Justin Fleming

How Valve Revived Half-Life (Part 2)

WARNING: WE ARE SPOILING HALF-LIFE: ALYX VERY SHORTLY AFTER THE G-MAN PICTURE BELOW.

If you want a spoiler-free conversation about what makes Half-Life: Alyx really really good but also hamstrung by its own medium, try reading part 1. And if you can, maybe try playing Half-Life: Alyx. If not, maybe go watch a full Let’s Play elsewhere. Valve News Network and Danny O’Dwyre have some full LPs up on YouTube, you can check them out.

All right, seriously.

You’re not supposed to be here if you don’t know about the ending of Half-Life: Alyx. Forget about all this.

I’m a bit mellow dramatic sometimes with media I deeply care about. Half-Life is one of those things. It’s perfectly nestled into my life at those crossroads of finding ways to make yourself feel comfortable in the teenage years as you tread the roads of feeling like yourself but not so much like yourself that no one gets you. Half-Life was my comfort zone for that stuff, it made me feel okay with the fact that I didn’t have the latest video game console or was up to date on the coolest hippest video game trends (Halo 2, at the time). Media and what I used to call “game review sites” hooked my attention and got me wildly interested in the series, and when I had finally gotten to playing the games, Episode One was about 5 months away. So suffice it to say, when I finished Half-Life: Alyx I kinda just sat at my computer for a bit and thought about the ending, and then decided to take a picture of my face and send it to my best friend Michael (told ya’, mellow dramatic). It made a lot of sense as to why people kept saying “They did it.” Let’s clear the air and get this thing out in the open.

Valve have brought Half-Life back to life through Half-Life: Alyx. In part 1 I more or less explained how they took the body of Half-Life, the things that mechanically exist when you play the games, and transported them into VR with this new game. But that’s not everything. I know some people don’t care about the story, and to be fair, the story and world building always has been very “show don’t tell”, which is a rather cinematic approach instead of game-focused approach (which is best served by “do, don’t show”). But, while the rest of the world was getting an ending to Master Chief’s triple game arc against the Covenant in 2007 (which some now look back on poorly), I was instead getting my heart ripped out with a cliffhanger that just kinda sat around for over a decade. There’s a whole world of people who want whatever Half-Life means when Valve decide to release another one. And there’s a whole world of people who wanted to know what happened after Episode Two’s ending. Both worlds have some Venn diagram crossover people (like me).

But if you’re like me, you had made your peace about Episode Three and figured that Half-Life: Alyx (which was rumored to involve time travel) was going to find some weird way to write Gordon more or less out of the fiction and make Alyx the protagonist of future games. Why? Well…that’s where Episode Three was going to end in the first place. And since the Half-Life story-writer Mike Laidlaw had more or less leaked Episode Three’s rough story progression online back near the 10-year anniversary of Episode Two, it only seemed like a clear shot across the bow that Half-Life as we knew it was…dead. And, technically, it was. Valve had gone through Episode Three probably numerous times and gave up on it over and over again. And yet, in two “cutscenes” Half-Life: Alyx manages to bring the whole series back from the grave. Let’s talk about what’s been done, there’s three things to discuss. (1) The G-Man Metaphor, (2), the Retcon, and (3) the HEV surprise.

The G-Man Metaphor

Valve’s iconic mysterious “not a human” character that exists as the only character allowed to pull the players out of gameplay is one of Half-Life’s greatest mysteries. When I was younger I was looking for all the answers. Now that I’m older I revel in the G-Man’s ambiguity and gross attempts at depicting humanity, as well as Valve’s methods of “setpiecing”. If the G-Man was going to be an experience in which the players lose control, Valve did everything they could to make that moment an important flagpole in the Half-Life experience. And thus everyone wants answers.

But from a metaphorical standpoint, the G-Man is…meta. He’s the developer, he almost feels like the company’s perspective on what Half-Life’s capabilities are as a video game against the competition in the industry. Think back on how Half-Life was Valve’s flagship title, a company founded by Microsoft millionaires who left their surefire success job to start a company after Gabe Newell realized Doom was installed on more computers than Windows at Microsoft. These people put bank and success into the uncertainty of video games and needed it to pay off, and yet the G-Man’s conversation at the end of the first Half-Life is entirely…projective and hopeful for what Half-Life and first-person shooters in general might be for the success of video games.

Gordon Freeman in the flesh. Or rather, in the hazard suit. I took the liberty of relieving you of your weapons; most of them were government property. As for the suit, I think you’ve earned it. The borderworld, Xen, is in our control for the time being, thanks to you. Quite a nasty piece of work you managed over there. I am impressed. That’s why I’m here, Mr. Freeman. I have recommended your services to my employers, and they have authorized me to offer you a job. They agree with me that you have limitless potential. You’ve proved yourself a decisive man, so I don’t expect you’ll have any trouble deciding what to do. If you’re interested, just step into the portal and I will take that as a yes. Otherwise…well…I can offer you a battle you have no chance of winning. Rather an anticlimax, after what you’ve just survived. Time to choose.

The emboldened part of the G-Man’s first speech above that comes at the end of Half-Life 1 talks of the limitless potential of Gordon Freeman, the silent video game protagonist to this new experience. He, and the game he exists within, eventually became touted as fantastic video game design choices to immerse players into video game stories by making the protagonist silent and to never take away control from the player. It gave players the illusion of choice when really Half-Life is a fairly linear experience with one objective: Survive. In that sense, the choice at the end of Half-Life is less a choice and more continuing in the only objective you really have in the game. Players choosing to accept the G-Man’s offer is to accept Valve’s enthusiastic hope for Gordon and Half-Life as a video game that can do a lot to shake up video games in general, to change the world (as Gordon kinda does in his own way).

The G-Man’s speech at the start of Half-Life 2 more or less implies story-focused elements that suggest the G-Man uses Gordon as a disruptive force of nature by putting him in a time and place where he wasn’t supposed to be (in City 17 at that point in time during the Combine rule of Earth, prime and ready to create problems that spur rebellion by humanity to start an overthrow). This is all setup for a story that has a massive time leap and overall tonal shift from its originator. It’s hard for me to imagine anticipating Half-Life 2 after living off of the memory of Half-Life 1 for six years. I got to play them in a different order and the artistic theming of Half-Life 2 has informed the series almost permanently. So that opening G-Man sequence is a bit of an anchor between games 1 and 2, reminding players of the oddball perspective of “a lot of time has passed, this is going to be different”. But the G-Man’s speech at the end of Half-Life 2 definitely carries more metaphor talk.

…time, Dr. Freeman? Is it really that time again? It seems as if you only just arrived. You’ve done a great deal in a small timespan. You’ve done so well, in fact, that I’ve received some interesting offers for your services. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t contemplate them. But these are extraordinary times. Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice, I will take the liberty of choosing for you…if and when your time comes around again. I do apologize for what must seem to you an arbitrary imposition, Dr. Freeman. I trust it will all make sense to you in the course of…well…I’m really not at liberty to say. In the meantime… This is where I get off.

While Half-Life has and probably always will be Valve’s baby, Half-Life 2 is this exploration of how to (quality-wise) improve on what’s been done before and to create some new paradigms for video games (it was physics that time). Half-Life 2’s ending involves the G-Man saying “I might give you (Gordon) away to some other cause, I was maybe going to sell you to Dr. Breen but he’s seemingly dead now, so I’m going to figure out where you go next and I’m actually considering those options because times are changing up.” And video games were changing up considerably in the 2000s. Graphics were vastly improving (before they decided to get stale and brown for a while), technology was leaping, the presence of FPS and multiplayer video game giants was a growing notion. Think about it some more, between 2003 and 2005: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Halo 2, and Half-Life 2 all came out. To have lived back then and known how these franchises would’ve managed to survive and thrive in the years to come was a giant mystery back then, but they all had some massive promise and the future for video games looked like it could go in a lot of directions. This was Valve’s way of giving players a cliffhanger and saying, “We…don’t know where to go next. We’re gonna figure it out, give us time players. We’ll decide where video games go next for us.”

The answer at first was the episodic content model, it would continue the story and hopefully allow Valve’s iterative design techniques to thrive and get titles out regularly. It clearly didn’t work out for them. Internally Valve clearly didn’t see making Half-Life games continuing to be more of the same a good thing either. But they didn’t know what their future would be for a long while. That’s also part of why the Episodes don’t have G-Man conversations that are necessarily metaphorical so much as expanding the story or continuing it. The G-Man sequence in Episode Two is bar far the most engaging and eye-opening story wise, as well as the elements that come up later with Eli in conversation. But if Valve was abandoning the ways of Half-Life 2 for a future title, how do they fix that? How do they openly address talking about it through the G-Man?

You are aware that you’ve proven yourself to be of extraordinary value. A previous hire has been unable, or unwilling, to perform the tasks laid before him. We have struggled to find a suitable… replacement. Until now.

It’s only a couple sentences in the entire ending of the game, but the slow camera reveal of Gordon behind G-Man, the holding the crowbar, it all…doesn’t make sense in the context of Half-Life’s story. Hear me out: Gordon Freeman (the player) hasn’t failed the G-Man in their times spent playing the games. Gordon has always accomplished what has been set out for him (until that ending in Episode Two maybe). So how in the world has Gordon been unwilling or unable to perform tasks (except when the Vortigaunts cut off his connection to Gordon) for the G-Man? He hasn’t. This is purely metaphorical.

First-person shooters in the current way we play them have been. Controllers, mice/keyboards, consoles, computers, they’re not good enough anymore for what Valve wants to do, because Valve likes to innovate and iterate on their designs. Alyx is both the name of the game and the character all at once, so when the G-Man is addressing Alyx’s value, the developers are once again speaking about the medium of the game through Alyx the character, which is VR this time around. Gordon, the older Half-Life ways, are unable to do what the developers want now, and so they need to adopt a new character, medium, all of it. This is also an answer to how to approach the story again after so many years. They retcon it.

The Retcon

We are in the future. This is the moment where you watch your father die… Unless… Unless… You were to take matters in your own hands. Release your father, Ms. Vance.

Good. As a consequence of your action, this entity will continue, and this entity… will not.

So we’ll get there, but this specific moment in the game before the after-credits moment is essentially trying to fix the problem of nearly 13 years of absence from the Half-Life story. Episode Three wouldn’t work because it had been far too long and was supposed to be or setup Half-Life 3 with Alyx taking the mantle from Gordon. Building that massive conclusion wouldn’t have worked after this long, not to mention playing it in the same way we enjoyed playing the previous Half-Life games. They’re really good, but in terms of mechanical joy playing them today in the midst of games like the modern Doom games or a Souls-series reveals how Valve simply refined what was presently popular to an engaging piece of media that was effortless and a joy.

So this moment felt like a smart retcon: Just cut Episode Three’s ending and keep the “most important” element (Alyx being almost a more relevant and interesting potential for a player avatar than Gordon) and get her hired by the G-Man. It’s the element that allows the series to survive and then do a nice timeline change-up by making it be a prequel. It was a neat way for Valve to acknowledge that Episode Two’s ending was sorrowful and something players will never forget, and players are even empowered in creating some sort of a magical “insert” to save Eli in an alternate reality. I figured in that reality the Advisor there would’ve just dropped dead and that reality would’ve gone on to have its Episode Three ending. Meanwhile, Valve have setup the next opportunity for Half-Life games by having Alyx be hired by the G-Man just like the ending of Half-Life 1. So as the credits rolled I was excited for what could happen and thought it fitting. But then the audio distortion on the credits roll gets nuts, and the “Y” in Alyx’s name (which is an upside-down Lambda if you didn’t know) gets a nice little bold element on it and the distortion gave way to…the HEV suit sound.

The HEV Surprise

The audio design in this moment is so great. That distortion, the static element that gently moves listeners into the environment for hearing the HEV suit’s rad indicator almost like we’re getting moved there. And then we’re confirmed to be hearing things as Gordon when the heartbeat indicator goes off. Many players got excited (just go watch Tyler lose his mind at realizing there’s more than one ending here and that it’s Gordon in the end). Valve put a perfect little bow on top of this whole moment by using the HEV suit sound queue to indicate someone’s at low health, it reveals all at once that we’re suddenly playing Gordon, and that we’re back at that moment, and that Gordon has been at low health all this time. Remember that metaphor talk earlier? Gordon, representing Half-Life and the series, its potential, have been at low health, and after hearing “Seek medical attention” from the HEV suit, the very next thing we hear is Gordon’s heart begin beating again.

I think Valve could only beat it over our heads harder that “We’re ready to make Half-Life 3 now” if they put the sound of a defibrillator into the sequence. Gordon wakes up. Our Episode Two alternate timeline fever dream moment that works hard to put players at peace that Episode Two had a sad cliffhanger ending suddenly turns into a big door opening saying, “How’d you like to see that next part of this story too?”

It’s a lot of different moving parts, but it effectively sells players first and foremost on the possibility of Half-Life: Alyx games in the future, and then how Valve can navigate that while addressing the elephant in the room of Episode Two. Lastly Valve take the added step of saying “Now how about Half-Life 3?”

Valve just keep the details coming in that moment once players have realized they’re wearing HEV gloves now. Players are being shown the possibility of that reality where Eli gets to live, fusing Episode Three and Alyx together in Half-Life 3. Dog shows up to make players feel glee and joy. Dog’s gravity tethers that show up as he opens his paw illuminate in the shape of a lambda holding the crowbar. The G-Man is off to the left on a platform to tell you that the developers are watching and planning the unfolding of this moment, knowing you’ll take that crowbar in your hands eagerly.

In one ending sequence, Valve effortlessly take a 13 year old franchise, whose body has now been transported into VR successfully, give it a jolt, and watch it come back to life.

Will the transplant work? We’ll see.

In the meantime… This is where I get off.

Business admin graduate with a passion for games and music.