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10 Years Ago, Half-Life 2: Episode One Began Valve's Biggest Broken Promise

While it set us up for disappointment, this first Half-Life 2 episode remains one of the few treasures from Valve's most interesting era.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

On May 24, 2006, Valve announced Half-Life 2: Episode Three—the true finale to 2004's Half-Life 2—would launch in December of 2007. With Episode One just a week away, it seemed as if Valve would finally close the curtain on this acclaimed FPS, and move on to bigger and better things by the time 2008 kicked into gear.

Unfortunately for us, only part of this prediction came to pass. While many wonderful experiments would spawn from the technology and brainpower behind Half-Life 2, its long-awaited final Episode has now taken the role of the Internet's new Duke Nukem Forever joke. But instead of sneering derision towards a misguided IP that had gone stale before Y2K, in the case of Episode Three, the joke is squarely on us. We weren't only robbed of a conclusion that left us hanging; we were also robbed of another experience from Valve's most creative and fruitful era—one they've since left behind to rest on their laurels count their Dota 2 money. (And honestly, who can blame them?)

Back when hope still existed for Half-Life 2, the gaming industry was a very different beast. Steam hadn't come close to capturing its modern ubiquity, and many still regarded the platform as a hijacking of their PCs. And though the sale of boxed PC games were then on the decline, digital sales had not yet become the default. With the iTunes Store and its DRM protection only coming into being a few years prior, consumers were rightfully skeptical over how much they would truly own their digital content years down the road. And, faced with the prospect of losing their customer base entirely, retailers had begun fighting tooth and nail to keep physical game releases viable.

In this turbulent, unpredictable climate of 2006, Valve released Half Life 2: Episode One, which took advantage of its developer's largesse and critical acclaim to test the waters in more ways than one. Not only did this release continue Valve's efforts to double down on Steam; it would also begin their initiative to produce episodic content. PC gaming enthusiasts had experienced a similar style of release in the past with expansion packs, but rather than existing as simply more content bolted onto Half-Life 2, these episodes would be stand-alone—albeit interconnected—experiences. For Valve, this approach seemed ideal: Rather than spending another five to six years on Half-Life 3, episodic content would give them the chance to strike multiple times while the iron was still hot, and prevent the arduous production cycle of Half-Life 2 from ever happening again.

Even as short as 10 years ago, it's interesting to see just how different our priorities were. The value of games still amounted to a length-based proposition, meaning, to some, Half-Life 2: Episode One's three-hour running time was nothing short of preposterous. (Admittedly, $19.99 might have been a little steep, but Valve was clearly in uncharted territory.) It wouldn't take long for our values to shift, but the rise of indie games still had a few years before it could show us an experience could be perfectly satisfying if it ended after just a few hours and left us wanting more. Coincidentally, Valve's own Portal would bring this revelation to the world a little over a year later: Much of its buzz centered on how it defied conventional wisdom with the power of brevity.

Episode One could have never had the same impact as 2004's Half-Life 2, but Valve still used it as the testing ground for some pretty impressive tech. While its visuals definitely feel more modern than its predecessor thanks to a better lighting engine, Episode One's biggest feature could be found front and center on the box—or the Steam cover art—in the form of Alyx. While Half-Life 2 experimented with AI by giving you slightly dull squad mates to give simple commands, Episode One pairs you alongside a fairly bright computer-controlled Alyx Vance for most of the adventure. While her constant presence did a good job of highlighting protagonist Gordon Freeman's complete lack of humanity, Alyx's competence felt like a true achievement—one game developers had been chasing for quite some time.

In retrospect, the early sections of Episode One underline how uninterested Valve was in just making another FPS. The gravity gun—without a doubt, Half-Life 2's highlight—serves as Gordon's first weapon, and much of the beginning entails using it and only it to solve environmental puzzles. These segments build so well off of the gravity gun puzzles of Half-Life 2, you get the feeling Valve would have turned Episode One into Gravity Gun: The Game if they could have gotten away with it. In comparison, combat set pieces like an underground, flashlight-lit battle with waves of zombies certainly stand out, but much of the traditional run-and-gunning can't help but feel like filler. Even before Episode 2's release, it's easy to get the sense that Valve is struggling to come up with worthwhile ideas that fit within the context of Half-Life 2.

Honestly, that seems to be why they've left the series behind. The central ideas present in Valve games to follow could have easily been explored further in Half-Life Episodes, but became much more fruitful when developed into their own things. From a 2016 perspective, Alyx's AI feels like a prototype for the computer brain bringing life to the Left 4 Dead world, and Half-Life 2's first-person puzzles definitely paved the way for Portal and its sequel. And, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, Half-Life 2's story might not be worth concluding in the first place. The narrative does its job and certainly sets up an enthralling atmosphere, but Half-Life's overarching plot contains few principal primary characters, even fewer meaningful events, and an embarrassing amount of deus ex machinas. Truly, the best story in Half-Life 2 is the one left unspoken: the bleak history of the world told through the evocative depiction of its environments.

Even if Valve will never deliver on the promise established by Half-Life Episode One, this game and its follow-up feel less like wasted potential these days, and more like treasures from an era of the developer we'll likely never see again. Ultimately, though, it feels as if no conclusion could ever be satisfying: Valve left behind the narrative-focused, single-player FPS shortly after perfecting it, and the sheer amount of games Half-Life 2 has influenced in the passing decade would only make any potential Episode 3 feel derivative. The sense of lingering disappointment may persist a whole decade later, but an unsatisfying end to Half-Life 2 would be nothing short of a tragedy.

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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #1 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Valve has their own "time" and their sense of "what a company should and should not do".

    Its funny watching people blunder into this as if this is a "product" situation of bad prediction and planning out of a #FucKonami or EA or whathaveyou that culls and leverages to save the powers that be in the hierarchy.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #2 Pacario 2 years ago
    My guess: Half Life 3 will return as a hyper-immersive VR game, for this is the next paradigm shift that will allow the series to awe players once again.
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  • Avatar for lozid #3 lozid 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for lozid #4 lozid 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for jacquelynsimon #5 jacquelynsimon 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for metalangel #6 metalangel 2 years ago
    I imagined the third episode being tramping through lots of snow and ice caverns and a lost climatology base (like Deus Ex 2) before you locate the Borealis and go on board for a big fight. Then there's a race to reach an old SSBN sub trapped in the ice, to fire another repurposed missile at the Combine's portal and close it for good. Gordon has to ride it, Iron Man-style, into the portal and there's a big flash and everything thinks he's dead. The final shot is of the Gman sombrely turning and walking away.
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  • Avatar for lindabritt #7 lindabritt 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for mariamoore #8 mariamoore 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #9 DrCorndog 2 years ago
    I thought HL2E1 was really dull until you finally got your traditional weapons back. Using the gravity gun to fling objects as weapons is great, but the powered-up GG sapped all challenge from the game and made it one-dimensional.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #10 LBD_Nytetrayn 2 years ago
    I hate cliffhangers.

    I've never even played Half-Life (I'm not much an FPS person), but I've been burned enough times elsewhere that I just really hate them. Unless you're in a position that the next one is already made or pretty much guaranteed (like, let's say, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) by the time people see the cliffhanger, I really don't like them.
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  • Avatar for ProcHoliday #11 ProcHoliday 2 years ago
    @Pacario This has been my assumption ever since Valve dove in to the whole VR sphere. Half-Life as a series has always been one that pushed the industry forward and I'm betting they haven't had anything that's really industry changing to use until now.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #12 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    @Pacario

    That was what Jeff Gerstmann posited. I don't see it can't not be true.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #13 Pacario 2 years ago
    @ProcHoliday@SatelliteOfLove

    Indeed, I think we're all in agreement here. I'd actually be surprised if we don't one day get to truly experience the world of Half-Life for ourselves (via VR). But that's also a massive undertaking, and who knows how long it'll take for Valve to get the technology, and the story, right.
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  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #14 UnskippableCutscene 2 years ago
    I never liked this project because it made episodic gaming an "okay" concept. A few companies have managed to pull through with complete projects regardless of sales and I respect them for it (hi, Telltale); but mostly what episodic gaming has created is a lot of abandoned dreams when the initial chapters don't sell as they should. Sure, we have projects like Life Is Strange now, but they were practically Beta Test Concepts for a while from companies that weren't sure if they'd deliver. Remember that SiN revival?

    I don't think HL3 will be used to pitch VR, or ever happen. I also don't think that HL, a series largely confined to PC with some lackluster console ports, has the kind of pull for Valve to warrant making another. The company lets people work on just about anything they feel like, and has no shareholders to answer to, the reason Valve doesn't make it because they either creatively feel bored with the concept or because the few authorities they have with fiduciary interests in mind (mainly Gabe Newell) don't think it will sell. And they'd maybe be right.

    I've said it before, they should just license Half-Life to Marc Laidlaw and let him write the end of the story he was working on. Just put in a clause in there somewhere that if they do make a game adaption, they can include a copy of the book.Edited 2 times. Last edited June 2016 by UnskippableCutscene
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  • Avatar for stalelemons #15 stalelemons 2 years ago
    I wish they would at least conclude the story, or give some form of closure.
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