Let’s talk about the Half-Life 3 rumor machine and why it exists. The game has a loyal fanbase, and the series has earned high critical acclaim. The most recent installment ended on a gut-punch cliffhanger that left fans wanting to know what happened next, and it’s been almost eight years of silence since then. In a world where everyone seems hellbent on running sequels into the ground, the continued silence of the Half-Life franchise is increasingly strange. For comparison, the entirety of the Assassins Creed franchise – all 22 games and spinoffs – have taken place between the last entry of Half-Life and today.
In light of this, the story of Half-Life has now been eclipsed by the meta story of the franchise itself. People are curious to find out what happens to Gordon, Alyx, and Crowbar, but they’re even more curious about why this game continues to not come out. This curiosity feeds a never-ending machine of rumor and speculation. And as much as this process might annoy Valve (or you) it probably won’t stop until the game is released or officially canceled.
Sometimes we’ll go for over a year without any rumors, vague unsatisfying half-denials from Valve, or maybe-true-but-later-discredited style leaks. Sometimes we’ll get three in one year. And sometimes – like this last weekend – we get two in as many days.
This last batch of rumors began with The Know, who claimed to have a two-part statement from an anonymous Valve employee. Watch the video for the full context, but the short version is:
1) Valve is making so much money running Steam that there’s very little financial incentive to work on this game.
2) Valve is reluctant to work on the game because of the Mass Effect 3 controversy. They’re afraid of messing up and finding themselves in the same wave of anger, controversy, and backlash.
If this is a hoax, it’s a well designed one. Point #2 sounds little questionable, and if it was presented by itself it would sound unlikely. But point #1 is something everyone already believes, and so by packaging the two ideas together the less plausible one is given a certain credibility boost.
On one hand, the idea that the public would revolt if Half-Life 3 ended badly sounds silly. Mass Effect was a series that banked heavily on it’s story and characters, while Half-Life has a very “mechanics-first” approach to game design. If the third game revealed that the entire series was a daydream of a bored Gordon Freeman sitting in his cubicle at Black Mesa, I’m sure the uproar would be less intense than (say) the controversy surrounding the crappy PC port of Arkham Knight. People would complain, but as long as the mechanics were sound the game would do just fine.
On the other hand, I can see how this is something that the folks at Valve would worry about. The Mass Effect 3 ending controversy was intense and surprisingly personal. If your neighbor gets mugged you don’t generally say, “Bah. He’s richer than me. I’m sure I’m not at risk.” You realize the world is full of awful people and you worry you might run afoul of them next. So while I don’t believe that Valve is at risk, at do believe that Valve might think so. (I’m not suggesting that everyone who hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 is an awful person. I’m one of them, after all. I’m specifically talking about the people who sent hate mail and threats to BioWare employees. That sort of thing is likely to stick in the mind of anyone attempting something ambitious and high-profile.)
That’s just the first rumor. The second rumor comes from this Reddit thread, which features an email purportedly from Valve’s Marc Laidlaw commenting on the first rumor. I don’t read Reddit often enough to know which parts are trustworthy (in some places identities are confirmed by Reddit staff members) and which parts are full of trolls, so I can’t speak to the veracity of the email from Laidlaw. But the email basically says that while they won’t comment on the status of Half-Life (or any other project) the company wouldn’t let fear drive its design decisions.
So the rumors boil down to:
1) Half-Life 3 is never coming out, both for the reason you guess but also because of Mass Effect 3.
2) Half-Life 3 may or may not be in development, but if it isn’t, it’s nothing to do with Mass Effect 3.
So we have two rumors that seem to contradict each other, both supposedly from Valve employees but not through official channels. Obviously the easiest answer is that both rumors are false. Or perhaps one is false and the other true. But after spending my 30’s in in an office where a lot of creative work was done, I’ve realized the horrible truth that both of these rumors could be true. At least, it’s possible that they aren’t hoaxes.
The company where I worked had three programmers and three artists. Everyone knew everyone else and we all talked on a regular basis, even if we were often working on different things. Yet there were still days where I (a programmer) would go over to the cubicle of my friend Mike (artist) to make conversation and find him working on a project that was completely mysterious to me. The project wasn’t secret, but somehow it had passed through the company without me ever hearing about it. Someone had proposed it, ironed out the spec, allocated resources, worked it into the time budget, and begun work on it. Since I wasn’t part of the project I wasn’t told about it, and somehow I hadn’t bumped into it until it was over halfway done. Sometimes the opposite would happen and a project would get canceled and I wouldn’t find out until I thought to ask about it weeks later.
That was at a company of less than a dozen people, most of whom worked out of the same small cubicle farm. There weren’t any secrets, but there were a lot of cases where you’d get so wrapped up in your own work that you’d be unaware of the stuff going on in the cubicle next to yours.
Imagine how much worse that problem would be in a company with dozens of projects and hundreds of people. It’s not like people walk around the Valve offices wearing T-shirts that say, “ASK ME ABOUT THE HALF-LIFE SEQUEL I’M TOTALLY WORKING ON.” Unless you go around obsessively asking people what they’re working on (which would be really weird) then you probably have a very limited knowledge about what’s going on outside of your wheelhouse.
Of course, this only makes these leaks even more frustrating. Even if the journalists are telling the truth that they have an inside source and even if that employee is telling the truth, they might be flat-out wrong for perfectly understandable reasons, particularly regarding big-picture questions about how company resources are being allocated. And even if the information is accurate, it can change by the time it leaks out to the rest of us.
And at the end of it, this is what’s the most frustrating thing about it all. The community is compelled to speculate, trolls are tempted to post fake leaks, journalists and critics can get easy clicks (hi there!) by talking about it, and the story is always changing. And even if something true does somehow make it through the morass of guesses and misinformation, we in the audience can’t tell the truth from the trolling anyway.
Which gives us another reason to hope for a Half-Life 3 release. Even if you don’t care about the game, it would be nice to see this particular circus of anticipation finally come to rest.
Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. Have a question for the column? Ask him! [email protected].