How indie devs finished Half-life 3
We speak to the many creators and originator of the epistle 3 Jam about how they interpreted the final chapter of Valve’s magnum opus
We catch up with the Epistle 3 Jam creators and organiser to find out how a small band of developers sought to finish what Valve started
“There’s something fascinating about Taking This Thing That will never be made and letting it go free,” says brendon chung, creator of Tiger Team, a game inspired by a piece of writing we never Thought we would get To see.
On 25 August 2017, Marc Laidlaw, former writer on the Half-life series with Valve – from the original game to its extended second chapter – posted a short story in the form of a letter entitled Epistle 3. While the names had been gender-swapped and other details disguised, it was clear that this was an interpretation of Half-life 2: Episode 3, or Half-life 3 as we have come to refer to it over the years. It was a concluding chapter in the story of Gordon Freeman (who refers to herself as Gertie Fremont in the text), a story that was never given a chance to be finished.
It was an extraordinary moment. After so many years of looking for clues and references to a Half-life sequel, of seeing the number three in any Valve or Valve-associated title as a portent of Freeman’s return, we finally had this. A vision of what could have been.
A vision that Laura Michet didn’t want to see go to waste. “I saw someone tweeting it out and I was immediately fascinated,” the originator of the Epistle 3
Jam on itch.io explains to us. “That evening, at dinner with some friends, I ended up reading parts of it with them. We were all people who had grown up with the Half-life games and started games careers in the shadow of the perpetually unreleased HL3.” And when the dinner was over and the enormity of what Laidlaw’s text represented settled into place, she sprang into action. “I rushed back to my computer to make the jam, actually.”
Game jams are a curious and wonderful thing. They are cauldrons of creativity in compromised conditions. Limits of time, resources and accessibility make them the open mic nights of the games industry, where veterans can play with new materials and up and coming creatives can make a name for themselves and show their talent. “They’re my favourite creative activity in the world, pretty much,” says Michet, who started out in the game jam scene after graduating a few years ago. “I love running game jams on itch, too, since that platform gives you instant access to other people who might be interested in the same topic. I love seeing the stuff that comes out of itch jams.”
The Epistle 3 Jam started on 26 August (the day after Laidlaw’s piece was revealed) and ran to 1 November, attracting a swathe of developers with the desire to finish what Valve had started. Developers such as the aforementioned Brendon Chung, creator of Thirty Flights Of Loving and Quadrilateral Cowboy. “I was (and still am) a tremendous fan of the Half-life games. They really blew up the definition of what a first-person shooter can be. Half-life played a big part in shaping the kind of work I do,” he tells us. “There’s some really elaborate and ambitious stuff happening in the synopsis. Lots of great temporal and dimensional hopping. I wanted to use this aspect as the backbone of the project, to have you and your memories bumping around time and space.”
“It’s a beautiful, poignant farewell to a series that will never reach a proper conclusion.” Heather Robertson, creator of GENDERWRECKED and, for this game, the psychedelic EPISTLE 3, tells us. “Also, in the wrong hands, it is a ridiculous comedy piece where nothing makes sense and everything is horrible. I have those wrong hands.”
And pretty much everyone we spoke to concurred that the prospect of creating a bootleg Half-life was just too good an opportunity to pass up. How the developers chose to take it from there and what they created was wildly different, however. Of the 32 submissions to the jam once the process had closed, very few are actually first-person shooters or, even if they are, not in the traditional sense.
Thanks to the nature of the jam and the source material, the creators felt a freedom to go wild.
“Evidently, not even Valve wants to take on the challenge of making a shooter followup to Half-life 2, so I felt there was zero mileage in us attempting it –
“The stakes in a jam are super low because everyone comes into The project expecting They’re going To fail” Laura Michet
instead, a game focusing on relationships or dialogue seemed the most entertaining direction – especially playing with Freeman’s role as a silent, killing machine who’s always washed along by events,” says James Kapella, one third of TEK Collective, behind HL2: Episode 3 - Gordon Freeman: Rational
Man. Others had a much simpler mission statement. “I wanted to make the biggest, dumbest piece of garbage possible. I’d like to think I succeeded,” Robertson declares enthusiastically about her first-person fever dream of an experience that pretty much every other developer we spoke to praised for its design and ingenuity.
“I aimed for a literal interpretation of the most cynical take on the linear FPS genre,” Dave Hoffman, AKA Dave Makes, tells us. “That is, walking down a hallway, killing everything, occasionally pausing while people talk at you. I’m not actually as cynical as all that, even as a joke, so I couldn’t help getting sentimental while writing the dialogue.” The result was something like a merging of Fruit Ninja with a relationship simulator called THE THIRD ONE.
In fact many of the developers looked to find the funnier side of the story, leaning on the absurdity of it all while also being reverential to their inspiration. “For a while I’d been wanting to make a game that was just a single joke, setup and punchline, communicated through gameplay instead of writing,” Nicholas Kornek, maker of I Have No Mouth And I Must Freeman, explains. “I actually came up with the title before figuring out what the game would be. I just knew that I really wanted to make something about Gordon Freeman’s strange inability to
“it’s a beautiful, poignant farewell To a series That will never reach a proper conclusion” heather robertson “it’s worse That The hl3 devs didn’t get To make Their game Than it is That we didn’t get To play it” Laura Michet
speak to anyone. In the end, I decided to make a game that would reflect on the futility of trying to communicate when your only impact on the world is through violence, but, you know, funny and stuff.”
And while the text of Laidlaw’s script gave these creators a lot of freedom to be inventive, the jam process enhanced it too. “The stakes in a jam are super low because everyone comes into the project expecting they’re going to fail,” says Michet. “I ended up just making a bizarre interactive short story where you make only one real choice – whether or not to shoot the Breengrub. The game keeps track of whether or not you killed him, and it also keeps track of how many people have killed him since the game has been running.”
In actual fact what Michet made has been described by some of the other developers as a Twine MMO, as the text-based story actually involved measuring the number of people making the choice to kill or save Laidlaw’s depiction of a Dr. Breen-like grub and challenges you to shift the numbers (similar in concept, but more complex in execution, to the Lutece twins coin toss scene from Bioshock Infinite).
“I think Twine is very much mischaracterised by both game fans and indie game developers,” Michet adds. “It has a very low barrier of entry, but a very high skill ceiling for people who want to use it as a complex expressive tool. Hypertext itself – telling stories using clickable links – is a kind of interactive fiction sub-discipline that nobody has quite yet mastered, I think. The possibilities of hypertext are pretty immense.”
Everyone’s approach in the jam was different, from sifting through old concepts to coming up with something original, using the longer jam schedule to play with a work in progress or come up with a new system altogether. It was a personal journey for everyone we spoke to.
“To be honest, I jumped into this jam with very little thought. I had been following Heather Robertson’s work in progress and it made me laugh so hard I couldn’t help but join in the fun,” Dave Makes tells us, for example. “It’s funny, THE THIRD ONE is probably my most personal game to date. The art style is just my rough doodles, they’re the kind of thing I fill notebooks with when I’m having fun.”
“I had already written a bunch of top-down game code for a game pitch I was working on and it came to me that I should make a Lego Star Wars-type game where everything is a caricature of the Half-life universe,” says Owen Deery, creator of Small Radios Big Televisions who made a kind of chibi-shooter called Expo. Decay. “I figured I was already making an unauthorised Half-life game, so I had nothing to lose by re-using Valve’s assets. This sped up the production process a ton since any time I needed a new asset I could probably find it in the Half-life archives. More importantly, though, it really helped the game feel like a Halflife game. When you kill a Combine soldier and his radio plays that flatline noise it really makes a huge difference.”
Brendon Chung also delved back into the real games to fish out some authenticity for his homage. “It was a lot of fun taking the dialogue lines from Half-life 2 and re-using them in a different context to create new scenes,” he reveals. “I basically listened to every line of dialogue in Half-life 2 and ‘wrote’ my script around the suitable lines.”
The strange array of different approaches, the sense of humour, the irreverence of it all, based around a franchise that is so revered and praised for its narrative is an interesting thing, but something we imagine those at Valve would approve of. The love of Half-life is so clear from these titles and the sympathy the developers feel for the creators was apparent.
“I’ve worked on games that have been cancelled, or suspended indefinitely, and it’s heartbreaking,” says Dave Makes. “THE THIRD ONE is a goofy, silly thing, but underneath that, it’s a love letter to game developers who have felt that heartbreak.”
“I was also very pleased that most people didn’t just dunk on the HL3 developers or make a lot of angry games,” adds Michet. “It’s worse that the HL3 devs didn’t get to make their game than it is that we didn’t get to play it. Working on a project and watching it get cancelled or die sucks – that’s happened to me a lot in my professional career.”
So, while the Epistle 3 Jam may not have delivered much by way of an authentic conclusion to the Half-life story, what it has inspired is a wide variety of fun and experimental games as well as a fantastic platform for a number of developers, some of whom only work on games part-time, to find exposure and have their creativity appreciated. And while many said they wouldn’t be coming back to these titles now the jam was done, some will be looking to build on what they created here.
“I want to play a little more with the world of
Half-life, rethink the barnacles, return the Vortigaunts as enemies. Make something crazy with it,” says Alexey Sigh, maker of HL: Minimal Edition, which mixes 3D world design with pixel art characters. “It’s simply fun to come up with something new using known characters and express your own vision. Also, I treated this project as a practice at level and game design because its minimal visuals allowed me to spend less time on assets and more on the gameplay experience.”
Deery also had an eye to the future with his creation. “I used the jam as a jumping off point to experiment and prototype my next project, which has similar mechanics, and this allowed me to take all the feedback I received from the jam and use it to improve the experience. I had to remove all the Half-life assets obviously, but it feels like the same game in spirit,” he tells us.
“I am a firm believer in the idea that a game is like a little bird. Once it flies from the nest it grows wings and a beak, and would try to kill me if I got close,” Robertson tells us with an alternate view on things. “There are birds worth tracking down and binding so they would not peck me, but this bird deserves to be free. Also it has massive talons and a gun. Why did I give it a gun?”
“More than anything I’m really happy that a lot of people seem to be enjoying the game,” is Kornek’s take on the experience. “I’ve seen a lot of playthroughs of it on Youtube and the joke seems to land well for pretty much everyone, which makes me feel like I did a solid job on the design.” While Dave Makes just had a lot of fun with the development process, as he explains to us. “I had an absolute blast recording all the sound effects. My wife was trying to study while I was banging on things around the apartment, slamming a head of cabbage against the floor, obnoxiously chomping on carrots, swinging a big stick around for that crowbar ‘swoosh’ noise… and then
I made her do head crab screeches with me. It was fun.”
A jam is about giving game developers the spark of an idea that will send them forward. Sometimes that’s the one thing missing between talent and execution. Besides, thanks to Laidlaw’s writing and Michet getting the game jam running as quickly as she did, we now have all of these games and all of these interpretations of the Half-life world to enjoy. Michet herself seems delighted with the response. “I was overwhelmed!
The outcome was better than
I could have hoped. A lot of people interpreted the jam in a wide variety of strange, incongruous and hilarious ways and that is absolutely the best outcome,” she enthuses. “There were a ton of extremely funny, weird games in this jam, which was also amazing
– I love how jams let people make the kind of outrageous joke-games they otherwise wouldn’t ever be able to make.”
And so, while it feels more and more like we might never see Valve finish its saga, at least developers like these are tending the flame of Gordon Freeman, keeping the dream alive and giving us experiences that even a team as creative as the Bellevue outfit would balk at attempting.
“A jam is a great opportunity to capture a moment, either in your own development (technical or personal), or something external,” Kapella sums up for us. “Marc Laidlaw sharing Epistle 3 was both a stimulating gift to the community and a full stop the series was lacking - and this was our modest tribute. Half-life belongs to the people now!”
HL: Minimal Edition started out with pixel art characters only as a placeholder before 3D assets could be added to the game.
Its developer, however, found them so charming that it was decided the pixel art enemies and crowbar should remain.
The strange abstract imagery of Heather Robertson’s EPISTLE 3 is really quite something. There’s a speed run of the game that takes about a minute, but we would recommend reading the text as it’s fantastically composed.