Half-Life: Alyx ends where Half-Life 2: Episode Two ends, after having changed everything we thought we knew about where the story was going, or what will happen next.
It’s a neat trick for a prequel. What might have been a game that kept the story in a holding pattern became something that changes the nature of Half-Life’s narrative as we thought we understood it.
But of course, to go any further, and to ask the game’s writers about what it all means, we’re going to have to spoil some stuff.
Everything old is new again
As we’ve reported before, there doesn’t seem to be much question about whether there will be more Half-Life games in the future. What those games will be, however, is up for some debate.
“There’s certainly no bible that lays everything out for the next three games, I would love that, if Marc [Laidlaw, Half-Life’s original writer] had some secret book,” Valve writer (kinda) Erik Wolpaw told Polygon, laughing. “That would have been tremendous.”
“The ending certainly suggests certain directions that we’re all really excited about, so it’s not like there’s no idea, but no, there’s not a concrete, 300-page manual of where the game goes after this,” Valve writer Jay Pinkerton said in agreement.
So let’s talk about that ending, because it’s a doozy, and it certainly does seem to suggest a lot.
The game begins by admitting that the mission Alyx is on — a journey to save her father Eli Vance from the Combine — is doomed to fail. Eli Vance is dead. We’ve already seen him die. The game itself reminds us of this fact in its opening moments. The stakes seem low, and it feels like we’re merely going over the same ground as previous games, narratively speaking, except this time we’re in VR.
But Alyx actually succeeds in her first goal long before the game is over, despite everything we’ve been led to believe. Eli is freed, and has news of some kind of super weapon that’s being held by the Combine. Something they don’t want anyone to know about. Something they seem to be scared of. And whatever it is, the resistance needs to get its hands on it if there is to be any hope for City 17.
Alyx’s mission is now no longer about a rescue, but about finding, and perhaps using, that weapon. But she finds out that it may not be a thing at all, but could be a person. And that person might be the most consequential human being in the Half-Life mythos: Gordon Freeman. If Alyx can get to the man who became a legend after the events of Black Mesa, only to have disappeared directly afterward, they might have a chance of winning the planet back from the Combine.
So now we’re back to the game being a rescue mission, just a rescue mission with a very different target. And the closer she gets to that target, the weirder things become. Because it’s not Gordon Freeman being held captive, it turns out.
It’s the G-Man.
And freeing a seemingly almighty power from prison has its perks, as he offers her a favor in return for being released. He doesn’t have the power to remove the Combine from Earth, that would be too much meddling for his “employers,” but he can do something that might be just as good, in the long-term. He shows Alyx her future, except Alyx’s future took place in our real-life past. We see the death of Eli Vance, and Alyx is given the opportunity to save him, as long as she goes to work for the G-Man.
Remember the ending of Half-Life 2: Episode Two? If not, let’s give it a rewatch. This is what Alyx sees, more or less, and what she’s given the option to change.
Changing the past, or maybe, more accurately, changing the circumstances around the game’s present, allowed the team to get players reinvested in the game’s story without simply repeating things fans already knew.
“The problem was how do you make any ending feel like this game mattered?” Valve writer Sean Vanaman explained to Polygon. “How do we solve the prequel problem to not feel like this game is just like a hermetically sealed short-story in the world of Half-Life?”
Alyx now actually does have the ability to save her father, but doing so will change the course of the game’s entire story. She accepts the deal, her father is saved, and she goes away to ... wherever the G-Man keeps assets in between their missions. The same place Gordon Freeman disappeared to in the time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, presumably.
Except, somehow, Eli Vance knows that the G-Man has changed things, and has his daughter. We don’t know exactly how Eli knows this, but we do know he wants to do something about it, and he knows just the person to turn to in order to save his daughter, before hopefully also saving the world: Gordon Freeman.
The game’s final moments, after the credits, show the return of Dog as the robot returns Gordon’s famous crowbar to his hands. Or rather, since this is VR, your hands. And that’s where the whole thing concludes.
This ending, with its twists and turns, solves many problems the narrative team had been struggling with through the game’s development.
“We had the prequel problem, we had the ‘god in a box’ problem. Those are the two big ones,” Pinkerton said. “The idea that once you free god, god owes you a favor. And that favor has to be pretty consequential. What does Alyx want?”
The game doesn’t give Alyx a lot to want outside of that one goal. She was always trying to save her father from the Combine, so using that desire as a throughline meant they didn’t have to create a McGuffin halfway through the game, even if it appeared, for a time, that they would do so. Eli was always going to die, we know how that story ends since we’ve played Episode Two. But having the G-Man bring him back and recruit Alyx as an asset? Suddenly the story was flexible again, and surprising.
“It just it moved the ball forward in a way that everyone in the room just found interesting,” Pinkerton said. “You couldn’t stop thinking about it ... We couldn’t stop talking about it.”
It’s a hell of an ending, returning us to the final moments of the previous release in the Half-Life series, while changing so much of what we thought we knew about what would happen next.
I was struck by how quickly Eli Vance was able to put together what had happened before calling on Gordon Freeman for help. The team discussed leaving some clue behind that would indicate that the G-Man had been there, and had pulled some cosmic strings to maybe change things that shouldn’t have been changed, but that idea was cut for a number of reasons. So how did Eli know what went on? I asked the three men if an alternate timeline had been created, and if so, what had happened to the original events from Episode Two.
“It’s fun to think about, isn’t it?” Vanaman said, looking away from the camera and smiling.
Here’s where we start digging into the storytelling philosophy of Half-Life a little bit, because discussing these things, and wondering about what’s exactly going on, is part of the game. It’s a part the narrative team doesn’t necessarily want to shut down this early after the release of Alyx.
“We have a timeline, and idea in our heads that we told each other as we went, so we’re working through it,” Wolpaw said. “But we kind of don’t want to talk about it just because it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to speculate on. And I feel like we shut things down as soon as we start saying, here’s what that is, you know?”
“We have an answer, we assure you,” Pinkerton added. “We have an answer, but we don’t necessarily want to spell it out.”
That tension, however, comes with its own benefits.
“To some extent, what you just described is what we would hope would happen,” Wolpaw said. “People thinking, ‘Oh, man, I am on board, I’m excited for what happens next,’ to kind of refresh this existing IP and reinvigorate it a little bit.” Now the last place the story ends isn’t something that happened decades ago, it’s something that’s fresh in everyone’s minds, along with the questions of what it all means for the rest of the game’s lore.
At that center of that lore, once again, was the G-Man himself.
Who is the G-Man? What does he want?
Half-Life: Alyx was able to do all this heavy narrative lifting with its twisty, surprising ending without giving away many details about who, exactly, the G-Man is or what he wants. It’s something the franchise has often teased at, but never explained. There’s an internal logic to what he can and can’t do in this world, but what that logic might be is kept from the players on purpose.
“It’s more important for us to be able to build the build the sort of rules around him for ourselves, so we can prescribe to them,” Pinkerton explained. “That’s something that I think is super important. And we’re always really sensitive to robbing people of the delight of the unknown. But there’s a fine line between being disciplined around that and then coming across as sort of aloof and not having done the work.”
Wolpaw pointed out that shining some light on the G-Man and working on those mysteries is certainly a place the series likely needs to go, but this wasn’t the game to do that. But to keep Half-Life going, they’re going to need to expand focus a bit, since the Combine are now a contained threat. That means the G-Man and his mysterious bosses may have a more important role to play in the story sooner rather than later.
“If you remember Episode Two, they had closed those portals,” Wolpaw said. “So really what’s left on Earth of the Combine are all there is left of the Combine.”
With no more portals, the Combine are stuck here with us as much as we’re stuck here with them. They can’t escape, but no reinforcements are coming. So that story has the possibility of coming to an end sooner than maybe fans had assumed.
“You need to start thinking about shifting some of the focus to something else,” Wolpaw explained.
Who the G-Man is, and whom he works for, could make for a very different focus for upcoming Half-Life games. The question I had was whether, internally at least, they knew who the G-Man was, and what he’s working toward.
“I feel like I don’t want to answer this one. Just a hard pass. Let’s just sit and contemplate the silence and change the subject after,” Pinkerton said.
“There are a few competing theories,” Wolpaw added.
They don’t want to write a locked down story bible, because so much of Alyx came from an evolving idea of what they wanted the story to be and where they wanted to end things. If they decide something now, does that limit their ability to change it to something cooler later if they have a better idea?
Besides, the defining feature of the G-Man as a character is that he can’t be understood, that he’s something else. And even the writing team wants to keep it that way for at least a little while longer.
Like Batman, who he is may not matter, since his impact on the story is always felt through what he does. The mystery is part of the experience, and explaining too much may remove some of his charm.
“That’s more so than so many other characters, just how unknowable he is, and just what his motivations are, everything has been mysterious,” Pinkerton said. “Everything about him is alien and other and yeah, I think for me, personally, I’m not talking as the company because as a person, I just think it would just rob that character of so much if I suddenly had his bio, and I knew where he lived, or what he wore when he got his mail. It just doesn’t interest me.”
So what does happen next?
The Half-Life story has to move past the cliffhanger that was introduced in Episode Two and then shifted dramatically by the events in Half-Life: Alyx.
Valve has already gone back and re-introduced players to the world through a prequel, and changed the stakes of the original ending, but doing something similar again might feel like a cheat, a way of standing still while appearing to shake things up. Whatever comes next in the game’s story feels like it has to move past that moment in time, or the team risks frustrating players who are still waiting for some kind of resolution.
“I think we’d be frustrated too,” Wolpaw said, candidly. “We did it this once. It was interesting. It totally It feels like it worked. I’m super relieved that we pulled it off, apparently. And, yeah, the next thing I would just like to keep going forward. I mean, again, this is me talking personally, not institutions. But, you know.”
Half-Life: Alyx tells a story that ends with one character put on figurative ice, another back from the dead and re-invested in the fight after the “loss” of his daughter, and the legendary Gordon Freeman getting his crowbar back, in VR no less. It feels like the baton of being the hero is being placed back into the hands of both Freeman and the player. There are many places the next game could go from here, but not knowing exactly which path the team will pick is part of the adventure, even for those working on the game.
“It feels like we’re in a nice middle ground between not being painted into a corner, but not having a giant blank page problem, either,” Pinkerton said. The only question now may be the most important one: When are we going to be able to play the next chapter?