Half-Life 3 does not officially exist. It could pop up on Steam tomorrow, but at the time of writing it is a ghost. All we can say with certainty is that the sequel to Half-Life 2, Valve’s 2004 FPS masterpiece, is the subject of obsessive speculation and internet sleuthing at its ‘finest’ – a situation that must be looked on with no small amusement, and perhaps some trepidation, from the company’s Seattle HQ.
It’s easy to conclude that this feverish anticipation simply comes down to fandom. After all, gaming at the big-budget end is overwhelmingly a case of sequels and ‘known brands’ because this is what the mainstream audience responds to – or, as Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter puts it: “The easy answer is that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s been so long since HL2 that people have been anticipating HL3 for almost nine years. Valve’s successes with Left 4 Dead and Portal remind everyone how great they are. I think it’s just a case of a huge fan-base hungry for more.”
Pachter is a bête noir of the biggest gaming communities for such sane views. But while what he says is undoubtedly true, it doesn’t factor in just how weird and huge the anticipation around HL3 is. Last month, the UK magazine PC Gamer mocked up an elevator from Valve HQ on one of its pages – which had, next to Floor 13, a scribbled-over Half-Life 3 sign. As gags go this is pretty mild stuff, but gamers took it so seriously that the publication was forced into the excruciating position of having to explain a joke.
Surgeon Simulator 2013, which is not a simulation, made a Half-Life reference in Korean and found itself at the centre of a media storm. It had nothing to do with HL3.
These are bizarre events, and contain the two staples of HL3 speculation. The first is the complete absence of concrete news. The second is the belief that, somehow, every new ‘clue’ is linked to an overarching Augmented Reality Game (ARG) that will eventually reveal HL3’s existence.
Valve’s refusal to provide information-on-demand absolutely baffles the internet. Not that it stops things: instead, every site relies on a merry-go-round where no link is too tenuous. Beyond the fact that Valve have an internal email group called ‘Half-Life 3’, there is not enough evidence on Half Life 3’s existence to fill one good article, but it has been the topic of countless thousands and leaves some writers resenting Valve’s sheer effrontery in the face of their desire to know. The game has almost become of secondary importance to confirmation of its existence.
We could spend all day combing through six years of HL3, but perhaps what speaks most eloquently to this is the meticulous list of rumours curated by users of Valve’s Steam forums. That’s the third thread in that time, over 500 pages long, and you could also look at the Neogaf forum or a hundred other gathering points on any given week of the year.
Just for laughs
“Half-Life 3’s more internet meme than product,” says Tyler Malka, founder of Neogaf. “It’s a running joke by both sides, with Valve dropping endless hints and teases, keeping hope alive and fuelling exaggerated responses from fans. As much as Valve co-founder Gabe Newell may sigh every time he’s asked about the number three, there’s bound to be an evil grin hidden just under the surface.”
This is true inasmuch as Valve’s employees are not immune to teasing the fans – company co-founder Marc Laidlaw is especially expert. Even those loosely associated, such as Garry Newman – the creator of Garry’s mod, one of Steam’s most popular mods – join in the fun. Back in January 2012, Newman tweeted a photograph of an HL3 T-shirt, saying “Yay valve sent me a T-shirt”, and less than 20 minutes later said he was kidding. Too late; the T-shirt has since become a part of countless theories.
Many of Half-Life 3’s rumours have been started by individuals whose only fault was having too much time on their hands, but as the anticipation levels rise there’s a willing audience for those who like to bag a sucker. This ranges from scam sites to the endless bogus theories based on thin air and an ARG.
Fans persist in their belief the latter is ongoing, thanks to Valve having previously dabbled in such with the Portal series, but even those within the company grow weary of everything being taken as a clue – writer Chet Faliszek made a straight-shootin’ post addressing the most recent: “You are being trolled. There is no ARG […] There has been no directive from Gabe to leak anything. That is all false. I just want to say this so there is no confusion. This is the community trolling the community, nothing more.”
Will this stop the hype train? Nothing can stop it. The need to believe in Half-Life 3 is so strong that it overrides reason, and Valve has to live with everything they do being taken apart in the hopes of a clue. In the last few weeks a reddit thread of photographs from a Valve visit turned out to include one of an employee’s screen; which was promptly dissected and turned out to confirm both the development of Left4Dead 3 and the Source 2 engine. The latter’s been known about for some time, and is the most plausible explanation for Half-Life 3’s extended development – ‘Source 2’ will be the studio’s third major game engine. And the first two were launched with Half-Life (GoldSrc) and Half-Life 2 (Source) as their showpieces. Or as Gabe Newell put it last year: “We’ve been working on Valve’s new engine stuff for a while, we’re probably just waiting for a game to roll it out with.”
Half-Life 3 confirmed! Occam’s razor, right? But perhaps of more importance than the engine is Steam: or to be more specific, how Half-Life 2 changed Valve from a gaming company into a gaming and services company. Half-Life 2 was sold exclusively through Steam at launch, and instantly popularised what has since become the de facto standard for PC gaming, an automatically updating and always-online digital store. It changed Valve from a remarkable game developer into something almost equivalent to a platform holder, a benevolent gatekeeper, but a gatekeeper nonetheless. And it has made this private company cosmically, stratospherically rich.
Part of that is the licence fees, but also Valve’s new approach to making money from its own games – the brilliant Team Fortress 2, for example, switched to a free-to-play business model a few years after release, which resulted in an incredible leap in profits from a dedicated community.
This ‘Mannconomy’ is built almost entirely around selling virtual hats. Because of this success, Dota 2, Valve’s newest game, is free-to-play from the off, and will doubtless prove just as lucrative. And this is important because it makes Half-Life’s audience uneasy.
“Millions of people are playing Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, and the various Counter-Strike products, but those games don’t fill the Half-Life-shaped void,” says NeoGaf owner Tyler Malka. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about the desire to see episode two’s cliffhanger resolved, though that definitely plays its part. Fundamentally, Half-Life 3 would be an assertion that Valve is still a game development studio and not just a service company, that Valve isn’t vaccuming up talent from around the globe in order to analyse the best methods for deploying new hats. There’s something to be said for a game that is the realisation of authorial vision, rather than a clever means to trojan horse long-term monetisation schemes.”
We want to believe
Perhaps the real question isn’t why Half-Life 3, but why Valve? Not because of the long list of platitudes you could throw at them – but at the fact people have such faith, and so nakedly bind their hopes to a company at all. The more you think about various perceptions of Valve, the more you come to see them as a kind of totem pole for PC gamers. It is with no small amount of humour that those awaiting Half-Life 3 echo the old X-Files slogan: “I want to believe.” But it’s still telling.
PC gamers are a diaspora of course, not all of whom are obsessed with the G-Man, but Valve represents something important and fundamental to a huge cross-section of these communities.
The PC gaming ecosystem should really have been nurtured, and in a business sense owned, by Microsoft. But that company has proven itself comically incapable of doing so, and ironically its gaming future now lies with Xbox. Perhaps gaming’s most interesting alternate timeline is the one where Newell doesn’t leave Microsoft in 1996 – though it’s an unworkable fantasy because, in most of the ways that matter, he helped build the anti-Microsoft.
This is crucial in understanding what Valve represents. The company has made wildly unpopular moves in the past – Half-Life 2’s release being bound-up with Steam was one of them. But when everyone else saw the future of gaming in consoles, Valve doubled-down on the PC as a platform; not just creating one of the best games of all time, but unifying the whole business of buying and releasing and patching the things at the same time. There can be grumbles about aspects of Steam’s functionality, but it was, and continues to be, a revolutionary creation.
In some ways those awaiting Half-Life 3 want lightning to strike twice – that same sense of impact, at least. “Speculation runs the gamut,” says Malka. “I’d like to see Valve integrate both the gravity gun and the portal gun, and also throw in a trans-dimensional layer reminiscent of Bioshock Infinite on top. Go wild. Inspire us. We don’t need any more tightly scripted cinematic hallway shooters.” This is a routine level of expectation. If Valve listened too much to the hopes and dreams of its audience, it might go crazy.
Gaming communities are tribal, and Half-Life 3 is their favourite fetish. Who knows what the thing itself will turn out as? The only thing you can say for sure is that, even if Valve produce the greatest piece of software in history, it will be met with a crazed wall of intensity followed by ever-building disappointment.
I remember listening to Smile, the long-lost Beach Boys album designed to topple Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, and finally released in 2011. Pretty great, but of course a disappointment because of my unreasonable expectations. What creator would deal with such an audience? No such drama, we assume, lies behind the development of Half-Life 3 – though one day the object of such feverish lust will have to be exposed. I want to believe. But I’m preparing for unforeseen consequences.