Marc Laidlaw, a former writer for Valve, has published a plot summary for Half-Life 2 Episode 3. It’s obfuscated and gender-swapped (which is actually kind of amusing), but here’s a deobfuscated version. Fresh off reading Shamus Young’s dissections of bad plots, I’m going to go ahead and say: it’s a terrible plot.


(Go read it, this won’t make any sense till you do.)

Now, I fully realize this is an informal treatment, probably from very early in the (now dead) development process. There’s no game here… but it would have been added, and adding game elements is something Valve is… was… good at. But it can be judged as an attempt at the story.

As a short sf story, it has a few good ideas with some horror potential: Breen as a miserable Combine slug; the between-worlds Borealis; the final reveal of the galaxy-class power of the Combine.

As a plot, it’s worse than Mass Effect 2.  (See Shamus for why the plot of ME2 is actually worse than ME3.) It not only throws out any forward progress made in HL2 and in Episodes 1/2, it actually sets things back. Is every Half-Life plot supposed to be “Gordon Freeman does something perilous to shut down a portal that’s supposed to fix things, and in the next game we find out it failed”?

The Breen encounter might be kind of fun, but it’s also a kick in the teeth to HL2 itself. Breen was a fantastic character, but just bringing him back is the epitome of genre laziness. I don’t want to read LOTR 2 where the Ring turns out not to have been destroyed, and Frodo has to return from Eressëa to destroy it again.

Having Alyx kill Judith Mossman suggests that Laidlaw forgot he was writing a game rather than a movie. As Shamus might point out, this is like your DM having the NPCS in the party kill the Big Bad. If Alyx is the protagonist of the game, make her the frigging player character.

The dimension-hopping of the Borealis would probably be fun to look at, but it’s not used in any interesting sense here. If what we have is a dimension-hopping ship, we should have more than one destination.  (I fear that Aperture Science and Cave Johnson, however, are a little too comic to fit into the Half-Life games.)

The Dyson sphere is a great reveal.  If it’s done right, you get an oh shit moment: the enemy is even more powerful than it appeared. Only… the Combine was already all-powerful. It conquered Earth in seven hours, remember? HL2 owes most of its power to its depiction of enormous, intractable catastrophe. Only, “the right man in the wrong place can make a world of difference”, right? Even if he spends a lot of the game whacking headcrabs with a crowbar.

So what difference does Gordon— or Alyx— make in this story? Absolutely none. the Dyson sphere makes a great Act II reversal; it’s a terrible end to the story.

Plus, to make G-Man mysterious is one thing; to have him make no sense at all is just wankery. Is he like the Outsider, changing his favorites on a whim? There was the idea that he was some sort of galactic mercenary… but then it’s way past time we learn something about what entities are paying his fees.

Here’s just a few ideas that would make this plot summary at least kind of game-like:

  • Make Alyx the PC.
  • Lose Breen. Invent an actual new named Combine antagonist who is racing you to the Borealis.
  • Alyx has the ability to kill Mossman at any time. If it’s too early, you lose. If it’s too late, she grounds the ship in the Antarctic and the Combine swarm in.
  • Use the dimension-hopping to prop up the Resistance at a few key points. This is optional, but each point will give you soldiers to take along, and they’ll make the fights at the Dyson Sphere easier.
  • At the Dyson Sphere, you find your nemesis snuck onto the ship. It was wounded, but this is its home turf. You have to follow and kill it.  You are using the ship to blink about; because of its time instability, you may arrive at a location several minutes before or after the nemesis does, which affects the difficulty of the fight.
  • In the fights, Gordon is your ally and uses his gravity gun. You, however, have a portal gun that was lying around the ship.
  • When you defeat it, the G-Man talks to you.  “Good job getting here,” he smirks, and offers you three choices:
    • Use the Dyson Sphere base to destroy all Combine points connected to it– freeing a vast number of planets, but also destroying unimaginable numbers of innocent beings who happen to be near the Combine facilities.
    • Destroy the base itself– leaving the Combine and their slaves on each planet isolated from each other.
    • Open a portal that allows one of the G-Man’s other clients to reach Earth. He assures you, with a slappable smile, that they hate the Combine “and will not destroy your people.”

Oh, you want HL3 and HL4 too?  OK, some ideas:

  • Get rid of the remaining Combine on Earth before they can reconstruct a portal.
  • Or, if you chose Door Number Three, get rid of the G-Man’s pals, who turn out to be just as nasty but in different ways.
  • Take the fight to the Combine homeworld.
  • Find out why the Combine are fighting: they are building resources against an intergalactic threat. Guess what, you’re the one facing it now.