Half-Life: Alyx comes out today. It’s the first Half-Life game since 2007’s Half-Life 2: Episode Two—a conspicuous fact given that Episode Two was supposed to be followed by Episode Three in fairly short order, and it is now, according to my cyberpunk futurephone, 2020. This is not to say, however, that Valve didn’t try. It tried many times, in fact.
Half-Life: Alyx is a prequel, not a sequel, but during a recent interview, Valve designer Robin Walker and artist Tristan Reidford told Kotaku that over the years the company has repeatedly tried to continue the story from where Half-Life 2: Episode Two left off.
“There were multiple things that people worked on that, at the time, thought of themselves as the next piece of Half-Life,” Walker said over a Skype video call. “One of the problems that they all ran into is, at its core, Half-Life has always been an IP where I think we were interested in solving some interesting collision of technology and art that had reared itself.”
The original Half-Life, he explained, was an attempt at telling more interesting stories with shooters, while Half-Life 2 progressed into characters and physics-based elements. The Half-Life 2 episodes, meanwhile, represented an opportunity to “build the good one” of Half-Life 2 using lessons learned during its development. When it came time to begin work on Episode Three, however, nobody could come up with a unifying idea that possessed the sense of “wonderment, or opening, or expansion” that had come to characterise Half-Life internally.
“At that point, we felt like the Episode Three scope couldn’t just be an episode,” said Walker. “It had to be much bigger than that.”
Multiple teams tried, but Walker said nothing ever stuck. Walker was hesitant to divulge details about those projects, but he did point to one product of those attempts that, despite fan beliefs to the contrary, never actually ascended into the larger Half-Life canon: Epistle Three. Back in 2017, longtime Valve writer Marc Laidlaw, who left the company in 2016, publicly posted a “fanfic” that appeared to continue Half-Life 2’s story beyond Episode Two. At the time, Walker was surprised to see the written story, because as far as he knew, nobody had decided on an ending to Half-Life 2: Episode Three, or Half-Life 3, or whatever you want to call it, let alone much of anything else about it.
“I remember thinking ‘I didn’t think that’s what we were planning for Episode Three at all,’” said Walker. “So I think my reaction to Epistle Three was largely ‘Oh, I’ve seen these kinds of things from Marc before.’ They’re like a dump of something he’s thinking of at the time. There was never a document that said ‘Here’s what Episode Three is going to be like.’ There was never a document from Marc about ‘Here’s the overall exact thing that needs to happen.’ Instead, there were many documents.”
Ultimately, Valve decided to make Half-Life: Alyx because developers finally found their technology problem in need of an artistic solution: virtual reality.
“That wasn’t this abstract problem like ‘Hey, we’re working on Half-Life 3. Why should anyone play Half-Life 3?’” said Walker. “It was a much more tractable thing. We could play with this new platform, see its strengths, and see what we hadn’t been able to do… That was a thing you could start working on any day. You could sit down and start working on that problem.”
Now that Half-Life: Alyx is finally out the door, Valve is officially back in the headcrab-thwacking, Combine-shellacking Half-Life business. And while nothing is set in stone for any company this soon after a game’s release—least of all Valve, prodigious canner of countless secret projects—more Half-Life is likely on the way.
“We really enjoyed making this game, and I think we’d really like to keep making some games like this again,” said Walker.
Working on Alyx, noted Reidford, has left Valve in a very different place than when teams were scrambling to justify a new Half-Life with projects that ultimately proved fruitless.
“Over the course of development, there’s all these little stories we’ve been telling ourselves,” Reidford said. “Often they’re just little simple bits of lore to help us design something. That’s really fun to work on, and you can come up with way more of these little stories than you can actually execute. So there’s been a sense of ‘Well, let’s just put a pin in that, because we’ve got to ship this game.’ …So there’s a whole ton of fun little ideas that have been knocking around for the past three years. I think it’s going to be really exciting moving forward.”