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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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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.

Again.

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.