One of the greatest game franchises ever ended abruptly in 2007. Why can't its fans just let it go?
At the conclusion of the most recent chapter of Valve Corporation's multi-million selling Half-Life series, the player and a companion character have managed to triumph in a lengthy, grueling battle against the alien invaders known as the Combine. Just as you're about to board a helicopter and find answers to a years-in-the-making, X-Files-grade mystery, two silent and menacing creatures suddenly seize your companion's father – another primary character – and kill him. The screen fades to black.
That was October, 2007.
This June, among thoughts about the promise of VR and a growing number of arguments with his 3.79 million followers, Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson tweeted something of a plea: "hl3pls."
This, of course, is the standard cry among the gaming community for what may very well be its white whale: The never-finished, never-released Half-Life 3 – the next chapter in one of the most iconic game franchises ever made. Promised in 2006, it has never materialized. In the ensuing years, it's become what a dedicated Half-Life wiki site calls "gaming's most infamous case of continuing vaporware."
Desperate fans seized on Notch's tweet: Did he have some inside information? Was Half-Life 3 finally on its way? He soon had to respond:
"I have zero information about hl3 other than to confirm that it's coming out tomorrow. (for real, I know nothing)".
That social-media kerfuffle is only the latest sign of just how badly gamers want the next Half-Life game. An entire subreddit is dedicated to the franchise, with 27,000 subscribers tracking every hint of a rumor.
They may be waiting for a game that will never come – and many of them know it. So why has one of gaming's most passionate fanbases assembled around a famously nonexistent product? The sheer popularity of Half-Life 2 – over 12 million copies sold, including a Playstation 2 version – doesn't hurt. But that's just the beginning of fans' intense connection to the game – which, paradoxically, is only further fueled by Valve's stubborn silence on the subject.
The last time Gabe Newell, Valve's CEO, mentioned the title was in March of 2015, and that was only in passing, while listing reasons for his studio's newfound commitment to multiplayer gaming – the polar opposite of the tightly plotted, single-player Half-Life series. Before that, tantalizingly, a trademark was filed for Half-Life 3, and some concept art popped up. Since then, nothing.
More fans are coming around to the idea Half-Life has simply been abandoned, a theory supported by recent news that the franchise's main writer, Marc Laidlaw, has resigned from Valve. "I have been a grateful co-creator, but my time working on the series is behind me," Laidlaw wrote in an email to a fan, who posted it on Reddit. Laidlaw was the sole writer for Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and worked on prospective subsequent episodes, so the community was shaken. "Don't know what to think about this anymore, honestly," the poster commented.
But some fans simply won't give up. Though Half-Life 3 has become a Great Pumpkin-style running joke for some gamers, other members of online Valve communities remain obsessed with the distant possibility of the game's return. On YouTube, videos like those produced by Valve News Network – with 171,000 subscribers – delve into the scantest of details that could possibly hint at a new game. One video published in June, "A Comprehensive History of Half-Life 3" – essentially, a history of nothing – gained 134,000 views in two weeks.
In 2012, fans attempted to politely petition the company for transparency: "[We] have waited years for a word on when the franchise will return," they wrote in a "Call for Communication" that started what became a 51,000-member strong group, and garnered 4500 comments. "Your oldest and longest-running fanbase would like better communication." They organized thousands of people to simultaneously play Half-Life 2 on Steam – Valve's online service and digital store – bumping its visibility, in a sort of virtual flash-mob protest. That clever move did at least garner some acknowledgement of their plight from Newell.
"We're acutely aware of how much we annoy our fans, " he told a Penny Arcade reporter. He then explained that the company felt obligated to focus on currently popular games like Portal (set, incidentally, in the same universe as Half-Life), Counterstrike, and Left 4 Dead. "We want to make sure that those games and those stories and those characters are moving forward while also making sure we don't just get into terminal sequelitis."
More than just a game
The problem for fans is that Half-Life occupies a special place in their hearts – not just as the game that put Valve on the map (the original was a huge hit when it was released in 1998), but as an important milestone in the overall development of games. Add to that the fact that its creators abandoned the entire, gripping sci-fi narrative in-medias-res, and you get all the ingredients you need for a sort of perpetual disappointment machine – if not red-hot fan-rage.
Half-Life is more than just a fun game, says Glenn Lawrence, site administrator at the fansite ValveTime.net. It was a "turning point" for a generation, he adds, noting that Valve was able to integrate technological innovations – like never-before-seen physics systems – with sophisticated narrative gameplay, complete with voice acting.
Half-Life's dystopian future plot is nothing we haven't seen before, channeling everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to 1984, but the delivery mechanism was a major innovation. Characters spoke naturally as you interacted with them, addressing the player as "Dr. Freeman" – but Dr. Gordon Freeman didn't speak, allowing the player to project their own personalities onto the protagonist. Having non-playable characters look you in the eye, call you by name, and make what felt like conscious decisions created a deeper connection than players had experienced before. And Half-Life had no cutscenes to sit through; plot points were delivered live as you played, keeping you immersed in the action.
"There weren't many FPS games that were as story-driven, and done as well as Valve did them," says Lawrence. "Who walks away from a Half-Life game thinking they weren't totally satisfied? No one."
Freeman himself is universally considered be one of the greatest video game characters of all time. A physicist forced into action, armed mostly with a mere crowbar, he marked a generational leap beyond the popular, but cartoonish, mascots that had dominated the game scene on consoles. He had a backstory. He had a life. Fans felt connected to him – while they played, they truly felt they were him. And Valve ended his story on a cliffhanger, and then ripped him away.
Many fans were teenagers or children when the Half-Life series was released, which made their experience with the games even more intense, and the lack of narrative closure more agonizing – it's as if George Lucas simply stopped making movies after The Empire Strikes Back.
Half Life helped shape the gaming tastes of a generation, leading them to seek deeper narrative threads and complex character relationships – which couldn't have hurt the popularity of games such as the Uncharted series, Red Dead Redemption and even smaller, independent titles, like 2014's Gone Home, in which players take on the role of a young woman searching a house for clues about her missing family.
And now, the hunt for Half-Life 3 has become a complex, bizarre, emotionally fraught game in its own right. "This is a huge, huge game," says Lawrence, "and it's very bizarre to leave it. If they had come out with a statement, or said we're working on other projects...I think that's why people are upset. It's such an important game to people."
But not everyone. As time moves on, some younger gamers are more familiar with the intrigue around the franchise than the actual gameplay. "I have never played Half-Life at all," one Redditor wrote, innocently enough, last year. "Did the story end in a particular cliffhanger?"