The Sad, Strange End to Half-Life

Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw released the "unofficial" outline of 'Half-Life 2: Episode 3.'

John Brindle

All images courtesy Valve

So this is how it ends. After two games, four expansion packs, numerous mods and spin-offs, and ten years of near silence, the saga of Half-Life and its protagonist Gordon Freeman finally concluded last week with an unofficial blog post from the series' former lead writer Marc Laidlaw that received so much traffic most people had to read it on Pastebin.

Writing on his personal website, Laidlaw sketches out would probably have been the story of the long-awaited Half-Life 2: Episode 3. He picks straight up from the last game's cruel cliffhanger, describing the player's journey into the Arctic in search of a lost ship called the Borealis. He makes a minor pretense of covering his tracks, swapping the characters' gender and scrambling their names. But most Half-Life fans will recognize it instantly, and realize what it means.

It's been almost a decade since Valve last touched the series that made it famous. Since then it has evolved from a mere game developer into a global gaming hegemon through its ubiquitous online distribution platform, Steam. In those years it has commented only in the most elliptical fashion about whether the threads it left dangling in 2007 will ever be tied up. So Laidlaw's post seems to confirm what many people already suspected when he left Valve last year: they won't.

It's a strange, sad finish for a series which did so much to define what storytelling in big-budget video games could be. It also seems to seal the Valve's transformation from a serious creative force in video games into a primarily economic one, a bloated rentier which defines the field on which other developers compete. For me, though, it has a more personal significance. It's no exaggeration to say that Half-Life shaped me as a person.

I'm one of what Anna Anthropy calls "the children of the glow": That generation who encountered the internet when it was still mysterious, still the preserve of "weirdoes, queers, and outcasts." Online personas were still mostly separate from offline ones, and the web was not yet draped seamlessly over every aspect of our lives like Borges' map of the empire. It was still "cyberspace," a ghostly other world which I accessed by sneaking into my dad's study after he was asleep and bathing in that glow.

Half-Life was at the start of all that; it was the first video game I ever owned. (Actually, the first game I owned was an abysmal FMV adventure called Danger Island, but Half-Life was the first good game.) "Do you kill anyone?" my mother asked the shop assistant in Electronics Boutique. "No," he said, "only aliens. And government agents, but they're not really people." She accepted this, I took it home, and, swimming across my monitor at 640 pixels by 480, it hit me like a bomb out of a clear sky. I showed it to every one of my friends—but I was too scared to finish it until years later.

When Half-Life 2 was announced it was natural that I would seek out a fan forum, Halflife2.net, to find out more. I couldn't have known said site would become one of my primary social outlets. Too shy and nerdy to make many firm friends at school, here I could be confident, even cool. As part of the massive fan and modding community which gave rise to Counter-Strike, Dear Esther, and the gay agenda of Robert Yang, I learned how to express and to moderate myself—crucial elements of ordinary socialization. I was active for maybe seven years and made 18,870 posts.

It was here that I got my first experience in journalism, writing news posts about mods for the website's front page. Here I made friends I still keep in touch with and discovered music and books I would never otherwise have come across. Here was my first taste of power and responsibility as I navigated the weird factional politics which came with being a moderator (eventually joining and then renouncing a secret shadow forum which used its control of the site management to suppress all evidence of its existence). And it was here that I met my first wife: mutually puzzling over plot clues, blowing each other up in deathmatch, and running in endless circles around the farmhouse at the end of Left 4 Dead's 'Blood Harvest, spiraling ever closer to our real thoughts and feelings.

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All of this took place in an environment where Valve's games had the stature and cultural centrality that the Bible has in a monastery. In part that came from their particular way of storytelling—or rather, of telling the player very little. Half-Life always made a great show of revealing, excluding or occluding important details while hiding others in the background. Like the TV series Lost, it used narrative breadcrumbs and lacunae—carrots and sticks—to focus their consumers' attention on a series of big questions. Who is the G-Man? What is the Borealis? What was Eli going to tell us? These questions, the creators seemed to hint, might be answered if one could only study hard enough.

Oh, how we studied. In the Rumors and Speculation forums we seized on every scrap of information Valve released and subjected it to feverish interpretation. Once the game was out we made threads full of screenshots with arrows drawn on them, transcripts of audio files, and quotes from the game's manual to illustrate how it all connected. We came to know every piece of evidence and every controversy like archeologists of a civilization which did not leave many ruins. "Oh yes, the famous unused Barney audio files! Gordan357 has done the definitive scholarship on those." In a few cases the knottiest problems were eventually resolved by statements from Laidlaw or other developers.

Yet even we zealots could see there were gaps. For instance, the first game's NPCs had spoken of an enigmatic "administrator" who seemed responsible for the accident. Players took this as an obvious reference to the G-Man, a suited figure who watches the player from afar. In Half-Life 2 the G-Man and the Administrator were separate people, and newbies were strictly schooled on this point. But it seemed clear to many of us that there had been a retcon, that elements intended to mean one thing in Half-Life had been edited to mean another in Half-Life 2. Almost as if Valve hadn't quite planned everything from the start.

In that sense, the whole Half-Life mythos was a kind of creative collaboration between Valve and their fans. They did the real hard work but their plots depended on our imagination for much of their coherence and on our speculation for their mystique. Our frenzied conjecture allowed them the privilege of sweeping majestically in every so often to confirm, complicate or disprove it. They acted like gods, but they needed our belief. It always seemed to us that they enjoyed it. Laidlaw's purely cosmetic obfuscation of names and places feels like gentle mockery of everyone involved; one last mystery for the fans to decode.

The mystique is broken now. There will be no more majestic interventions, and there is no final answer. Instead there's only an archipelago of fragments—existing games, concept art, bootleg alpha builds, and now Marc Laidlaw's post—across which fans must draw their own imagined coherence, interpolating between these ruined islands a vision of what Half-Life 3 might have been. And, looking back across the years, surveying my little collection of memorabilia, I kind of like it that way.

Because wasn't that always the case? All our furious hermeneutics depended on the notion of canon, which is central to nerd culture. Debating whether the Combine were "really" this thing or that had no meaning unless we presumed the existence of a coherent, definitive story of Half-Life, existing perhaps in a platonic realm of pure fiction. But just as the original, Biblical canon was formed by a protracted political process—endless maneuvers deciding which books did and did not constitute the truth about Jesus Christ—the slips, gaps and retcons in Half-Life revealed it as the occasionally hodgepodge creation of commercial and creative pressures.

In a way, we must have known all this already, since we were doing so much work. We resolved the contradictions and ambiguities in what Valve presented to us (for instance the first game's implication that the G-Man was a US government agent versus the second's depiction of him as an otherworldly being). Even as Laidlaw's blog inspires new fan works, we should remember that the canon itself was a fan work all along.

This is the task of all readers and players. We weave together strains of dialogue, visual motifs, and snippets of background lore—whose relationships to each other are not necessarily intentional (and are contaminated by the world of profit and loss which produced them anyway)—into the image of another world, one which cannot exist without our acts of interpretation. The materials we weave with might be more or less polished, more or less "official." They might have been assembled by developers for more or less coherent purposes. The process, however, is the same.

So as much as I'd like to play Half-Life 2: Episode 3 (or, for that matter, Half-Life 3), I'm not sure I can imagine an ending more apt than this one. Valve's hinting and hiding have finally collapsed under their own weight. The story of Gordon Freeman now exists, as it always did, in superposition, as a set of possible implications of the scraps we have left: ghostly, like a memory.