By Doc Burford
You’re probably wondering what’s taking Valve, a company with nigh-infinite resources, forever to make Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Or you’ve given up on that and you believe it’s going to be called Half-Life 3. The sad truth is that we will never see another Half-Life game from Valve, and for one very good reason: its most important character is dead.
“But, Doc,” I hear you saying, “Gordon Freeman is alive and well!” While this is true, I have another shocking revelation to make: Gordon Freeman is not the most important person in Half-Life! Incredible but true.
So, wait, let me back up and talk about Half-Life, which is the second-greatest shooter of all time after Halo: Combat Evolved and Quake, which are tied for first place. Half-Life’s greatness comes from two distinct elements. The first, which everyone has talked about since it was released 18 years ago, is how Half-Life feels real. At the time, it was an incredible feat, and all these years later, it still is. Despite the ageing graphics, my journeys through Black Mesa always feel as real and vibrant as they did the day I first played Half-Life, back in 2007.
The other, more important element is the way Half-Life motivates you. See, one of the things that enhanced the realism were the game’s other characters. Sure, they were two-dimensional stick figures, but they showed up when it mattered. As the game opens, they’re kind of mean to you; you get the sense that people resent Gordon’s presence. It characterises Gordon too: he seems to be perpetually late, and nobody seems to value his skills all that much — his job amounts to “push a cart into a very dangerous energy beam”. Apparently, they didn’t want to risk anyone else doing it, because they made everyone wait until he showed up to do it.
As Half-Life progresses, people bestow upon you more and more responsibility. Go get help. Kill the giant monster. Go meet the scientists at the Lambda Complex. By the time you get there, the scientists have gone from “ugh, Gordon”, to “Gordon, we’ve been watching you on the monitors, and we believe in you”.
What’s great about this is how it all feels earned. Gordon has gone from a dope nobody likes to a guy who, through the experiences in the game itself, is a hardcore survivor and all around action hero. It’s silent character development, and a huge aspect of Half-Life’s appeal. Gordon’s journey isn’t just geographical, it’s emotional.
Half-Life 2 is terrible. Within minutes, other characters are fangirling over you, like they knew you or something. Why? Because you left a secret base shortly before a nuclear explosion. Seriously, there were no witnesses to your defeat of the Nihilanth at the end of Half-Life, and even if there were, they should, reasonably, object to what you did, because in Half-Life 2, apparently the Nihilanth wasn’t so much a bad guy as a rebel against the Combine, the actual bad guys in the Half-Life 2 universe.
We could get into a whole big thing about why this is a bad decision, from game design to lore perspectives, but that would be an article the length of a novel, and nobody has time for that.
Instead, let’s talk about Eli Vance. The first real objective you receive in Half-Life 2 is to go meet Eli at Black Mesa East. Why? Because Eli is the Resistance leader, and he will tell you why you’re here. So, OK, Eli’s an important bigwig in the Resistance, but does that really make him the most important character?
Half-Life 2 uses Eli as a tool. First, you go to Black Mesa East to find out Why You Are Here. Then, when Black Mesa East is attacked (no one in the Resistance assumes that you, the new guy, who everyone assumes to be Gordon Freeman), Eli is taken, and your next goal is… to get out of Ravenholm, find the Resistance, and go rescue Eli. This time, he’s in a prison called Nova Prospekt. Cool, so you set out across the beach to go get Eli back.
When you get to Nova Prospekt, you watch as Judith Mossman, the rebel traitor, kidnaps Eli. Just to be clear, this is the third time you chase after Eli. Only this time, the teleporter malfunctions, and you don’t just jump through space, you jump through time. When your teleport ends, you find yourself something like two weeks in the future, and the rebellion has started.
The reason for this?
Because “Gordon Freeman”, if that is his name, “disappeared with Alyx, Judith, and Eli.”
So. Let me get this straight. A 27-year-old guy shows up almost 20 years after he disappeared, without having aged, and his appearance heralds an attack on the Resistance base that sees its most important member, daughter, and assistant kidnapped. Nobody knows Judith is a traitor, because only you, Alyx, and Eli, who were all in Nova Prospekt know this. Most rebels, I’m betting, are pretty paranoid, which is what’s kept them alive for so long.
Most paranoid people I know would see all the evidence and assume this “Gordon Freeman” character is an impostor whose sole purpose was to destroy the Rebellion’s leadership.
The characters in Half-Life 2 decide that everyone’s disappearance is a signal to attack, so they attack. Without you. They’ve been carrying on a war against the Combine while you were gone. Apparently they could have done this without you — or any of their leadership, really — so there seems to be no clear motive for attacking at this juncture rather than at any other, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job on their own.
Your job, of course, is to rescue Eli.
So you rush to the top of the tower, get to Eli, defeat the bad guy, and… the game freezes.
It picks up again in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, which comes in two halves. The first half is about a bunch of boring puzzles starring energy balls. Your motive? Delay the self-destruction of the Citadel, allowing Eli and friends to escape the city. The second half is about you getting to a train and fleeing the city before the Citadel explodes and kills everyone. That and plugging holes to stop those irritating ant-lions from spawning.
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is broken up into three sections. In the first section, you save Eli’s daughter. In the second section, you escort Eli’s daughter to Eli. In the third section, you attempt to defend Eli, who promises to finally tell you what he was going to tell you, presumably, after you toyed with the gravity gun that was something like twelve years ago.
AND HE DIES.
So, to recap: Half-Life was about you proving yourself to other people, a personal journey as you attempted to escape from a bad case of Science Gone Wrong and Government Coverups. Half-Life 2 was about spending all your time trying to get to Eli while everyone masturbates your ego, presumably to disguise the fact that you’re nothing but a glorified errand boy, whose only purpose is to do things that help Eli out, and then the guy just straight up DIES on you, and now you’re stuck.
You know what? I think the problem is that Valve never really knew why you were there. I think they never really had anything beyond “here’s why you’re here”. Most narratives set up their conflicts pretty fast. Star Wars took a little while to get to the Death Star, but the first movie was about character growth and stopping the Empire from killing everyone with the Death Star. Half-Life 2 doesn’t have any of that. Half-Life did. It just strings you along while everyone tells you about what a great guy you are the entire time.
Half-Life is one of the greatest games of all time, because it made you earn your place. Half-Life 2 isn’t, because it doesn’t.
There are plenty of other reasons for it; ex-Valve employees have complained about the studio’s structure. Viktor Antonov, the art designer who made Half-Life 2 so distinct and went on to help create Dishonored, said that Valve stopped making AAA games. I’ve heard other, similar statements from time to time.
But at the end of the day, we’ll never see Half-Life 3 because Eli Vance is Princess Peach, now that Princess Peach is dead, there’s no one left for Mario to save.