The Half-life series has always been close to my heart – Half-life 1 was one of the first games I ever played, certainly the first that wove a narrative into the gameplay. I can still remember playing it after finding it in the pile of games my uncle left at my grandad’s house and loving every second. I remember having to turn the game off for a while because the first Bullsquid I encountered scared me so much. I played Blue Shift and Opposing Force, and a plethora of mods – not only the extremely popular Counter Strike and Team Fortress, but a few more esoteric ones – the first that springs to mind was one told in the style of a Stephen King novel, with the player taking control of an author with writer’s block who travels to his family’s cabin to try and get inspiration. I was very late to the party with Half-Life 2, as my family didn’t have a computer that could run it when it came out. Eventually I got an Xbox and a copy of Half-Life 2 to go with it and it was as good as I had imagined – immersive, beautiful and incredibly fun. At the time, it was the pinnacle of linear story-driven shooters and the Source engine allowed for physics-based puzzle solving that was revolutionary at the time.
A few years later, the story continued on in episodic format, with the first episode being quite short and a little disappointing, and the second taking a very long time to come out (contrary to the idea that episodic releases should have meant a quicker release schedule of shorter games). The wait for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was worth it in the end however, as not only was it significantly longer than the first episode, but introduced new enemy types, radically different environments and ended with a bombastic sequence of driving around and blowing up Striders while defending a Resistance Base. It was also released as a bundle, which included the much-anticipated Team Fortress 2 and the new IP Portal, which was lauded near-universally by critics and fans alike as one of the best puzzle games ever made. It seemed that Valve was making a sincere apology for the long wait for the second episode and after a devastating cliffhanger ending, everyone who played it was chomping at the bit for more.
And then nothing happened.
It has been 10 years since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and the third episode of the series still seems to be nowhere in sight. So why am I bringing it up now?
Marc Laidlaw was one of the head writers at Valve, having joined up in 1998 as they were developing Half-Life, upon which he worked on the story and the level design. He also worked on Half-Life 2 and its episodes. He left the company in January of 2016 and by this time, he was one the very few members of the Valve Corporation who had been part of the Half-Life development team. Many fans saw him leaving the company as the death knell for the series. On August 25th of 2017, Laidlaw posted a piece of prose on his blog entitled ‘Epistle 3’. This piece (and I encourage you all to read it if you like the series, it’s quite good) details what presumably would have been the plot of Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Why is this important? What this publication implies is that the non-disclosure agreement for episode 3 has run out, which in turn means that there is currently no active development for that game. Hence my immense disappointment. Or, what would have been disappointment if I ever thought that this game was going to come out.
There is a term for projects, be they hardware or software, game-related or not, that are announced, but never see the light of day. They are known as vapourware. Vapourware often happens when a studio announces a title and hypes it up, promising experiences they may or may not be able to deliver on. In most cases, when a studio announces something ambitious, or declares itself to be working on a continuation of a well-loved franchise, that game is either released or cancelled, and whichever situation happens, there is closure. The problem with vapourware is the open-ended nature of it – as the wait for the promised title stretches on further and further, the excitement for it from its fans only increases.
There have been some perfect case studies for this phenomenon in recent years – Duke Nukem Forever, a game for which the wait was so long that the very notion of the game was lampooned (Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw made an excellent satirical video about the game he could only assume that all those years were spent making) and The Last Guardian, a game which Sony teased for almost the entire lifespan of the PS3, only to be released a few years into the PS4’s. Both of these games were almost universally hailed as huge disappointments and both had different issues to them. Duke Nukem Forever was a very limp and flaccid game which felt cheap to play and who’s humour was tired and dated. It was a game that would have been fine had it come out after a development cycle of a few years, but the 15 years that the game took to finally come out were not at all on display. Ironically it was a game that felt rushed (no doubt due to the constant switching of studios and developers) and fans of the series were let down by an unpolished and lacklustre entry to a long-standing series – not to mention one that tried to clumsily modernise the series (not only were these attempts clumsy, they were completely out of place in a Duke Nukem, ultimately making it seem like the developers had no idea what they were doing with the property).
The Last Guardian had similar problems, but as it was a completely new intellectual property, consumers had nothing to compare it to. What had been shown was a spellbinding relationship between the player character and Treeco, an enormous dog/cat/bird creature whose AI was designed to be extremely advanced, giving the impression of a real, living creature. The game’s high intensity on the system’s hardware, both from this advanced AI and its high graphical fidelity was cited as the reason it took so long to come out, and never would have run on the PS3 system. But even after all that, the game still ran poorly on the PS4 and Treeco never seemed to be as intelligent as it was promised to be. As with Duke Nukem Forever, had The Last Guardian just come out a few years after being announced, it would be remembered as an interesting, if not amazing game. However, because of the hype and build-up and agonisingly long wait, those looking forward to its release came to have expectations that the game could never reasonably reach.
I have personally fallen into the trap of waitng for a game that always seems on the horizon but is being pulled further and further away – the remake of Final Fantasy VII. I, along with many others, was captivated by FF7 when I played it for the first time – it is by no means the greatest game ever made, but it is one that I feel shaped both my tastes and my perception of games, not only of that genre, but as a whole. I still look back fondly on the world and the characters and when the remake was announced over 2 years ago (after many long years of being speculated about and even teased with a graphical demo from the engine of FF13 of the opening shots of 7) I was ecstatic, and so were millions of others, judging from the reaction to the game’s reveal, both online and at E3. However, fast-forward 2 years, and we are no closer to seeing any more of the game and on top of that, there are even more disconcerting pieces of news – the game’s release will be episodic (which, after the episodic nature of Half-Life is not something that makes me very confident) and we will not be hearing anything else about the game until 2018 at the earliest. In fact, Square Enix have told fans to forget about the game until their next announcement.
So what should we do to assuage our disappointment when the games we have waited for for years either never come or fall short of our expectations?
As much of a cop-out as it feels, I think that Square Enix’s advice is actually the best course of action – push those far-off future games out of your mind and focus on the plethora of amazing games we have coming out right now. Call of Duty: World War II, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Shadow of War, Wolfenstein II: The New Order, Destiny 2, Super Mario Odyssey, Monster Hunter World, Dragonball Fighter Z – that is just a small snapshot of the games that have come out or are coming out in the next few months. No matter your tastes, there will be something exciting and new for you, and we should all revel in that, rather than waiting for a hope that may never even be realised.