Why Half-Life 2 is Broken, and Why Valve Can’t Make Half-Life 2: Episode 3

Why Half-Life 2 is broken, and why Valve can’t make Half-Life 2: Episode 3

(it’s not performance anxiety)

Reposted from here.

Everyone seems to want Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Some people have even jumped the gun and just want a straight-up Half-Life 3 (personally, I’m with them; a new timeskip and a new enemy would be nice!). Valve’s said that performance anxiety is the problem, but I doubt that’s true–these are the guys who can release a four-hour game with only two multiplayer modes and have it score an 89 on Metacritic and then whip around and release a cheap sequel the next year and still be the most-loved game company on the planet. They could release anything and it would score well on Metacritic.

So why can’t Valve release Half-Life 2: Episode 3? It’s not possible. Valve can’t make another Half-Life game, not as they are.

The joker in me wants to say that it’s all because of Eli Vance, but in truth, he’s a symptom, not the problem.

I should probably explain that: See, Half-Life 2 doesn’t have a very good story. Generally, a godo story will introduce the audience and protagonist to the world, deal with a conflict, and then resolve that conflict. Each act will feature new goals for the protagonist to pursue, all building up to the conclusion.

Half-Life 2 doesn’t actually do that. The game starts brilliantly, introducing the player to a fascinating world, but it quickly falls flat on its face with a ten minute unskippable cutscene. Interestingly, your next objective is to go see Eli Vance, who, it is said, will explain everything, like why you’re here in the first place. My first thought was “yeah, yeah, yeah, just a minute, I’m teleporting this miniature cactus!” My second thought was “wait, if he’s going to explain why I’m here, why did you just spend ten minutes telling me all about how Breen won’t let people make babies and stuff?”

So you blast through the first act and finally make your way to Black Mesa East, where Eli Vance talks to you for five minutes or so, telling you what everyone previously told you, and then sends you outside so he can get kidnapped. Then, the game’s best levels, Ravenholm and Highway 17, happen… but they happen so you can get to Eli, which you did during the first act. Of course, Eli gets kidnapped for the second time, and the game’s third act features you trying to meet him yet again.

Keep in mind, you still don’t know why you, specifically, were brought to the world. “Fight the Combine” is never stated to be the reason, and it becomes fairly clear that everyone can hold their own without you, so apparently, there’s some big secret reason that you’re here. Throughout the entire game, you never actually learn why you were brought to City 17. In fact, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is spent helping Eli escape from City 17 (and then pursuing him), and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is spent… getting to him. Then, just as he plans to tell you what you’ve been wanting to know over the course of two games… he dies.

Eli is the only reason you do anything in the Half-Life 2 games, and he’s dead. The Princess Peach of the Half-Life 2 series is gone. Now you’ve got nothing.

Of course Valve could easily write their way out of things (G-Man knows why you’re there! I bet that brain-eating slug does too!), so the problem isn’t Eli himself, it’s Valve.

Valve loves to hype their organizational structure, but to be honest, I think it’s kind of broken. To tell a story, you need an author. Working by committee doesn’t really work. Portal 2 succeeded because its levels were pretty divorced from the narrative; it is a puzzle game that has a story running simultaneously. The two rarely work together. The plot is simplistic and the story only has three living characters, so it’s pretty easy to do.

Half-Life 2 is a different beastie because it’s got a plot and a bunch of characters to contend with. That plot takes place in an actual world, and the gameplay’s more than just a simple puzzle game. That means that there’s a lot more to things.

One of the most important things to understand about stories is how selfish they are. They can’t be second to anything. They simply don’t work that way. As I mentioned earlier, stories by committee rarely work (check out most comic book events, for instance). So… you kinda have to have an author or two or a director or someone–you’ve got to maintain that vision, or you have a hundred different people all working every which way being inefficient and telling a story that isn’t very good.

In other words, you get Half-Life 2.

It’s much easier to work on a multiplayer project. There’s no need to focus on creating a cohesive story and all the elements required to make that work. You just program the game, create the assets, and run with it. It’s significantly easier than trying to tell a story with a large group of people who have no real leader.

Perhaps that’s why everything Valve’s released since 2007 has been a multiplayer game. Both upcoming titles, DOTA 2 and Maybe it’s why Portal 2 is probably going to be Valve’s last single-player game. Speaking of Portal 2…

Portal 2 worked because at its core, it’s just puzzles. A story-based game requires significantly more than that. With a pure puzzle game, the storytelling is basically disconnected from the gameplay. It’s just “puzzles increase in complexity and we add new mechanics.”

Half-Life 2 is far more complex than Portal, in terms of gameplay and puzzles. It has a much richer toolbox, with human characters who must do actions, enemies who have their own actions, far more varied environments, vehicles, and so on and so forth. The amount of things that can occur in Half-Life’s toolbox and how they can play out are far more rich than Portal’s. In terms of toolboxes, if Portal is See Spot Run, Half-Life 2 is Animorphs; one hasn’t got a lot of tools to work with, while the other’s got many.

Right now, Valve has too many chefs in their kitchen. Portal 2 only worked because they had very few ingredients.

I think their anarchic style of development is pretty interesting, but its primary weakness really does seem to be storytelling. They can’t make Half-Life 2: Episode 3 because they are too big and too unfocused to do so. Eli’s a symptom of the problem–Valve didn’t really know what they were doing, so kept shoehorning him in as the series’ primary objective without really realizing it, and they never really figured out why Gordon was there in the first place. The game’s storysimply does not matter.

So how can Valve get out of this mess?

They can do a few things:

First, just get it over with. Get Half-Life 2: Episode 3 out the door and be done with it.

Second, limit the number of people on the project. I did just cover the whole “too many chefs in the kitchen” bit a moment ago, so that should need no explaining.

Third, and most importantly, work on Half-Life 3, but cut out all the stupid story stuff. As I’ve demonstrated, Half-Life 2’s story kinda sucks, so backing away from it and moving towards a more experience-based game would be a good thing.

Ultimately, the series doesn’t need a story. If you don’t believe me, you might want to check out a little game called Half-Life. That game has no story. It’s an experience. You, the mute protagonist, travel through a bunch of levels solving puzzles and fighting monsters. That’s it. There’s no story there, just a journey through a world.

If Valve wants to make another Half-Life, they should go back to basics. Their development style doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling, but simply creating an enjoyable world with fantastic enemies and set pieces? That should be no problem at all. Several times, I’ve surveyed people, asking them what their favorite levels in Half-Life 2 were: with just one exception, everyone mentioned either Ravenholm or City 17–levels where Gordon was on his own, not locked in a room having a story told at him. People love Half-Life’s loneliness. They say they like its characters, but when it comes to what they actually enjoy, they prefer playing without them.

Make another Half-Life, Valve, not another Half-Life 2. That’s how you get out of this mess.

Or, y’know, use traditional development methodology.

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    • yimmeryams
    • May 17th, 2012

    This is really well-written.

    I liked Alyx Vance as a character, and by character, I mean someone to keep me company or comment on things that I do.

    I think it would be okay if they have some character development or story revealing through a single companion, such as Alyx. There wouldn’t be a “sit down and I’ll tell you everything!” moment with that.

    I personally think that the G-man sent Freeman to City 17 so he could be the catalyst for the events in the series. It seems like he didn’t really do much, but there’s no story established of what would happen if Freeman didn’t show up. I prefer to think that in every area I visited, if I hadn’t shown up, the good guys would have lost.

    I don’t think everyone feels that way, and it’s definitely a way for me to feel important in what I do in the game. I hadn’t realized before this how much of the story / experience I inferred or made up on my own.

    Another problem I think Valve is having with making a HL3 or HL2e3 is solidifying the story. There are probably more people like me who have filled the gaps in the story with their own ideas, thoughts, and interpretations, and by developing a lot of extra story to explain things, all those people are either right or wrong. I don’t think they’d have to even deal with that if they do what you suggested (focus on the experience instead of the story).

    Also, in case you’re interested, I got here from http://kotaku.com/5911171/portal-creator-says-valve-is-more-structured-than-you-think

    • white
    • June 27th, 2012

    you are dumb.
    and your reason the story is bad is bad and you should feel bad

    • X-Kaliber
    • June 28th, 2012

    I’m kind of curious as to what your opinions on the following site are, as to the Half Life saga’s plot lines.

    http://members.shaw.ca/halflifestory/timeline.htm

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