The Most Important Man In The World

Most complaints about DOTA 2 come from the fact that it isn’t Half Life 2: Episode 3. In fact, ask anyone their least-favorite thing about Valve today, and you’ll almost invariably hear the same thing: “They haven’t announced Episode 3.” Many people have suggested that Valve is tired of working on Half-Life, or perhaps they’re just more interested in working on titles that aren’t Half-Life, but has anyone considered that… well, they can’t?

Valve is incapable of making Half-Life 2: Episode 3 without totally bullshitting the player.

Don’t believe me? Well, we need to think long and hard about the most important person in the Half-Life universe, then. That’s right! We need to have a little talk about Eli Vance.

Eli Vance got his start in 2004 when Valve decided to return give a character from the original Half-Life, Generic Scientist Number Two a name. That name was Eli Vance. It was determined that instead of being one of the many faceless drones throughout Black Mesa, he would be an old personal friend of your character’s, the same way that the one security guard seen at the start of the game, Barney, became your ol’ chum… er… Barney. This retcon caused a fundamental paradox in the purpose of the Half-Life series, which I’ll get to later. For now, though, we’ll talk about Eli.

I actually decided to start Half-Life from the beginning to get him. I could have gotten anyone else, but somehow, I just knew they weren't the real Eli.

You never see him again in Half-Life. In subsequent canon, it’s made clear that Eli escaped, stuff happened, seven hour war, and now he leads the resistance. This is where things get a little odd. We don’t really know much about Eli–what kind of a leader he is, how he interacts with people, or even why he’s the leader of the resistance. All we know of his leadership skills is that he’s too trusting (a bad trait when you’re going up against a stereotypical dystopic government) and a nice old guy, all things considered.

Half-Life 2 begins beautifully enough, letting the player stroll through City Seventeen at their leisure, witnessing just how wrong everything has gone, but everything goes sour(er? I mean, the world’s run by laser-faced cyborgs and psychic slugs now) when the Combine shows up and attacks you. It’s cool though, because this woman named Alyx saves you, but everything starts to go wrong again when characters start dumping all the information they can find in your lap. In the roughly eight minutes between when you first meet Alyx and when Barney gives you a crowbar, you’re subjected to a torrent of information, as if Valve has suddenly forgot all about the wonderful “show, don’t tell” rule they’d been following. One of the few genuinely important details imparted to you is that you must make your way to Eli Vance, because he will explain everything.

Get out of here, STALKER.

Traditionally, when a protagonist like Gordon Freeman finds himself in a strange world, a character comes along to explain the situation. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. When little Lucy Pevensie is first transported to Narnia, Lewis sets the stage by showing us the frozen wasteland that is Narnia and by having the faun Mr. Tumnus fill in the gaps. In Half-Life 2, Eli Vance is that guy. At least… he’s supposed to be.

Thus begins Act I of the game. Armed with a nothing more than a crowbar and pursued by Combine forces, you make your way to Black Mesa East, where Eli Vance awaits. Upon meeting the man, you’re offered a few more details about how the world ended, and introduced to stalker (no, not THAT kind of STALKER) and budding kidnapper Judith Mossman. Eli doesn’t really tell you much important, and this interlude really only serves as a break from combat, an introduction to the gravity gun, and a chance for Judith to kidnap Eli, now that you’ve met her.

"Wait, who are you? You say you've kidnapped Eli Vance? What do you mean I took your job?"

Act II begins with you fighting your way out of Ravenholm and over to Alyx, who begs you to rescue her father from Nova Prospekt, an evil facility from the Mortal Kombat school of nomenclature, with the sort of chairs that makes one think it might have been an old Soviet Dental school before the Combine rolled in. Eventually, you do manage to find Eli, and, in a feat of monumental stupidity, manage to let Judith Mossman, who admitted over the radio that she felt she could brainwash Eli, kidnap him again.

By now, it should be painfully obvious that Eli Vance is one of the worst resistance leaders of all time, not only having been kidnapped twice, but still managing to trust his kidnapper the whole time. I’ve raised dogs that were more suspicious than Eli Vance. He hasn’t brought up his resistance to be too bright, either. After a suspicious old friend shows up (the same one who, you may remember, brought the Combine to Earth in the first place), Eli gets kidnapped not once, but twice, and the second time, this old friend and Alyx disappear as well.

Most people would begin to suspect that Gordon Freeman had something to do with Eli’s disappearance, but not Eli’s resistance, oh no. Instead, they take the disappearance of their leadership as a sign to begin… we’re not really sure. It’s not like they have a clear goal or anything–for the most part, it seems like the streets have been cleared, a lot of people are dead, and the living are shooting back and forth in the streets, accomplishing little more than chaos.

Logical story progression: for Act II, repeat the events of Act I, but now you have a car!

As soon as you show up in City 17, you’re given a new mission objective: the Combine have Eli Vance, and you need to go rescue him.


You knew this was coming.

So, dutiful old friend of a man you’ve only met twice that you are, you head after Eli. By accident, you end up getting the entire Citadel to explode and manage to kill the Human ambassador to the Combine, all in a haphazard attempt to rescue Eli Vance and find out just why it is the G-Man brought you here. Then the game just kinda… ends. You show up, topple a regime, start a war, and never learn why you were brought back to life.

It’s not over, though, not by a long-shot. Throughout the course of Half-Life 2: Episode One, you prevent the Citadel from exploding, in order to keep Eli alive, and then fight your way on a train, to follow Eli out of town to Black Mesa East, but you crash. Episode Two actually gets you to Eli, distracting you with a brief detour in which you try to save Eli’s daughter’s life, and a second detour in which you must launch Eli’s rocket and protect Eli’s base from assault. Ultimately, though, Eli dies, and you never find out why you were brought here in the first place.

Getting tired of this face yet? You should be.

Valve had three games to explain why you were around, and not once did the player receive any sort of explanation. Now that Eli’s dead, there’s no room for that. The whole point of Eli explaining everything was so that the G-Man wouldn’t have to, in order to keep his mystique. Killing Eli means that the only person who knows why you’re around is the one mysterious character who must explain nothing to you or risk losing his power as a character.

Remember the paradox I mentioned earlier? Well, what it did was fundamentally change Gordon Freeman and the way players thought about Half-Life. If you play the first game, you can be whoever you want to be. Gordon, as a silent, above average everyman, was given the power to shoot whatever the hell he wanted, enabling the players the freedom to express themselves in a world where everything else was going to hell. Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes threw this out the window. By giving Eli Vance an identity, Valve had given Gordon Freeman, and thus, the players, a past. By doing so, they had defined the silent protagonist as a character, thus rendering his silence unnecessary. Half-Life 2 became a contradiction, a game that offered the player the freedom to be whoever they wanted, but strictly regulated how the player used that freedom, effectively rendering the freedom meaningless.

Half-Life was a game that put you in the driver’s seat. It said “hey, you’re a normal guy, and now there are monsters and the marines want to kill you! React!” That’s what made it so pure. It was almost prototypical of the games that would come later, like System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and STALKER. Half-Life was all about how you, the player, related to the experience. No one defined you but yourself; your motivations behind your actions were entirely your own.

Purge the mutant, even if he is your friend. This is the man I have chosen to be.

Half-Life 2 robbed the player of that. By establishing characters, Valve gave Gordon a back story; by creating characters with fixed reactions, Valve gave Gordon a personality. What made the Half-Life experience special was torn away for a weak story about how an old friend of some scientists is mysteriously sent into the future to save one man from getting kidnapped a lot, but the kidnapee, Eli Vance, wouldn’t have been kidnapped in the first place had it not been for Gordon’s presence. Without the ability to be who you want, Half-Life 2 becomes a mere linear first person shooter with a bad story, puzzles, and sidekicks with character, and it’s all Eli Vance’s fault.

See, the Half-Life series isn’t about Gordon Freeman any more; it’s about Eli Vance. In the six years between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, the series went from being a game about you, the player, and the crowbar-wielding death machine that you inhabit, to a story about a kindly old resistance leader named Eli Vance who didn’t even manage to say anything badass when he died. The game’s like a big inside joke, but you’re never really in on it, because the people Gordon allegedly knows, you don’t. Depending on the mindset you played through Half-Life 2, your Gordon Freeman is fundamentally incompatible with the one Half-Life 2 tries to create.

The best con that he ever pulled was making you believe that he is you.

There’s really only one way to play Half-Life 2, and that’s as a trusting, mute amnesiac with great combat skills. In other words, Gordon Freeman is nothing more than a generic mute character, no more important or personal than the Doom Marine.

Ultimately, Eli Vance became the core of Half-Life 2. He was the driving force behind the game–the player’s entire motivation for doing anything beyond “they’re shooting at me so I must shoot back.” Eli, and the secrets he held, was the ultimate carrot of Half-Life 2, and with him dead, there’s no clean way for Valve to say “you’re ultimately here because…” In fact, after all this time, coming out and saying “Gordon, G-Man sent your to accomplish X or Y” would simply feel awkward, coming so late in the story. Valve shot themselves in the foot by eating their own carrot, and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at a loss as to how to continue the game.

That’s why we don’t have Half-Life 2: Episode 3, folks. The main character is dead. Rest in peace, Eli, rest in peace.

  1. WordPress is weird. Alt text isn’t working properly for some reason, so I had to work my way around it.

  2. Interesting ideas.
    I think it’s a little short sighted to call Eli the only important character. Although, I will concede to the notion that he is often a carrot. Eli’s daughter Alyx, isn’t mentioned in this article at all as a part of that equation, which begs the question why Valve has focussed on the Vances as the family in perpetual peril?

    • Perhaps a better choice of words would be for me to have called Eli the most important or primary character of the plot. Alyx is a carrot for one mission objective in Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and Barney is one in Half-Life 2. In other words, they’re definitely not unimportant, but they are, ultimately, ancilliary characters. Eli is the game’s primary carrot, and the ultimate goal of each game has been to get to Eli, not Alyx or Barney.

      Valve has focussed on the Vances as the family in perpetual peril?

      They’re not great writers. Also, all the book Raising the Bar for Half-Life 2 seem to indicate that Valve basically redid the game after they were hacked. Anyway, I think someone at Valve realizes that the most emotionally engaging objective you can have is with another person, but they fail to realize two equally important points: you need variety in your objectives, and players need to actually care for the players in order for saving a person to have any meaning. Just having a character say “remember me? we were once friends!” doesn’t immediately create a connection any more than “I’m your friend because I’m human while that guy is not” does. When you play, say, one of the Halo games, if you have to rescue Johnson, well, you’ve already established a relationship with him. The major plot objectives are more natural and varied–rescue these guys, shut down this gun, assault this ship, deliver this package, etc. While “shut down this gun” might not be as engaging as “rescue this person you know,” just performing that objective can get old fast (particularly if you don’t really know them–and admit it, what do you really know about Alyx Vance?).

    • indyit
    • October 13th, 2011

    Interesting article, I definitely agree with you. I think the main reason so many fans have been demanding Episode 3 has been due to
    1. unanswered questions
    2. People simply want a Valve single player FPS

    Episode 2 was the last truly single player FPS they made, unless I’m mistaken… and I for one, really want one by them as well, but for me it doesn’t have to be HL. You can argue the plot’s a mess, but the majority of gamers have loved Valve’s games, and I believe rightly so because they are very good at hooking players and offering a visceral experience. Not to insult the general public, but I don’t think many really analyse games to this level, and I’ll admit I try to balance between analysing and getting bugged by flaws and “just having fun” as much as I can.

    I think that’s probably why whilst agreeing with every point you’ve made I still think the game was brilliant (well my memory of it at least.) Ep 1 was ok-ish, whilst Ep 2 was very good.

  3. Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and
    detailed information you offer. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information.
    Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

    • Hey, Kurt. Just thought I’d let you know I’ve since transitioned my work over to a tumblr account (it’s easier to maintain, and I don’t tend to get spambots), which is If you’re interested in following me, that might be the better place. I just started up my final semester of game design, so updates aren’t nearly as frequently as I’d like.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: