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

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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 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.

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