The script of history’s most famous vaporware has been released.
PC Release: Canceled
By Ian Coppock
A few days ago, retired Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw released a story outline for Half-Life 2: Episode Three, the most famous video game to never have been released. Laidlaw, who retired from Valve in early 2016, insists that the material is unofficial, but it’s probably the closest thing anyone will get to a Half-Life 2: Episode Three release. It’s also the most information released about the game in years, so let’s crack into what could have been (fair warning: this summary contains massive spoilers for previous Half-Life games).
The story of the Half-Life saga is a tale of both outstanding triumph and mysterious tragedy. After transforming the world of first-person shooters with 1998’s Half-Life, Valve released Half-Life 2 to similarly universal acclaim in 2004. The studio’s next plan was to release a series of three episodes set immediately after Half-Life 2. Episode One released in 2006, followed by Episode Two in ’07. Episode Three was originally slated to hit store shelves soon after, but… well, that never happened, did it?
Episode Three‘s failure to launch remains a mystery nearly 10 years later. Valve seemed proactive about the project at first, setting a release date and putting out some concept art, but that hullabaloo slowly turned into silence. Fans held out hope, but years passed with nary a word on the title from anyone at Valve. Though the script that Laidlaw released contains some fascinating details on the game’s story, none of it elaborates on why Half-Life 2: Episode Three suffered such a long and silent demise. The cancellation is especially bitter given the cliffhanger than Half-Life 2: Episode Two ended on.
According to Laidlaw’s script, Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve seen series protagonist Gordon Freeman (the world’s most crowbar-proficient physicist) and longtime companion Alyx Vance off to a frozen wasteland to find the Borealis, a marooned ship containing experimental portal technology. Longtime fans will remember that the pair had just discovered the ship’s whereabouts in Episode Two, and the Borealis is also alluded to in Portal 2 (with whom Half-Life shares a universe, albeit very loosely).
The script goes on to reveal that the Combine, the evil alien empire lording over earth, would’ve beaten the pair to the ship, forcing them to fight their way through cyborg soldiers and probably a few headcrabs. Gordon and Alyx would’ve eventually made it onto the ship only to be captured by Combine forces. They would then confront a revived Dr. Breen, whose consciousness was indeed copied into one of the Combine’s overlords before his human form’s death in Half-Life 2. Breen’s fate has been the source of countless discussions for years; feels weird to finally (sort of) know, doesn’t it?
Following this confrontation (whose outcome the script implies the player can choose), Freeman and Alyx would’ve reunited with Dr. Mossman, whom Alyx would blame for the death of Eli at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two. The team would set aside their differences long enough to get aboard the ship and discover that it contained the Bootstrap Device, an experimental piece of tech that would allow its wielder to travel to any time and place in history. The ship’s crew used the device to transport the ship far away, where they hoped the Combine would never find it.
Alyx and Mossman would’ve then debated on what to do with the ship; the former would want to blow it up and the latter would want to save its tech. Alyx would then shoot Mossman dead (probably still mad about what went down at Nova Prospekt in Half-Life 2) and elect to use the ship as a bomb to destroy a Combine facility. Before the plan would’ve been executed, though, the G-Man would show up with his usual ramblings about time and space. Here’s the kicker, though: the G-Man would’ve been talking to Alyx, not Gordon, taking off with her and leaving him to die on the Borealis.
Before Gordon could perish from the cold or an explosion, though, who should show up but the Vortigaunts, who would’ve rescued him from the cusp of death right as the Borealis exploded. The game would then end with a lengthy statement from none other than Freeman himself, who would’ve implied that a lot of time had passed and that it’s now up to the player to decide what course to take for the future. Laidlaw declined to clarify whether this summary would’ve been a written statement on-screen or if Gordon would’ve actually spoken aloud for the first time.
And that’s it.
It’s worth remembering to take Laidlaw’s summary of Half-Life 2: Episode Three with a few grains of salt. As the author himself was quick to clarify, this material is not Valve’s official script for the project. Even though Laidlaw was the main writer for Half-Life and this script is probably the closest that fans will get to an “official” Half-Life 2: Episode Three, it itself remains somewhat unofficial.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that this story would’ve left the stage vacant for future Half-Life productions. Longtime fans may have been hoping for this summary to provide a more concrete ending, but Half-Life has never been a fan of those, has it? Half-Life 2: Episode Three ending with the G-Man’s arrival and a vague epithet about the future seems pretty consistent with the endings of past Half-Life games. It would’ve also preserved the mysteries of the Half-Life world, such as the presence of the G-Man.
It’s hard to know how successful Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve been, but the story presented in the script sounds pretty captivating. Gordon and Alyx’s race to the Borealis seems to tie up a bunch of the series’ plot threads: the ultimate fate of Dr. Breen, Alyx’s grief over the death of her father, and Aperture Science’s place in the Half-Life games. The script’s implication that certain outcomes would’ve been player-decided is also quite interesting, as Valve would’ve allowed the player to evolve beyond a silent observer of the narrative and become a much more active participant in it.
The Half-Life series’ other active participants are also worth wondering about. The script that Laidlaw released makes no mention of Isaac Kleiner or Barney Calhoun (the latter of whom hasn’t been seen since the end of Episode One). What of them? More importantly, how would the death of Eli Vance have changed Alyx as a person? Would she transition from being quietly optimistic to angry and vengeful? Given that she would’ve apparently gunned down Dr. Mossman in cold blood, it’s possible. How would this hypothetical character change have affected the relationship between Alyx and Gordon?
It’s worth contemplating what other changes Valve would’ve made to the Half-Life experience. What new gameplay might the game have contained? It’s fun to picture Gordon ripping across Antarctica on a futuristic snowmobile, taking potshots at Combine positions with a sniper rifle or sawed-off shotgun. Perhaps Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve let players have some dalliances with technology from the Portal games; probably not a full-blown portal gun but maybe some static portal puzzles? We’ll never know, but it’s still fun to wonder.
It’s also fun to wonder how Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve looked. There’s no doubt that the game would’ve been built in the Source engine, but what new visuals and textures would the game have presented? Would there have been new character models and types of environments? Would the level design transition from being rather linear to being more open-ended? It probably would’ve all looked sharp and clean; the Source engine isn’t young, but recent games like Infra are proof that amazing things can still be done with it.
These musings are proof that Laidlaw’s script won’t stop Half-Life fans from wondering what could have been. Whatever happened behind the scenes at Valve, it remains a shame that Half-Life 2: Episode Three never came out, and it’s a mishap that will probably haunt the studio for the rest of its existence. Still, it’s nice to know how the narrative would’ve played out after so many years of wondering and waiting.
There’s another, far grander reason that longtime Half-Life fans should not despair or get angry. Even though this game is never coming out, the influence of the Half-Life series can still be felt in dozens of other games. The original Half-Life birthed first-person shooters as we know them today, and Half-Life 2 was a pioneer in environmental storytelling, which countless other titles adapted in their own design. The legacy of Half-Life lives on not in sequels, but in game design. In this way, the series is never dead; in fact, it’s currently thriving.
An unofficial written summary is not the ending that the Half-Life series deserved, but hopefully it provides longtime fans with some amount of closure. There’s some sweet relief in finally seeing what narrative was being worked on at Valve, and how events played out in the Half-Life universe after that heart-stopping cliffhanger in Episode Two. With this script, Half-Life 2: Episode Three can finally pass into the sunset, leaving some fantastic games and a legacy of great game design in its wake.
You can read the summary of Half-Life 2: Episode Three here.
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