In my time as a gamer, there have been a number of times when I had to simply let go of a few pipe dreams and accept the sad reality: Chrono Break never came to be, Final Fantasy 7 will never get a remake, a Pokemon MMO is the greatest opportunity never to happen, and so on.
Despite multiple generations and millions of us out there, we can all roughly agree on a few titles being a cut above the rest, held up as sacred pillars of Video Game Design Mastery. For me, few of them are debated about and on the same level as Valve’s Half-Life series.
But I’m not here to blow smoke up Valve’s digital plumbing about the past; I ponder most about the future – the future of the industry, the future of certain studios, even the future of our favorite franchises. It has been well over seven years since The Orange Box graced our monitors and fancy displays with the latest chapter in Gordon Freeman’s iconic battle against the enigmatic G-Man, and seven years later here we are still wondering when, or if, Half-Life 3 will ever exist.
While I still have hope that we will one day see the conclusion of Gordon’s journey to free the world (and himself) from the clutches of the intergalactic police force we know as the Combine, there is a reality I think we must come to terms with.
It is time for Valve to relinquish control of Half-Life, and allow another studio to finish the story.
In more ways than one, Valve has been instrumental to the evolution of the video game industry and has become a powerhouse name in the business. At the same time, they’ve all but erased the success they once enjoyed as a video game development studio. While there’s no question co-founder Gabe Newell has become one of the most important figures in recent history of the gaming industry, I cannot ignore how much this change has driven them away from the developer’s table. And as such, I do not believe Valve is the right company to finish the story of Gordon Freeman.
Before I’m hastily shuffled off-stage (or an angry streamer tries to “swat” me), please understand my argument, as it comes from the colossal reverence I have for Valve and for the legacy of the Half-Life franchise.
Half-Life is a Story, Not a Tool
In a recent podcast posted by Geoff Keighley, Gabe Newell went into some detail about how they want to develop technologies in tandem with their own franchises. “If you think of it as each one of our franchises represents a tool…you just want to pick up the right tool at the right time,” he said. He goes on to say he understands such terms shouldn’t apply to their flagship franchise, but admit that “the only reason we’d go back and do 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.”
Gabe and Erik do a solid job tap-dancing over the laser beams that are Half-Life 3 questions, but what little they do say point toward a few things the minds at Valve are thinking right now:
1. Half-Life 3 doesn’t represent a challenge for Valve
2. Half-Life 3 isn’t considered the right “tool” right now…if ever.
He’s exactly right in thinking fans might not take too kindly to thinking of games like Half-Life, Team Fortress, and DOTA as “tools”. But focusing on the main argument at hand, Half-Life began as Valve’s bold statement to the industry that first-person shooters had much more to offer than linear levels filled with demons and sci-fi guns (and in some cases really big f@#$&&% guns). It was a labor of love that was (and still is) regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, and essentially helped put Valve on the map.
If HL3 is not considered a priority for Valve anytime soon, and if most of the internal team doesn’t have the interest in continuing the story, I think this might be the perfect opportunity for a new team to step in and make an equally bold statement of their own.
I do admit to the extreme level of risk involved with giving such a daunting task to a relatively new studio, but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. If Gabe and Marc Laidlaw were to adapt a similar strategy as Trey Parker and Matt Stone did with giving South Park: The Stick of Truth to Obsidian studios, the developer can push forward with the legwork while Gabe and Marc can chime in with advice, comments, inspiration, and the like.
More to the point, the Half-Life legacy has made its lasting impressions on the gaming industry because of its insistence to telling a thoughtful and intense story through a medium and genre that many people thought vapid and linear. And in today’s environment, as more and more studios shift their resources towards telling complex narratives and developing more mature themes, there have been a number of groups that have earned a shot at Gordon Freeman’s fight against the Combine.
Valve is a Video Game Encourager, Not a Developer
There’s no shortage of things we should thank Valve for in regards to advancing the games industry forward as both a storytelling medium and an accessible industry. After all, they currently host the largest digital game distribution platform in the entire industry, not to mention hosting seasonal sales so popular they’ve become an internet meme.
But if you were to take a closer look over the past six years, you’ll notice a pattern in the paradigm; a pattern concentrated on hardware.
Steam OS, the Steam Box (or Steam Boxes, as third party PC makers are handling most of the models), Steam Controller, and the most recently announced Steam Vive, a VR headset intended to compete with an already crowded market in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
More to the point, though, is to look at the Steam platform itself and its gradual evolution from simple digital distributor to invaluable video game studio tool host. With the implementation of Steam Greenlight and the ability to purchase software specifically designed to help create video games, the platform is not unlike the Adobe Suite for video gamers.
It’s not all that surprising when you consider Gabe’s outspoken nature toward his former employer, Microsoft. Since his departure, Gabe has been adamant about his dream of making the entire video game industry simpler, more transparent, and above all easier to access for anyone. To him, there shouldn’t be console wars; anyone should have the ability to play any game they want in one easy, simple, method.
With Steam Boxes set to hit the shelves by the end of the year, it’s looking like that dream will become a reality. Connected to a valid Steam account, gamers will have unfettered access to thousands of games instantly that can be downloaded and then played in the comfort of their living room without ever having to pledge allegiance to one of the three major camps.
It’s a bold strategy that I mostly agree with, but it also indicates an invested interest in the procurement of video games, and not the development of games themselves. In more ways than one, Valve has shown that they are happy to help as many people as possible have a shot at the video game industry with their ideas, but are above making video games themselves. Entering the hardware market is no small endeavor, and although I respect the effort and the resources Gabe has put forth in making the Steam movement a reality, it is a bittersweet sentiment knowing every success will most likely put them that much farther away from ever returning to the Half-Life saga.
The Mystery of the G-Man Needs To End
The Combine’s super portal has been negated; their forces are scattered and are struggling to band together. Eli Vance has been brutally killed by an Advisor, his knowledge of the resistance now known to the Combine. The Borealis has finally been located after its decades-long disappearance, and above it all, the G-man haunts Gordon’s every move once again.
To say Half-Life 2: Episode 2 ended on a cliffhanger might be the understatement of the century. It was obvious that Valve had all of these elements careening toward one another for a conclusion of the ages. With implications brought into the universe by Portal and Portal 2, gamers have been trading theories about the climax for years without anything more to go on.
And it doesn’t take more than a few seconds-look at any fan site or wiki page before he inevitably comes up—the G-man. Perhaps one of gaming’s most mysterious and talked about characters, of which we know so very little. Since 1998 gamers have done everything in their power to learn whatever we could about him (or it), and for 17 years we’re still guessing. But that needs to end.
The G-man has almost become a metaphor for Valve itself. Shrouded in mystery with cryptic messages and foreboding words, Valve touts Half-Life 3 in a way the G-man touts Gordon’s own life — seemingly free, but guided meticulously by invisible puppet strings from some greater purpose to be revealed at some undefined point and time in the universe.
I have and will continue to keep the faith in this story and Valve’s legacy, and I don’t regret having to wait this long for something I may never actually get. But faith deserves an answer one way or another, and besides experiencing the conclusion to Gordon Freeman’s journey (and I do think there should be a definite conclusion—no cliffhangers), it’s high time for the veil to be lifted and to finally answer one of the biggest questions in gaming history: What is the G-man?