I understand the demand for the next instalment of the Half-Life series. Not only has it been four years since we last saw Gordon and friends in-game, but it’s been four years since we saw them at all. The rest of Valve’s repertoire has seen comics, full-blown sequels, DLC, frying pans and golf clubs. But whilst that doesn’t strike me as fair for those anxiously awaiting the next chapter, the absence of Episode Three is something I find relieving. Now, I’ve been meaning to write this article for a very, very long time, and the only reason it has been slow in coming is simply that I’m lazy. But this (specifically: “when [in 2007] Valve decided to put their episodic efforts on hold”) rejuvenated my interest in writing the piece, and all the questions I’d wanted to explore regarding the episodic experiment came back to me. So, here I am, fresh from a return to Valve’s alien-ridden dystopia, clearer – I hope – on exactly why the absence of Gordon’s culminating adventure is the best thing that could have happened to the series.
The Episodic Problem
That Valve have chosen to remain numb on the subject of the next instalment says to me that we are due a fully-fledged game in all but name (we’ll have to see if they title it “Episode Three” at all). I don’t mean to imply that a 4-to-6-hour adventure would be lacklustre after four years, and we have thus earned a longer title, but that perhaps it has occurred to Valve that Gordon Freeman’s adventures cannot be reduced to the minutiae of the “episode”. The serialised episode works as part of the bigger picture, but often that picture is illustrated extensively beforehand and the whole structure of the work is such that it is designed for the episodic format. It’s a question of content and form. An episode has its beginning, middle and end, and in the case of television series, we commonly judge an episode by its own merits. Valve’s episodes are likewise contained with their own respective themes and focuses, both in story and gameplay. Episode One had its focus on Alyx, both as a character and an efficient combat partner, and built a bridge between Half-Life 2’s close and the episodic ‘trilogy’s’ beginning. Episode Two introduced us to a wholly different setting, new enemies and launched the next phase of the story. It was more grandiose than Episode One, but it was nonetheless still an ‘episode’, and felt it.
In light not of Episode Three’s absence, but in looking retrospectively at the preceding games, I’m inclined to consider the decision to continue Freeman’s adventures in the episodic format a mistake. I can understand why they did it, and even now the decision makes sense from Valve’s point of view. Six years is a long time to build one game – to embark on another project of that scale would have been exhausting. We’ve also seen Team Fortress 2, Portal and Left 4 Dead in the post-HL2 era, and all of these games have benefited from what Valve learnt producing shorter instalments. But, as we can see from the missing final act, it hasn’t paid off for the Half-Life series. Playing through the two episodes again, I don’t believe that the core Half-Life storyline can be adapted to the episodic format. If the impetus was to release titles on a more regular basis, this came at odds with the specifications of the Half-Life series.
Half-Life 2 ending on a cliff-hanger naturally had us wanting more, and for Valve, who had spent half a decade building this world, it was a great opportunity to continue exploring it. Enter Episode One, a direct continuation of Half-Life 2’s storyline with players once again taking on the role of Gordon Freeman. Valve were quick to differentiate this game from the expansion pack model fans were familiar with. It continued the story from where you left it, rather than taking you back and seeing events in parallel from another perspective. It was an exciting prospect to think that the fate of Alyx, Eli and Mossman would be revealed so soon. To seal the deal, the veil was to be slowly lifted on the ominous G-man. Unfortunately, the act of bridging end and beginning doesn’t quite work. The out-of-character montage at the beginning of Episode One is an attempt to convert Half-Life 2’s crescendo to the demands of the episodic format, and here is its first slip up. Gordon is whisked away from the G-man by the Vortigaunts, diluting in one spurious moment the crushing inevitability of G-man’s control over you showcased mere hours before. Yes, the story is now in part about G-man losing control, but the event is handled with such casual swiftness that it barely registers. It’s an attitude that, as we shall see, predominates both episodes.
Deposited once again in that Eastern European, city-wide gulag, you discover the Citadel is about to detonate and take an area of several miles radius with it. I remember reading this initial premise in PC GAMER and picturing panic-stricken citizens rushing for the city’s borders, clambering over the dilapidated infrastructure before a storm of who-knows-what proportions devoured Valve’s prize setting. And yet on my final journey through Sector 17, I met this man:
The scene sets itself up nicely. Catching sight of us running down the street, the rebel sees we’re about to blunder into the soldiers now emerging from the tunnel. He hits the deck, aims his weapon, and blows them away. A hasty wave, and he’s gone. He’s not hanging around to see what happens next. But that’s not what happens. This total sod of a man just nonchalantly stands there with his rocket launcher, not even bothering to gesture down to us. Any sense of urgency the setting might have had is immediately nullified by an NPC’s that fails to react to his surroundings. Not even Alyx reacts to his presence – not even a “hey thanks for saving our lives”. If the Citadel once stood as a testament of Combine oppression and authority, it’s now an urgent reminder that you need to get the hell out of there. As a setting it should generate a sense of immediacy and tension and the game should be pushing on you to move. But with the rocket launcher man immobile and Alyx oblivious to his existence, the crumbling Citadel leaves the game’s reality and enters our own: it’s just a static object, and we need not fear it
It might be argued that given the rooftop he was on, he’d come from Barney’s base, but that only compounds the problem: those guys aren’t especially motivated either. They’re standing by the wall, sat on couches listening to Kleiner and making, well, jokes. Gallows humour? Maybe, but from every character? There’s some plan or other to get everyone on trains, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush to do so, despite the imminent danger they talk about. The dialogue Barney and Alyx exchange is sparse and boring; it is undoubtedly one of the worst scripted sequences in the series. Cobbled together to hasten the game’s progress, it’s tantamount to a mod team’s best efforts (which is not to disparage the mod community, of which I am a part: it’s an acknowledgement of the limitations of their situation, which is not an excuse Valve can use). Emotionally, neither Alyx, Barney or the rebels appear anxious or stressed, running counter to the setting’s requirements for tension. I want to feel like we should keep moving, but the bare minimum of effort to convey this mood has been applied. Can an episode accommodate such themes and do so effectively? Episode One is hardly a good example.
Recalling Water Hazard and even the later City 17 chapters of Half-Life 2, I felt a distinct atmosphere in both of them. The rebels’ need to get me moving through the canals as fast as possible was evident, and for the latter, the build-up in tension and climax as we approached our goal – the Citadel – was palpable and effective. The design did everything required of it to fuel the desire to surmount it. But the opposite is done to fuel the need to escape. Why? Alyx only appears urgent when prompted by static events, but is casual at all other times. Before I get to Episode Two, where the problems become even more egregious, I’d like to again touch on why I feel these problems are so prominent: the episodic format. Episode One is trying to tell a big story that requires a lot from its environment, its characters and its gameplay. In some aspects it succeeds: Episode One is still a good game that improves on its predecessor in a lot of ways (mostly gameplay related), but in many others – elements I feel were vital to Half-Life 2 – it fails.
Episode Two is a different case to Episode One in that there’s an attempt to create a bigger game. Episode One suffered an overfamiliarity resulting from a return to City 17 and the Citadel - settings we’d been heavily exposed to in the previous game. If in some respects it felt lazy and uninspired, perhaps it was this sense of fatigue we had. The ‘outlands’ were a gratifying introduction, responsible for much of how refreshing Episode Two felt. Indeed, there’s a lot of good about Episode Two, but unfortunately, the problem of a condensed main storyline continues unabated. The most distinct manifestation of this is in how light-hearted the tone feels. Does that sound like a silly criticism? I don’t think so, because tone is important, and Episode Two’s tone is all over the place. The tragic ending feels like a scene from another game. It registers on an emotional level in a way the rest of the episode barely aspires to. And that’s a shame, because it’s a ****ing great ending.
Life and death in the Half-Life franchise has always been important. Each death in Half-Life 2 was one less human on the planet – with the suppression field in place, that meant one step closer to total extinction. The situation in Episode Two is very different, largely due to the destruction of the Citadel and the relative freedom of the survivors. But I wouldn’t consider this a better situation than was had previously. The Combine suffered an embarrassing blow on an unimportant outpost called Earth which consequently left them without means to call home. If they return, they are not going to spare humanity. The situation is now black and white. Humanity no longer faces eternal oppression, but death. Should that super-portal open, Earth “won’t last seven minutes”
With that in mind, compare these two scenes from Half-Life 2 and Episode Two respectively:
In Half-Life 2, you first encounter the synth gunship on your journey along the coast. Once you’ve helped the rebel outpost shoot it out of the sky, the excellent Bailey score sounds and the reality of what you’re fighting for becomes a little clearer. Rebels, tired and injured, barely standing, wonder what it is they’ve managed to live a little longer for. It’s a poignant scene that works on a number of levels, emphasising the stakes and the odds we’re up against
Enter Episode Two. The set-up is similar: the Hunter Chopper chase comes to a bottleneck at a resistance outpost and, minus a rocket launcher, you have to find a way to take it down. The solution involves using the Gravity Gun to use its own mines against it, and it’s little innovative scenarios like this that work very well on a gameplay level. But on an emotional and story level, it doesn’t work at all. A few rebels were mercilessly shot down in the process, but a couple are still standing as the ensuing scene requires it. What interaction occurs between these two survivors? The two of them share a joke. More of that gallows humour, perhaps?
Not for me. For me, it underscores the lack of attentiveness the episodes have for Half-Life 2’s established world, thematics and tone, summarily pissing all over it for a few laughs. Laughs that, I presume, filtered in from the development of the more tongue-in-cheek aspects of Portal and Team Fortress 2, which were being developed simultaneously. The result is that the life and death struggle has been diluted in favour of goofy humour that pervades most encounters with human NPC’s (see Sheckley and Griggs, or, later in the game, the Ar2 scene). One need only look back at Half-Life 2 to emphasise the change. Ravenholm. for instance, is a place you just don’t go. Alyx is reserved and solemn when she speaks of it. She doesn’t seem to want to talk about it, making hint – although few were needed – that something terrible happened there. And so it did. Ravenholm was shelled by the Combine and its inhabitants transformed into the grotesque zombies we’re familiar with. It is an appalling fate. Throughout the episodes however, zombie encounters elicit a “ZOMBIE-Q!” from Alyx – even though their cacophonous cries are as unnerving as ever! Is it to make to Alyx more fun to be around? To make her a ‘cooler’ companion? Perhaps; she was, after all, the focal point of Episode One. But it has a clear and detrimental effect on the entire emotional core of the games, and I think something significant has been lost by that.
All of this can, arguably, only be the result of the episodic format and its need to accommodate and convey the scale of events from Half-Life 2. In a perverse way, perhaps the lack of a prolonged development cycle has taken Valve away from the intimacy of dealing with all of these different moments within the game. That six year development cycle imbued Half-Life 2 with something that a quick turnaround can’t quite replicate. Episode Three, on the other hand, might just have it: by not being an episode at all, but a game worthy of the continuation of Gordon Freeman’s story. If that does prove to be the case, let’s hope that Valve do eventually return to the episodic format, but create an experience born out of it, rather than for it.
I'll have more to follow on this topic in the near future, so if you'd like to keep up, feel free to email me or catch me on Twitter.