Ten years ago today, the video-game company Valve announced that Half-Life 2: Episode Three, the newest and much-anticipated chapter in its acclaimed sci-fi shooter series, would be out by the end of 2007. This was hardly surprising news: Valve had already released one episodic sequel to its smash hit Half-Life 2, and the second was due out soon. Still, news of Episode Three as “the last in a trilogy” was exciting to fans. Ten years later, they’re still waiting—and the new edition of Half-Life has gone from a eagerly awaited work to gaming history’s most famous piece of “vaporware”—a product announced to the public that the developer has no plans of actually making or releasing.
Since that announcement, Valve has released a dozen games, including the acclaimed Portal and Portal 2 and multiplayer smash hits like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. But Half-Life 2 sequels ended with Episode Two, and over the years, Valve’s party line on a new installment went from a firm commitment to vague promises to tight-lipped refusals to say anything at all. The longer things go on, the more impossible everyone’s expectations become—if a new Half-Life were ever released, the hype would be unimaginably hard to match, and yet Valve’s initial promise has only added to the franchise’s mystique.
Fans online “celebrated” the 10-year anniversary by cutting together a video of Valve’s co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell talking about his company’s plans for a Half-Life sequel over the years. “We know how the trilogy ends and there’s a bunch of loose ends and narrative arcs that need to come to a conclusion in Episode Three,” he said in August 2007. “I don’t have anything to say ... but yes, of course we’re doing Episode Three,” was the line in September 2009. “I got nothing to say about Half-Life,” he said in August 2011. “I don’t know this man at all,” he joked in March 2013, when the British host Jonathan Ross begged him for further news of a sequel.
Why do people still care so much? The original Half-Life, released for the PC in 1998, remains a definitive work in “first-person” gaming, a sci-fi thriller that set new standards for storytelling techniques and immersive world-building in a genre that had always boiled down to guns and blood. Previous first-person shooters like Doom and Quake embodied simplicity: Walk into room, kill monsters with weapons, rinse, and repeat.
Half-Life began with the player’s avatar, the scientist Gordon Freeman, ambling through a massive underground lab on a normal workday before a terrible accident flooded it with aliens. Valve embraced the limitation of the first-person perspective (players can only see through Gordon’s eyes) by having a huge story unfold around him in tiny bits and pieces: Players could put together what was happening if they paid attention to overheard bits of dialogue, or watched other characters interact from afar. The game was in every way a revolution, and remains a wonderfully scary, inventive work almost 20 years after its release.
Valve tinkered with Half-Life over the years, offering add-on games that shifted the viewer’s perspective (in Blue Shift, you played as a security guard watching the crisis unfold; in Opposing Force, you jumped into the skin of one of the original game’s villains). Finally, they gave fans a full sequel in 2004 with Half-Life 2, which is still generally regarded as the greatest PC game ever released. The world of Half-Life 2 wasn’t an underground lab but a dystopic Earth conquered by a mysterious extra-terrestrial militia, and the game navigated through diverse environments (vast cities, abandoned sewers, a haunted village, an alien prison) and drew from every genre imaginable. Half-Life 2 could be a first-person shooter at one minute, a racing game the next, then a grim work of horror, then a goofy alien adventure that saw the player commanding hordes of giant bugs against the enemy.
Half-Life 2 is the kind of game that’s impossible to overhype: Even played now, when its technological advancements seem routine, it remains better than almost any contemporary first-person game. Its use of physics, in which every object can be lifted and thrown and many used to solve puzzles, changed the extent to which a game’s environment could feel like a real place the player could interact with. Before Half-Life 2, the worlds of many games were little more than colorful backgrounds to move through; Valve helped make them infinitely more immersive. Half-Life 2 also gave the player a companion, Alyx Vance, who helped at various points throughout the game. These computer-controlled partners had existed in games for years, but usually as incompetent robots who’d only get in the player’s way; meanwhile Alyx felt like a real character the player could rely on.
Through its history, Valve has set the bar ever-higher with each new game. That was likely the thinking behind the Half-Life Episodes: They were shorter installments that could continue the story of Gordon and Alyx after the events of Half-Life 2, without having to reinvent the wheel. Episode One came out in 2006, and Episode Two in 2007, ending on a huge cliffhanger. All that exists of Episode Three is a little bit of concept art that leaked onto the Internet years ago. Eventually, as it became clear that particular story would never conclude, fans began hoping that a full sequel would eventually appear—a Half-Life 3 filled with further gaming revolutions and the kinds of surprises only Valve could dream up. (In the minds of fans, Half-Life 3 and Half-Life 2: Episode Three essentially amount to the same thing: a new installment.)
It’s unlikely Valve will ever deliver. The fan backlash to another much-hyped third installment, Mass Effect 3, further underlined the risk these highly anticipated sequels face—in Mass Effect’s case, enough players felt that the story hadn’t been concluded correctly and even demanded a revision from the studio BioWare (which ended up obliging). Valve owns the PC-gaming platform Steam and several other games, through which it makes immense profits, meaning the only reason to make a Half-Life 3 would be to satisfy some creative urge. The company continues to innovate in other ways—the episodic model it piloted with Half-Life 2’s sequels is now the norm for every blockbuster game, as are the social multiplayer elements of games like Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead.
So why won’t Valve just say once and for all that the game will never happen? The company’s refusals to give a straightforward answer for a full decade has basically told fans all they need to know. And the lack of a definitive statement continues to leave open the tiny possibility for a sequel one day, keeping the mystery alive, without recommitting the company to a new deadline.
Half-Life 3 has taken so long to get made that the series’s creators are officially aging out of the business. Marc Laidlaw, a novelist who worked at Valve since its inception and was the primary writer of all the Half-Life games, recently announced his retirement from the industry. When asked what his departure meant for the franchise as a whole, he said he didn’t know, but that creative frustration wasn’t his reason for leaving Valve. “My nickname when I first started at Valve in 1997 was ‘Old Man Laidlaw,’” he said in an email to fans. “The little baby level designer who gave me that nickname is now older than I was then.” The same can probably be said for many fans who—after all these years and countless excuses later—are still waiting for the best game that never was.
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