Valve's developers have a very particular set of skills. From the original Half-Life in 1998 through Half-Life: Alyx in 2020, the Seattle-based studio has defined, then refined, a specific kind of game. Despite shooters generally following the narrative model that Valve set with Gordon Freeman's crowbar-toting trek through Black Mesa, few narrative shooters come anywhere near the unique blueprint that Valve established 24 years ago and continues to perfect.
That's because across Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Portal, Portal 2, and Half-Life: Alyx, Valve has made games that combine seamless in-engine storytelling, clever shooting, intelligent and funny humor, and physics-based puzzle solving. Puzzle games have borrowed the physics, shooters have borrowed the emphasis on narrative, and plenty of games have attempted to keep players interested with a jokey tone. But no one is combining all of it into one immersive package. No one except Valve.
The Half-Life series is the best vehicle for all of those characteristics. Though I enjoy the Portal games, I imagine it must be difficult for Valve to continue to iterate on the one-room-at-a-time structure two games deep, when we fully expect the games to go off the rails (in a good way). There's a fool-me-once-ness to Portal's structure and when you've broken out of Aperture Labs once or twice, it becomes difficult to believe that you'll stay there long.
The spirit of Portal lives on though (and not just in the Steam Deck showcase Aperture Desk Job). Half-Life: Alyx felt like Valve bringing Portal's comedic sensibility into its other flagship series. Half-Life: Alyx kept to the Portal tradition of casting a comedian as your companion character, introducing Rhys Darby's Russell to provide color commentary for Alyx's journey, while returning writer Erik Wolpaw helped ensure that color commentary was actually colorful.
The problem is — as indicated by the 13-year gap between Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Half-Life: Alyx — Valve has plenty of ways to make money besides Half-Life. With a handful of successful series (Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Dota) outside the confines of the narrow genre I'm focusing on and, until recently, a near-monopoly on virtual games distribution through Steam, Valve can afford to focus on other things. As a result, Valve leadership has viewed Half-Life as a series that should only be dusted off when they have some new tech to show off. Half-Life 2's graphics and physics were a significant step forward from the first game, and Half-Life: Alyx brought the series into VR, opening up a whole host of interactions that weren't possible before. The team at Valve has indicated a willingness to continue working on Half-Life but it's hard to imagine what challenge Valve could size up as comparable to the switch to VR. With no plans announced for the next Half-Life as of yet, I would like to make a suggestion: Valve should make an open-world Half-Life game.
If The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild taught us anything, it's that there is a massive appetite for open-world games with an emphasis on puzzle solving and simulated physics. Games inspired by Breath of the Wild have largely focused on other aspects of its design. Dragon Quest Builders 2 introduced a glider. Immortals Fenyx Rising and Horizon Forbidden West did the same and also included climbing mechanics. Indie games like Sable and A Short Hike borrowed Breath of the Wild's go-anywhere-in-any-order approach to open-world design. Genshin Impact adopted BOTW's chemistry-based combat. But few have captured Breath of the Wild's chaotic, the-world-is-a-weapon spirit. A Half-Life open-world game could perfectly channel that chaos. Equipping Gordon or Alyx with the Gravity Gun and/or Gloves and letting them loose on an open-world littered with circular saws and Headcrab Zombies, grenades and Combine Soldiers, could be a delightful mess. On the other hand, an open-world shooter that included the Portal guns is too wonderful an idea to think about. I can only countenance it indirectly, like looking at the sun.
Plus, with the exception of GTA 5, in the last decade very few open-world games have been set in metropolitan areas. I've enjoyed my time with Cyberpunk 2077, Saints Row 4, and Crackdown 3, but those games haven't, by and large, been especially influential. The defining open-world games of the past decade have included urban areas — think Novigrad in The Witcher 3, Kakariko Village in Breath of the Wild, Saint Denis in Red Dead Redemption 2, and Leyndell Royal Capital in Elden Ring — but the heavyweight sandboxes have largely consisted of mountains, plains, rivers, and dusty roads.
Half-Life: Alyx gave us another look at City 17, but much of it took place underground, on ruined blocks, or memorably, in an abandoned zoo. What would an open-world Half-Life game set in a functioning City 17 look like? Obviously, it wouldn't be a happy place at first. Alien oppression can suck the life out of a city. But, that's what we tend to do in open-world games, isn't it? Beat oppressors? Restore happiness?
Valve can and should, obviously, do what it wants. The company goes where its workers wheel their desks. But, if leadership is looking for a challenge worthy of Half-Life, why not hand Gordon Freeman or Alyx Vance a map and let them loose?
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