way out. In many ways, the anticipation has united fans in both loving and hating Valve while salivating over any little tidbits of news about the game they can find.
We can all dream about what could have been, or still might be. And who knows? It could all go horribly wrong one day and we’ll end up with another Duke Nukem Forever on our hands. But hey, if I’m honest, I still hold onto hope that one day we will see the G-Man and Gordon again, if only for one last adventure.