In May of 2006, Half-Life 2: Episode Three was announced. It was said that the project would be wrapped up and pushed out just in time for a Christmas 2007 release.
I had no idea what Valve Time was. I didn't have much experience with the company. I had yet to plod through the five stages of grief over the release of a game. It has been nearly four years and the game’s whereabouts remain unknown. What began as a seemingly final installment to the story arc set in motion by Half-Life 2 is now a puzzling affair.
I initially felt the need to demand to know what was going on at Valve. Now, I'm content with waiting. This is how I learned to stop pining for Episode Three.
It wasn’t until Half-Life 2 was re-released in The Orange Box, in the Fall of 2007, that I sat down and played through it. I tossed aside my expectations and went in relatively blind, despite hearing good things.
I'm glad I did, as I enjoyed it more not knowing what was in store. I still enjoy it, as a recent playthrough revealed, which is impressive, given the age of the game. I had the good fortune of jumping aboard when I did, as Half-Life 2: Episode One picked up right where the ending left off.
Rather than sink more time and resources into a large sequel, Valve chose to experiment with an “episodic” format. So rather than wait years for Half-Life 3, we could continue playing through the adventures of the mute with a crowbar, Gordon Freeman. And play, I did. When I arrived at the ending of Half-Life 2: Episode Two and the credits rolled, I was excited. Valve had set the stage for what was sure to be a satisfying conclusion. Suffice to say, the Christmas 2007 release was pushed back indefinitely with no further information.
I was initially patient, thinking Valve was hard at work on it. I told myself they couldn’t keep this going for more than a couple years. So I moved on to other games and Half-Life was soon off my mind.
Since the game's delay, no further information has been released outside of blips during interviews. I wanted to know more! Why did the studio’s acknowledgment of the game seem to fade out after 2007?
It was then I began to notice a hint of the company’s internal workings. Team Fortress 2 continued to see updates and revisions to its gameplay since it was first introduced in 2007. Portal also proved to be a surprising experiment released from the company. Then there were Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, both released from Valve within the span of nearly a year. “That’s all fine and dandy,” I said, “But where’s Episode Three?” I couldn’t figure it out. What could have possibly happened?
Why do we keep coming back to Episode Three? Why does nearly every interview, news article, and forum thread concerning Valve come back to the next entry in the Half-Life series? Usually, if something is good, we want more of it. Valve has a persistent track record of polished games that lead the pack. They're known for experimenting and taking calculated risks.
It’s easy to lose hope in a concept that remains unseen. I knew what direction Episode Three was supposed to head in. I knew it was supposed to be the last of the story arc set in motion. This was going to be as epic as epic could be defined. Perhaps even epic enough to have the term redefined.
My concern for the game’s whereabouts didn't come from a place of selfishness, but a place of passion for the series. I can’t speak for everyone, but I suspect that same may be said for them. Regardless, I was wrong, and I soon learned how my frustration and desire to know was nothing more than a bad case of entitlement.
It was something Gabe Newell said during an interview that struck a chord with me.
“And so 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.”
My discovery of The Final Hours of Half-Life 2 and The Final Hours of Portal 2 further expanded my understanding of the company. Both features helped paint a vivid picture to the trials and tribulations both projects put the company through.
So what did I learn about Valve that changed my stance on Episode Three?
Gabe Newell has made a conscious effort to create an environment that consists of collecting intelligent and talented people, giving them a desk that literally has wheels, and setting them loose.
This leads to the company's founding principle: non-linear development. Valve does whatever it believes its time is best spent doing. A project starts with a collection of passion and interest. From there, the concept continues to be refined until the company believes it meets their own standards.
The company certainly has a lot it could be doing with its time. A Half-Life sequel, additional Portal content, Steam client revisions, Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 updates, a Counter-Strike sequel, and departures from the studio’s lineage, such as Dota 2. There are only so many hours in the day and a limited number of employees - which is why the studio must rely on the collective enthusiasm and passion for a project to help dictate its time.
So why has Valve been noticeably quiet about the happenings of the Half-Life series with future installments? Because Half-Life 2 had moments that severely damaged the morale of the company and led to cracks in the company's carefully crafted environment (see: the leaking of an unfinished Half-Life 2 build).
The company has since learned it’s best to give a project time to hide from the public eye, as an idea in its infancy can be shattered if subjected to the cruelty of a general audience.
What makes the company work, as a whole, is that they don’t have to answer to shareholders looking from the outside of the company and the industry. The head of the company, comparatively, works directly with employees on projects. Can you imagine what we'd have if the company had shareholders and suits dictating its projects?
Half-Life 5? A non-existent mod community due to the hampering of “unauthorized use” of the Source engine? Left 4 Dead 4? No hats in Team Fortress 2?
Sometimes, the most obvious choice isn’t the right one. But it may very well be.
“That’s all interesting,” you may say, “but what’s wrong with wanting to know more about the next Half-Life game?” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know more. By nature, we’re curious. It’s when we feel the need to unkindly say that we deserve to know more that a problem arises.
Valve does not owe us anything more than what they choose to deliver. Artists and creative folks alike do what they feel is right and continue to work from there. They didn’t sign a contract with their fan-base that agreed to a sequel for every concept produced.
Buying a game and enjoying it doesn’t mean that a sequel is in the cards. Fans of Psychonauts (hear, hear) can certainly attest to this. Complaining that a company is off making new things instead of a sequel to a beloved game seems counter-productive.
We aren’t entitled to another Half-Life game. If it happens, it’ll be because of the passion from not just the community, but from Valve, the company that created the series in good faith to begin with.
I pondered this last thought for a lot of time and this is when a question popped into my mind: Would I be willing to have a development team’s passion sacrificed for the sake of just having a game pushed out the door? Absolutely not. The passion for a project shows in the final product and its absence can be detrimental. See Spider-Man 3: The Game a Generic Tie-In Game, if you have any doubts.
“Fair enough,” you say, “but what’s happening, then? I still want to know if Episode Three is on or off!”
The company saw potential in the episodic model and viewed it as an opportunity to talk about other stories in the Half-Life universe. Something changed in 2007. From company behavior, word-of-mouth, and past events, here are three speculative answers for the whereabouts of the next Half-Life game.
One, Episode Three is proving to be an ambitious project and no deadline has been set to allow the team time to create a product that satisfies the company’s standard.
Two, development for the next Half-Life game has been postponed. Ideas are thrown around sparingly and several concepts are brewing. Employees continue to work on other projects until a concept enough people can get behind appears.
Three, the development of Episode Three was canned, after proving to be too ambitious for the episodic model. Instead, the focus has been shifted to a larger project for the next Half-Life game, which will take a considerable amount of time to complete.
Every scenario will eventually lead to the public once again taking the helm of Gordon Freeman.
From what I know about the company, Valve will eventually return to the series and get behind a concept they believe in. It’s just a matter of time. We aren’t entitled to anything from the company. Having been guilty of this myself, I can no longer understand how people can say “I don’t care about that game. Where’s Episode Three?”
Regardless of whether or not we're interested in what Valve does outside of the Half-Life series, we can’t say that what they’re doing isn’t productive. We don’t have to like what they do, but, alternatively, they don’t have to do as we say. They choose to pursue these creative endeavors.
So what can a fan do in the mean time? Go play another game. Read a book. Watch a movie. Work. Do something productive. Move on with life. Know that Valve is working on projects that they’re passionate about and that it’s fine if they release something that doesn’t belong in the Half-Life franchise.
I know that, when the next Half-Life game arrives, it’ll be worth my time. Until then, I’ll make sure I spend it wisely.
The thoughts conveyed in the feature above in no way represent the author’s desire to own a gravity gun and propel large objects through his rowdy neighbor’s house.