Few cliffhangers in video game history are as cruel as the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, where Valve left the story of former theoretical physicist and crowbar aficionado Gordon Freeman for, as of this writing, nearly ten years. But this morning, science fiction author and former Valve employee Marc Laidlaw posted a thinly veiled conclusion to the series — intriguing but bittersweet news for anyone still holding out hope for another Half-Life game.
Laidlaw’s “Epistle 3” is a letter from a fictional character named “Gertie Fremont,” who recounts her team-up with feisty partner “Alex Vaunt” (Alyx Vance) to find the “Hyperborea” (Borealis) luxury liner, which must be destroyed or captured from the evil “Disparate” (Combine) aliens. While Laidlaw’s blog quickly faltered under the weight of traffic, someone posted the whole thing on Pastebin with the original names and genders swapped back in, resulting in a coherent and plausible plotline for Half-Life 2: Episode 3, the announced but never-released conclusion to Half-Life 2’s story arc.
We have no way of knowing whether this was a final plotline or just some loosely developed ideas, but Laidlaw was the primary architect of Half-Life’s plot, and his departure from Valve last year was widely seen as an acknowledgment that Episode 3 was dead.
At this point it seems silly to worry about Half-Life 2 “spoilers.” But if you haven’t played Episode 2, Laidlaw starts with its climactic turn: the death of Gordon’s mentor Eli Vance at the hands of the slug-like Combine, just as Gordon and Alyx embarked on an Antarctic mission to find the Borealis, a ship tied to Portal super-science firm Aperture Science.
In Laidlaw’s post, the Borealis was equipped with a teleportation device that inadvertently also sent it traveling through time, phasing in and out of existence. Freeman and his teammates would enter the Borealis to discover a place that was “half ghost ship, half nightmare funhouse,” where baffling time loops would leave them “confronting myriad versions of ourselves.” They would ultimately rig the ship to travel into the heart of the Combine empire and self-destruct, but at the last minute, Alyx would be spirited away by the G-Man, the mysterious not-quite-villain who has been pulling levers behind the entire Half-Life series. Gordon himself would be extracted by the friendly Vortigaunts, an alien species that has served as a deus ex machina rescue force in previous installments.
Laidlaw has professed tongue-in-cheek bafflement that people are connecting “Epistle 3” to Half-Life, but he’s also offered a few more details about the tale. “I guess fanfic is popular, even a genderswapped snapshot of a dream I had many years ago,” he tweeted after the site went down. He acknowledged that answers to plot questions in Half-Life were “developed strictly as needed,” so there were no fixed explanations for some of the series’ mysteries — he was just, in his words, “planting seeds.” That includes Alyx’s relationship with the G-Man, which is “something Valve might still want to develop, flesh out and explain someday.”
Emanuel Maiberg at Motherboard writes that Laidlaw’s description suggests Episode 3 may have been left unfinished because there was no clear design breakthrough that justified its existence — the way Half-Life 2 was built around breakthrough environmental physics — and most of the plot confined the characters to a few limited locations.
But “Epistle 3’s” plot fits well within the scope of the shorter episodes that followed Half-Life 2, where Valve was content to introduce iterations on combat, vehicles, and graphics. And the Borealis’ journey would have pushed Episode 3 toward a kind of surrealism that the series had never really explored, even in the psychedelic Xen levels of the original game. There’s even a plot point that would have worked around the untimely death of Robert Culp, who voiced the memorably smarmy villain Wallace Breen.
Laidlaw put up his post right after Valve’s 21st birthday, but he says on Twitter that there’s “no significance to the timing other than I got around to it.” As Luke Plunkett points out in the Kotaku comments, you can go down a bit of a rabbit hole reading fourth-wall-breaking commentary into the letter, but Laidlaw has mostly kept to light chatter about the series on Twitter, beyond periodic reminders that this is in no way an official confirmation of anything that Valve is (or isn’t) working on. “At this point I'm operating strictly in a fan capacity,” he says.