A EULOGY FOR HALF LIFE
Well folks, it finally happened. Half Life 2's 3rd long lost episode, has finally been released... Kind of.
On August 24th, Marc Laidlaw, an ex-Valve writer that was the main engine behind Half Life's brilliant stories, lore, and characters, released a blog post titled "Epistle 3." In it, Gordon Freeman, Half Life's usual silent protagonist, describes to us his journey after the death of Eli Vance in Half Life 2: Episode 2. Finally, after nearly a decade, Half Life 2's story arc has finally met its conclusion... But not in any way expected or necessarily wanted. Fans who have been waiting patiently and eagerly for Half Life 2's final episode to materialize into a commercial release by the legendary hat-developer, Valve, have been left with a world ended not with a bang, but a whimper. A planned odyssey through space and time itself to destroy an inter-dimensional empire that invaded Earth, came to us as a blog post by a disgruntled ex-employee. What a time to be alive, right?
Before I go on, I want to briefly summarize the events of Half Life for those who are excited, but might not necessarily be up to speed to everything going on.
The first Half Life begins as an ordinary job for lab assistant, Gordon Freeman, PhD. After arriving slightly late on schedule, Gordon makes his way into the lower levels of the Black Mesa Research Facility, a secret establishment in New Mexico focused on researching anomalous materials, as well as the sciences for teleportation, and parallel dimensions. Prepared to handle a newly arrived unstable crystal of unknown origin, Gordon Freeman dons his hazmat suit, and enters the testing chamber.
The Anomalous Materials testing chamber - Site of the cataclysmic event that is the Resonance Cascade
Pushing the crystal into the Spectrometer for analysis, Gordon accidentally causes what is known in-universe as the Resonance Cascade - A tear in the borders between our world, and the border dimension of Xen, causing an alien invasion of dangerous proportions. Gordon journeys far deep into Black Mesa, discovering portal and cross-dimension technology that allows him to journey into this Border World, and kill the Nihilanth - The creature that has mentally enslaved these alien beings. After this, Gordon is plucked from his world and meets with a mysterious figure, the Government Man. Revealing that the entire plot of the Resonance Cascade to be intentional, as well as the defeat of the Nihilanth, the G-Man then offers Gordon a chance to be part of a larger conflict happening in the very fabric of all of space-time. Gordon Freeman, is put into Metastasis for later use. Half Life 1’s expansions, Blue Shift and Opposing Force, give different perspectives on the same Black Mesa incident.
The G-Man, standing on a floating platform in Xen
Shortly after the Resonance Cascade, the attention of the Combine - the inter-dimensional Empire I was talking about earlier, invades Earth and causes its surrender in under 7 hours. Half Life 2 opens with the G-Man taking you out of metastasis, and placing you on a train-ride to City-17, a heavily regimented and surveillanced quagmire in the remnants of Europe, built by the Combine. Dr. Breen, the former sponsor of Black Mesa, was mainly responsible for the negotiation of Earth’s entire surrender, and now sits comfortably atop the Citadel. Currently, the Combine is draining Earth of all of its resources, and using the last remnants of Humanity for its military and worker forces. A suppression field also established by the Combine is emitting particles that prevent the creation of embryonic cells, preventing human reproduction- meaning everyone you see in the game is the last generation of humanity to walk the face of the Earth.
"Carbon stars with ancient satellites colonized by sentient fungi. Gas giants inhabited by vast meteorological intelligences. Worlds stretched thin across the membranes where dimensions intersect... Impossible to describe with our limited vocabulary!" ~Dr. Wallace Breen
Basically enough, the stakes are high, and the chances of humanity’s survival and triumph over this Empire are low. All it takes, as it seems, is the right man in the wrong place, to make all the difference… in the world.
Teaming up with the remains of the original Black Mesa team, including Barney Calhoun - a former Black Mesa security officer, Eli Vance and Doctor Kleiner, 2 Black Mesa scientists - and Eli’s daughter, Alyx, you upstart a human revolution on the Combine and their Citadel at City-17.
Afterwards, the Combine then open a portal for reinforcements - But are again foiled by you and your comrades. However, during your journey to destroy this portal and finish the revolt once and for all - As you thought - a message is recovered from one Judith Mossman - a recurring character in Half Life 2, and her discovery of the lost ship, The Borealis.
The Borealis was a long lost ship that disappeared due to unknown causes during the 7 hour invasion of the Combine. Its discovery potentially means an advantage to the Resistance, as the Borealis could contain technology that could give them an upper hand. Half Life 2: Episode 2 ends with The Resistance about to depart for the Arctic coordinates of which the Borealis is supposedly located - But right before the departure a Combine Advisor attacks and ends the life of Eli Vance. And that'a where we have been stuck at in the Half Life universe for the past decade - Until now. Marc Laidlaw’s Epistle 3, coded with several name and gender changes, gives us the finale of the Half Life 2 story arc.
Half Life 2: Episode 3 would have began with an aerial trip into the Arctic after the death and burial of Eli Vance, with your trusty companion, Alyx. After your vehicles inevitable crash because of… well… video game logic, I guess, you trek the Arctic wastes in search of the Borealis. What you end up finding is a Combine facility built around a strange aurora effect. Originally assumed to be Combine lensing technology, Gordon and Alyx later find out that this is the Borealis itself, phasing in and out of its position in the Arctic.
Concept Art for the introduction of Episode 3
Adventuring through the Borealis facility, Alyx and Gordon find Dr. Breen himself, after his apparent death at the end of Half Life 2, with his consciousness re-implemented into a Combine Advisor body - Who is referred to as “Breen Grub” in the script.
Breengrub, conversing with Gordon
According to an old twitter account named Breengrub that was allegedly created by Marc Laidlaw, the Breen-Grub of the game would have revealed the Combine Advisors to be the young larva form of a race known as the Shu’ulathoi, a race so powerful that they can birth themselves at any form they wish and apparently create entire worlds with their minds. However, the Combine - Like with humans with embryonic cells - prevented the Shu’ulathoi from growing out of their weak larva states.
Concept art of Episode 3, possibly showcasing an adult Shu'ulathoi
So, Dr. Breen is having an existential crisis within his new shell and superior intelligence, and wishes for us to systematically end his suffering by unknown means. Further into our Arctic journey, we discover Judith Mossman captured by the Combine. It is her that retains the Resonance keys needed to bring the Borealis into our existence long enough to board it. Despite the differences between Alyx and Mossman, the team continue further, and activate the Resonance keys. Gordon, Alyx, and Mossman board the Borealis, and its history is then revealed...
The Borealis in its full existence at the Arctic coordinates
The scientists at Aperture Research, a competitor to Black Mesa, were creating something called a Bootstrap Device - The ultimate tool of teleportation. It would create a large force field around an object, and teleport everything in that field to a chosen location. Unfortunately, the Bootstrap Device was never fully completed, and during the 7 Hour War with the Combine, the scientists decide to send the Borealis into the Arctic to keep the Combine from seizing the device. The Device had not been tested previously, and the scientists were initially amazed to find that the Bootstrap could not only transcend space, but time as well. The Borealis was sent into the Arctic, as well as the future.
What was seen by Gordon and Alyx was a hologram effect created by the Borealis being flung between time and space like a vibrating guitar string - Between its current location at the Arctic, and its past location at the Aperture docks at the time of the Combine’s invasion. The Combine were attempting to seize the ship at the right time - the current - in order to possibly use the bootstrap device to access any point in time they wished.
Now, back to the action - Alyx, Gordon, and Mossman are on the ship, and since the Resonance keys can only bring the ship into spacial existence for a short amount of time, the ship soon resumes its vibrating-like motions through space-time itself. What is seen next is nearly unexplainable - And quite moving.
The visions outside of the ship fling back and forth between the Arctic and the Drydocks - As well as everything in between. In addition to this, brief glimpses of other dimensions, including Xen from the first game, become long stares into the reality of the Resistance’s futile efforts.
Images of Gordon viewing the time-travelling phenomenon happening around him as the Borealis fluctuates between the past and present. Includes Xen and the scale of the Shu'ulathoi race
Mossman and Alyx argue over the nature of the Borealis, and the fate that it should endure. Alyx adheres to the promise that she made to her father, to destroy the Borealis at all costs to prevent another Black-Mesa-type incident, dooming humanity or other races further. She believes that the Borealis could be steered into the direction of the Combine’s central staging area - To maybe… just maybe, cripple the Combine into submission. Mossman argues that the Borealis technology could be used by the Resistance to push themselves forward towards victory. Without further hesitation, Alyx shoots Mossman and commands Gordon to steer the Borealis towards the Combine world, as she rigs the ship to combust in awesome, fiery glory. A final suicide mission that couldn’t fail. Riding a time travelling missile into the heart of a space empire - an infallible plan indeed.
As soon as the ship is redirected to the Combine’s direction in space, the mysterious G-Man appears for a final time. “We have places to be and things to do…” as he says. However, this time, it is not to you, but to Alyx. She is then lead into a portal, while you are abandoned on the weaponized vessel. For all of this time, it was not you that was the key to the G-Man’s ambiguous and enigmatic plans - It was Alyx. You were just the key to getting her to the point he needed her to be - It was Alyx’s love and loyalty to her father, that would finally push her to a decision that ended in the Borealis’s destruction.
"Prepare for Unforeseen Consequences"
In Gordon’s eyes - Or should I say, at this point, your eyes - A gargantuan, glittering Dyson Sphere of the Combine appears before you. What seems like your final destination.
For those who are unaware of hypothetical architectural and scientific designs that have only been utilized by many science fiction writers, a Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical structure that is built around a star, and is fully powered by it. In science fiction, the Dyson Sphere is often portrayed as the final step in a species’ technological progress - The structure that could power a race's conquest through the universe for thousands of years. The only discovery that could top the plans for a Dyson Sphere, is the secret to Time Travel - Something the Combine sought after from the Borealis.
The Dyson Sphere in the final moments of Episode 3 is the final nail in the coffin to the notion that humanity is nothing to the Combine - A small annoyance, a little itch compared to the immense body of a galactic empire that has enslaved races of all kind - from the fungal satellites that orbit ancient gas giants - To the universe-spanning intellectual capabilities encapsulated inside of the Shu’ulathoi - and even to the small, puny, fallible, and conflict-ridden human race.
Gordon’s final destination - his suicide mission plunging into a structure that spans multiple light-minutes, would be a fizzling matchhead, a plucked spore from a plant, a small chipped piece off of a redwood to this immense, universe conquering parasite. Right before the fireworks could begin, Gordon is saved by the Vortigaunts, who pluck him out of his current, endangered situation, and onto a familiar shore - Set in a future so distant, that the rippling effects from the attempts of the humans of Gordon’s time cannot even be studied or examined.
"I spoke of my return to this shore. It has been a circuitous path to lands I once knew, and surprising to see how much the terrain has changed. Enough time has passed that few remember me, or what I was saying when last I spoke, or what precisely we hoped to accomplish." ~Gordon Freeman, PhD
What matters now, is the G-Man’s war against the Combine, almost won with the destruction of the Bootstrap Device, still happening somewhere, some-time - Somehow involving your ex-companion Alyx. But the importance of those matters whither with the situation. Gordon is stuck in an unknown future, and what that future entails could only be explored in further series development. This, all, is what Half Life 2: Episode 3, would have been.
Half Life hasn’t been part of my gaming life for too long like it has for some people. Half Life wasn’t famous because of an intricate plot or meta-meaning, nor was it famous necessarily for its gameplay. It was famous for how mixed the two like a fine cocktail, Half Life revolutionized storytelling in mainstream gaming. Previously, most games with world spanning plots with deep characters were top down, simple in structure Role Playing Games. Half Life took a step away from the Doom formula, and instead put you in the shoes of a real character, one without a voice, but one of which you could strap on and wear like a tie on a beautiful tux, and set you in the game world with a story and characters - Whilst providing an immersive atmosphere and setting, on top of the first person shooting and jumping puzzles.
Half Life 2 took it a step further, and was set in a troubled world with a troubled cause, and asked you to pave the way to a new future with a new set of characters, enemies, and unique tools that changed the way people thought about the action game genre.
While I am grateful and excited that we finally know what happens in Episode 3, in its current form, I’m disappointed that I’ll never get to really experience Episode 3 - To be put back in that troubled world and live through the dilemmas of the characters unlike any other entertainment medium could ever provide me with. I’m sad that one of gaming’s greatest moments could never be truly realized as expected - And I can only hope that the power of fandom can push a build of Episode 3 finally, into the hands of the player where it belongs, rendered beautifully on a monitor, in a dimmed room with an excited gamer sitting just inches away, peering into the eyes of Gordon Freeman, P.h.D.
"Why do we have to wear these ridiculous ties?" ~Unlucky Black Mesa scientist