The Final Hours of Half-Life: Alyx is now live on Steam as a $10 download, and it’s a phenomenal look at the underbelly of Valve video game development, told with a wealth of inside access and a host of multimedia goodies.
The project, as led by journalist Geoff Keighley, is a years-in-the-making look at Valve’s journey to release a new Half-Life game, complete with stories about other attempts that never got off the ground. Separated into 12 “chapters,” the app is predominately driven by Keighley’s text, full of interviews and quotes, and every page comes with embedded image galleries and pictures to drive each point home.
Get ready for a Borealis-load of Valve secrets
The app’s biggest dirt is arguably its confirmation of exactly what started and stopped within Valve on the way to getting Half-Life: Alyx out the door this March. That includes information on Half-Life 3—and it is a much firmer account of Valve’s history than what IGN reported earlier this year.
As described, however, this “HL3,” which began life in the early ’10s, would have been very different from what fans might have expected from a full-fledged Half-Life sequel. Inspired by Left 4 Dead, this non-VR version of Half-Life would have revolved around combat sequences through procedurally generated towers and buildings, chained together by crafted plot events.
A more plot-centric Half-Life project emerged within Valve in 2015, led in part by former series scribe Marc Laidlaw: a VR-exclusive game codenamed Borealis. (This followed the prototyping of a Half-Life arcade shooter, simply titled Shooter, that was made for possible inclusion in Valve’s VR toy kit The Lab, only to be canceled; we’ve reported on that one previously.)
Borealis would have taken place entirely on the boat of the same name while players “ricocheted in time back and forth” between various points in the Half-Life universe, including the series’ Seven Hour War. If that sounds familiar, its concept resembles the story Laidlaw eventually posted for fans, which many took to resemble his vision for a “Half-Life 3.” He left Valve shortly after the prototype failed to “gain traction,” Keighley writes.
Shortly before ground was broken on what became Half-Life: Alyx, Valve also had a “mini team” begin prototyping a Left 4 Dead sequel in late 2015, which was also shelved after “months of work.” (Its codename was “Hot Dog,” if you want to start digging through old Source Engine files for hints of it.) And other sections of the app talk about other canceled Valve games, including Left 4 Dead 3 (not to be confused with “Hot Dog”) and new, codenamed games like “A.R.T.I.” and “RPG.” (Today’s report also acknowledges a Half-Life 2: Episode 3 project that stalled when its team members shifted to help ship the first Left 4 Dead game.)
“The highest-paid blog post writers”
Keighley’s account of Valve’s history is blunt about the studio’s lack of significant game launches during the ’10s and about the issues they had in common—particularly that they all pulled the in-development Source 2 engine in different directions. “We sort of became the highest-paid blog post writers of all time,” longtime Valve writer Jay Pinkerton admits, while other staffers talk frankly about the studio’s reputation for spinning up multiple small projects and then watching them fall apart internally.
“We sort of had to collectively admit we were wrong on the premise that you will be happiest if you work on something you personally want to work on the most,” Valve developer Robin Walker tells Keighley, soundly rejecting the ethos that Valve has publicly carried as a torch for some time. The studio used a new Half-Life project as a way to focus the entire studio—even though, as we’ve previously reported, that project began life with more modest expectations in terms of length and content.
From there, Half-Life: Alyx‘s story picks up steam, intertwined with the studio’s vision for building VR hardware and experiences. The whole thing is a spoiler-filled exploration of how HL:A took shape, but most interesting is that the game’s biggest internal test ended with fellow Valve staffers giving a big thumbs-down to the ending. The production team sought permission to rebuild the narrative arc with a stunning ending, and Valve boss Gabe Newell greenlighted the shift, knowing it would delay HL:A‘s launch outside of the Valve Index hardware launch (which everyone had hoped would happen side-by-side).
And, yes, we finally have confirmation of what those two other VR games were that Newell bullishly announced in 2017: the aforementioned “A.R.T.I.” project, and something codenamed SimTrek, which Keighley only says was built in part by members of the original Kerbal Space Program team. Today’s news doesn’t clarify whether those projects may come back to life, however, and it doesn’t exactly say what may happen to In The Valley Of The Gods, a game absorbed as a Valve project when the studio acquired Campo Santo in 2018.
The rest of the app is a doozy in terms of Valve history—including tantalizing hints about Valve’s vision for brain-connected hardware—so you’ll have to head to Keighley’s app, available now for $10 on Steam, to learn the rest and get access to exclusive galleries, prototype videos, and multimedia toys, including the above interactive tour of one floor of Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington. And while the app doesn’t end with a promise of more Half-Life games to come, it strongly suggests such a future: “We’re not afraid of Half-Life no more,” one Valve staffer suggests. (And whether that project may come in VR or not remains to be seen.)
Listing image by Geoff Keighley