November 20, 2018 Half-Life is 20 years old today – as old as Gordon Freeman when he studied at MIT. To celebrate we’ve updated some classic Half-Life stories, like the sorry tale of Half-Life 3 below, and a rundown of the studios we’d like to build it. You’ll find links to the other pieces at the bottom of this article.
Half-Life 3 is the greatest mystery in PC gaming. More intriguing than the actual magic that makes your GPU work, and more elusive than a good movie tie-in game, Valve’s third game in the seminal shooter series has been missing in action for a decade now. With every passing year that Valve conspicuously fails to mention it, the mystery deepens.
We’re convinced it’s really out there, though. At least in some form or another. If you’ve been keeping your ears close to the ground, you’ll have discovered enough tidbits to keep the candle of hope burning yourself.
It’s not a bright light, admittedly, but there’s certainly a flame flickering in the darkness. As series fanatics we’re keen to keep that flame alive.
What is Half-Life 3? That might sound like a stupid question, but over the years there have been two quite different answers. It’s either a collection of three short, episodic games – two of which have already been released – or it’s a full-length sequel to both Half-Life 2 and its expansions.
Half-Life 3: the story so far
Back in 2006, as Half-Life 2: Episode One released, Valve boss Gabe Newell referred to Episodes 1-3 as being Half-Life 3. “Probably a better name for it would have been Half Life 3: Episode One,” he admitted during an interview with Eurogamer. He went on to explain that after the six year wait for Half-Life 2, Valve didn’t want players to go through another similar experience. Instead, the next game in the saga was to span three smaller episodes that would be released with far higher frequency.
“This is what we’re trying instead of the large monolithic release. Let’s take what we would ordinarily do and break it up into three pieces and see,” Newell said.
Let’s take what we would ordinarily do and break it up into pieces
And the format worked, almost. Half-Life 2: Episode One suffered a delay, but released just two years after Half-Life 2’s 2004 debut. Episode Two promptly arrived the following year in 2007. And now, a decade on, we’re still waiting for Episode Three. It certainly puts the six year wait for Half-Life 2 into perspective.
During that time the general opinion on Episode Three has changed. If Valve has been working on a Half-Life game all this time, it’s logical to presume that Episode Three is no more, and a full-size Half-Life 3 game is now what to expect. Valve couldn’t possibly release a four-hour episode to an audience that’s spent almost a decade in waiting, could it?
To make the guessing game still more difficult, Valve has become increasingly quiet. The dialogue coming out of the company is entirely focused on its multiplayer games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the upcoming Artifact, while the words ‘Half-Life’ appear to have been banned from the lips of Valve employees for over half a decade. The video above shows Newell’s change in approach to discussing Half-Life 3, with his 2007 enthusiasm having apparently completely evaporated three years later in 2010.
Half-Life 3 concept art
Not that the radio silence has kept the world devoid of any Half-Life 3 evidence at all. 2012 saw the leak of a series of concept art images reportedly drawn for Half-Life 2: Episode Three. Among them were various drawings of Alyx Vance, men wearing cold weather gear, and a return to Xen. The art was acquired by the fan website ValveTime, who claimed the images were from a 2008 project. If they are indeed real concept sketches created by Valve, they suggest that work was certainly underway on Episode Three. Concept art is generally part of the pre-production process however, so it’s not an indication that the third episode ever even reached a greybox build. Is that work continuing today? It seems no one outside of Valve’s inner sanctum knows the answer.
Half-Life 2: Episode Four – Return to Ravenholm
While the concept art leak helps keep the candle of hope burning, the story of Return to Ravenholm offers an opposite viewpoint. Between 2006 and 2008 Arkane, the studio behind Dishonored 2, was developing Half-Life 2: Episode Four. Entitled ‘Return to Ravenholm’, it was to put the player in control of a new character and revisit the zombie-infested titular town during a period before Episode Two’s conclusion.
Valve pulled the plug on it, though. A report from ValveTime explains that the company felt the episode couldn’t introduce anything new due to the setting constraints, but is this cancellation part of a larger picture? Have all Half-Life projects been abandoned?
“There’s no such thing as Half-Life 3”
In the opening month of 2017, Game Informer recorded a podcast and published an article containing some revealing information from a single, anonymous source within Valve. By this point in the story you won’t be too surprised to read the words “There is no such thing as Half-Life 3,” but that’s exactly what was said by GI’s informant.
Every time a Half-Life project collapses, it becomes harder for the next one to start up
Valve has a ‘flat’ structure, meaning there’s no real management, just a few influencing personalities. Among them is company co-founder and president Gabe Newell. Game Informer’s source seems to suggest that Newell is not interested in making Half-Life 3.
“Every time a Half-Life project gets some gravity and then collapses, it becomes harder for the next one to start up,” said the informant.
Over the years there have been some Half-Life 3 prototypes, and the source says they have been more inventive than you’d imagine. According to the Game Informer podcast, one was an RTS, while another was a riff on adventure games, done with live-action actors.
But those projects appear to be a thing of the past now. Game Informer’s executive editor Andrew Reiner said on the podcast “I reached out to ten to 15 people who worked for the company and they just didn’t want to talk about it all. Dead end after dead end after dead end.” He suggested that Valve is now fed up of being asked about it.
WARREN SPECTOR’S LOST HALF-LIFE EPISODE
In March, website ValveTime released images from a leaked set of files that were made for the Half-Life 2 episodes. Among them were images of a snow-covered Ravenholm map that included puzzles, scripted sequences, and fights. ValveTime noted that this wintery level was not related to Arkane’s Episode Four, but was part of another cancelled episode that was being developed by Junction Point Studios in late 2005.
The map implies that the player would have crashed into a warehouse in a gondola. When awaking from the incident, two new characters – Duncan and Scooter – would have aided them. Rebels and Combine soldiers would be fighting in the streets. The episode would have included a new physics weapon – the Magnet Gun – and objects in the map have magnetic fields.
The kicker of this story is that Junction Point was headed up by legendary designer Warren Spector, the man behind Deus Ex. The now-closed studio was started by ex-Ion Storm employees, including Spector and Art Min. Alas, we can only guess at the kind of Half-Life game such minds would have made.
Half-Life 2: Episode 3’s cliffhanger
Valve’s long-term writer Marc Laidlaw left the company in January 2017. Several months after his departure he gave an interview to Arcade Attack. Discussing Half-Life 3, Laidlaw explained that the game would likely have ended on a mystery in much the same way as Episode 2. “I will say that I expected every instalment would end without resolution, forever and ever…” he said.
Discussing specifically Episode 3 (it would appear that internally Valve was still considering the next game as part of the Half-Life 2 saga and not a fresh game), Laidlaw said: “My intention was that Ep3 would simply tie up the plot threads that were particular to HL2. But it would still end like HL1 and HL2, with Gordon in an indeterminate space, on hold, waiting for the next game to begin. So one cliffhanger after another.”
Half-Life 2: Episode 3 story revealed
A few months after taking part in the Arcade Attack interview, Marc Laidlaw published a short story on his blog in the guise of fanfiction. Told from the point of view of “Gertie Fremont” and featuring gender-switched versions of the Half-Life 2 cast, it’s a tongue-in-cheek method of revealing Laidlaw’s story for Episode 3.
So what would have happened after Episode 2? Alyx and Gordon bury Eli Vance, and along with Dr. Mossman head to Antarctica via seaplane in search of the Borealis. After being shot down and spending time traversing the icy wastes, the team finally discovers the time-and-dimension shifting ship. They manage to board it, and fight their way through the decks as the entire ship phases through several realities. These include the Seven Hour War, the far future of the Half-Life universe, and even a glimpse of the Combine homeworld.
With the ship captured, a fight breaks out between Alyx and Mossman. Alyx intends to use the Borealis as a makeshift time-missile battering ram, while Mossman believes it will be useful for the Resistance. The argument results in Alyx killing Mossman, and so Gordon goes along with the battering ram idea. The plan is a suicide mission, and as the Borealis is about to collide with what is clearly an indestructible Dyson Sphere that it will have zero effect on, the G-Man shows up, saves Alyx, and leaves Gordon to his doom. Thankfully the Vortigaunts have other plans, and lift Gordon out of time and space, only to dump him back in the Half-Life timeline many years into the future.
Not only is this game a miserable bore, it killed Valve's creativity
It sounds incredibly Half-Life, with sequences like the Borealis fight appearing akin to Titanfall 2’s Effect and Cause mission, albeit devised years before. It’s easy to see why, back in 2008, this could have been considered a technical challenge too far. Its publication also feels like an admission that Episode 3 will never happen. It’s nice to know what we missed out on, though.
Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, fans didn’t take the news well, with Valve getting the brunt of their ire. Some people took to Dota 2’s user reviews to express their displeasure that Valve ‘killed’ Half-Life 3 in exchange for their highly successful MOBA. Comments from negative reviewers on the Dota 2 Steam page added in the days after Laidlaw’s blog post include: “This game is very good. But Half-Life is better,” “Negative review in memory of half life 3,” “Not only is this game a miserable bore, it killed Valve’s creativity and eliminated any need to finish the Half-Life series. Thanks Gabe!”
Is Half-Life 3 even possible?
There’s an even more pressing question than if any Half-Life projects are being worked on, though. Is Half-Life 3 even possible anymore? The Valve we know today is a very different company to the one that released Half-Life 2. In an interview with Develop in 2011, Newell said: “With episodes, I think we accelerated the model and shortened development cycles with it. If you look at Team Fortress 2, that’s what we now think is the best model for what we’ve been doing. Our updates and release model keeps on getting shorter and shorter.”
That’s an update system well suited to the likes of multiplayer games CS:GO and Dota 2. But what about narrative campaigns? It’s difficult to envision how an update and patch-based approach could work.
Half-Life 3 release date
Until the words ‘Half-Life 3 confirmed’ stop being a meme, a release date for the game is nothing but a pipe dream.
You could have an educated guess, however. 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the original Half-Life’s release, and right now would be an ideal window to release a long-awaited sequel. But by that same logic, 2028 would be an equally suitable date. When better to celebrate three decades of Gordon Freeman than with a third game?
The other logical answer is ‘never’. In an interview with journalist and presenter Geoff Keighley, Gabe Newell said: “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].”
“But you know if you want to do another Half-Life game and you want to ignore everything we’ve learned in shipping Portal 2 and in shipping all the updates on the multiplayer side, that seems like a bad choice. So we’ll keep moving forward. But that doesn’t necessarily always mean what people are worried that it might mean.”
Half-Life 3 VR
Each Half-Life has seen something revolutionary introduced into gaming. The first title offered previously unseen levels of narrative immersion, while the sequel pioneered realistic physical object behaviour, empowering the player to use physics as a puzzle-solving device and a weapon. Following that pattern, it seems plausible that Half-Life 3 could be developed for VR.
Valve was heavily involved in the development of the HTC Vive, which is now pretty much the Steam VR headset in all but name. Such dedication to the platform suggests Valve has big ideas for VR. Could they involve Black Mesa?
Possibly. Back in 2015, HTC told the BBC that it was “co-operating with Half-Life.” Later the company went on to clarify that it meant Valve rather than Half-Life, but perhaps it was just covering up a slip of the tongue.
More recent reports from UploadVR suggest that Valve is working on its own VR headset – to be bundled with a Half-Life prequel built for the platform. If that’s true, the game would likely show off Valve’s Knuckles controllers, which track the movements of every individual finger. Ever wanted to swear at a Vortigaunt? This might be your chance.
Half-Life 3 story
Episode Two ended on a cliffhanger for the ages. After destroying the Combine’s super portal, Gordon, Alyx, and Eli plan to seek out the Borealis: an Aperture Science research vessel that mysteriously disappeared. Before the trio can board a helicopter and embark on their search, a pair of Combine Advisors attack them and kill Eli. The screen fades to black as Alyx sobs into her father’s corpse.
Half-Life 3 would presumably continue Gordon and Alyx’s quest to find the Borealis. The footage of the ship seen in Episode Two was flecked with snowflakes, suggesting an arctic location. The leaked concept art backs this up, with images of a crashed helicopter on a frozen landscape, and drawings of various characters in cold weather gear.
With the Borealis being an Aperture Science ship, it would seem that Half-Life 3 would explore the connections between the Half-Life and Portal games. Easter eggs aplenty seem likely.
The art also contains a few paintings of alien-like imagery, suggesting the story may take Gordon back to Xen. Hopefully the final boss will be more exciting than a giant floating baby this time around.
Half-Life 3 gameplay
With no official information released by Valve, there’s no way we can comment on what Half-Life 3’s gameplay will be like. It would seem logical to expect a big new innovation on the scale of the Gravity Gun, and that’s backed up by Gabe Newell’s own comments. “There’s stuff [in Episode Three] that’s visually never been in games before, and there’s certainly a bunch of game elements on the order of Portal that have never been done before,” he said in an interview with Geoff Keighley in February 2008. He went on to hint that Valve had created something more innovative than the Portal Gun.
At this point, though, we’d hesitate to even say it will definitely be an FPS. Half-Life 3 could genuinely be anything.
The only real word on the internet regarding how the game will play comes from a Pastebin document, shared in January 2016. The anonymous user who posted the document suggests that they are part of the game’s development team, and reveals a few tidbits.
“The game is fabricated to be VERY reactive to player choice and decision making,” the file reads.
“There are no forced cutscenes that break the pace of the game and put you to a stop. Instead you can still freely do as you please and fully interact with everything that goes on story wise and cinematically.”
The last point seems fairly obvious, as the series has never made use of cutscenes. Combined with the slightly iffy sentence construction, it feels as if this is a hoax. If not, though, we’re told to expect optional physics puzzles that are generated based on your decisions.
And that’s the Half-Life 3 story so far. As each year goes by, a sequel to arguably the most iconic FPS in videogaming seems less and less likely. Yet, despite that, the appetite for a new Half-Life never seems to diminish, so its commercial prospects will always be strong.
Want more Half-Life celebrations? We have you covered with a check in on the team behind Project Borealis, and a rundown of the studios we’d like to build Half-Life 3. We’re still holding out hope that some day, in some form, we’ll play… something. We’re terrible romantics, though.