Prepare for foreseen consequences.
Last week, digital distribution giant and IRL Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium Valve Software unveiled three announcements about their plans to hurtle PC gaming into the living room. These reveals included a brand new, Linux-based Steam OS; a variety of hackable “Steam Machine” gaming computers available at different price points; and finally (and perhaps most intriguingly), a state-of-the-art controller, supposedly compatible with any game on the Steam service. The controller especially looks like the sort of forward-thinking experiment in play we’ve come to expect from the billion-dollar, flatly organized tech behemoth; it uses sensitive trackpads instead of joysticks, and contains an unobtrusive touchscreen. Developers from across a variety of genres have playtested it, with mainly positive results. But one conspicuous thing stood out about the controller, the last of the highly secretive reveals: It wasn’t Half-Life 3.
Half-Life 3 is gaming’s white whale, so hotly anticipated that the anticipation itself has become a meme. But underneath the jokes and purposely ludicrous conspiracy theories, many commenters and fans feel a very real sense of betrayal whenever Valve does anything besides continue the adventures of Gordon Freeman. Last week’s announcements — the new controller, especially — were met with a mixed reception online. (And really, who knows how the experiment will turn out? Living room PCs are a niche market at best, and Valve’s strategy centers as much around breaking free of a potential Windows 8 walled garden than taking a bite out of the console market. Conventional wisdom says not to bet against Microsoft, even at its most out-of-touch moments.) Sure, this sort of change can be scary and strange, and it’s healthy to have a bit of skepticism about the giant corporations who sell us our toys. But — to borrow a term from Valve head honcho Gabe Newell — one could sense a giant sadness around the fact that Valve once again chose to do something else instead of announce Half-Life 3, or even its almost-as-anticipated architecture, the Source 2 engine. When a supposed leak on 4Chan (it should tell you how desperate people are for this game when “a supposed leak on 4Chan” inspires hope) about the reveal of Source 2 turned out to be false, one could feel the air deflate from the whoopee cushion, and much of the resulting fart noise headed straight for that weird-ass controller that Valve showcased instead.
But this week (like most weeks, if you scour the internet hard enough), new hope emerged for the Half-Life fanatic. Valve registered a European copyright for Half-Life 3, and a leak from its project management database reveals the game is in production. With Valve launching a new operating system and licensed hardware soon, that means it’s time to cradle our headcrab plushies in anticipation, right? That this time, these little morsels of information might actually lead to something bigger? At the risk of bursting a bubble that’s been burst countless times before, these hints only tell us one of the few things we already know about Half-Life 3: They’re working on it.
Look, nobody wants Half-Life 3 more than I do. Okay, even accounting for hyperbole, that’s an absurd statement. The people who bought Half-Life 2 on day one — while I was still busy shitting my diaper and looking for Triforce shards in Wind Waker — clearly want this game more than I do. They spend more time thinking about how much they want this game than I do, which is why websites that should know better give the smallest shred of a Half-Life 3 rumor play. But I adore Half-Life, and I think Valve’s seamless blend of gameplay and storytelling creates an undeniable magic and sense of wonder at its peak moments. The dorkiest thing I own (aside from a custom-built Muppet) is a small shrine of Half-Life and Portal merchandise; that’s the kind of sucker I am for this stuff. If I’m a fanboy of anything, it’s Valve, but I don’t want to go through this weekly cyclical anticipation for Half-Life 3, or meme-ify or hype it up to something it will never be.
At this point, I’m worried our Half-Life 3 obsession reached critical mass a long time ago. I’m worried we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking this series is something that it isn’t, and I’m already dreading the thinkpieces and angry comments that will follow when Alyx Vance doesn’t reach through the monitor and bring every player, regardless of orientation or gender, to sexual nirvana. Half-Life is a beloved series because it uses atmospheric storytelling and a refined sense of physics to connect the player to his environment. What concerns me about the anticipation for Half-Life 3 is that many people have confused these assets with caring about Half-Life‘s plot, which is often cleverly conveyed but still boilerplate. There’s a sense that Valve “owes us” an ending rather than an experience, and I see no scenario where Gordon Freeman’s triumph over the Combine could be anything other than disappointing from that perspective.
And what is Half-Life‘s place in the modern gaming climate, anyway? It’s hard to imagine an entry in the series being about anything other than a white dude with a gun killing aliens. Half-Life is possibly the best first-person shooter we’ve got (I’d argue it is, at least, the most frequently self-aware and awe-inducing), but as the also-delayed BioShock Infinite proved this year (along with The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V), a vocal critical minority is starting to wonder why we still need violent objectives in our gaming experiences. Could Half-Life 3 look old-hat and out-of-touch if Valve isn’t careful? I imagine gaming’s changing climate, both culturally and from a design standpoint (it’s been almost an entire console generation since we last saw Gordon and friends), is a huge factor in why Half-Life‘s return has been so tricky for Valve. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 aren’t as far removed mechanically as one might remember, and their linear theme-park-ride sensibilities have fallen out-of-fashion as series like Call of Duty recycle it to death. Valve faces a difficult conundrum here: Stick to the series’ roots to please expectant fans, or go balls-deep on innovation to stay ahead of the curve? The right compromise is something that could take years to perfect, and guess what? It has!
Placing Half-Life 3 on a pedestal does no one any favors. Not Valve, not the fans, not that dude that keeps searching for “Half-Laif 3 Morgan Freeman” on my blog. I’m sure the Half-Life team already has plenty of internal pressure put on them to create not just a great game, but the best one of all time. Whether or not they succeed is out of our hands and, to some extent, out of theirs, too. (Again, we’re in a very different environment for game distribution and critical evaluation than 2004, and things will probably only get more fragmented from here.) No matter what, Half-Life 3 is coming. Even if Valve’s living room takeover fails and the company crumbles, even if Gabe Newell completes his transformation into one of those Wall-E fat baby people and flies away on his Space La-Z-Boy, someone, someday will bring Gordon Freeman’s “story” to an end. It will be in your lifetime, and you will probably still be playing video games. It will probably even be pretty good! But this constant fretting and clue-devouring will only lead to disappointment and impossible expectations. Whenever we get to pick up the crowbar again, it will probably be best to follow Gordon Freeman’s example: Shut up and go along for the ride.
UPDATE: The Half-Life 3 copyright registration has been outed as a hoax.