Recently I had the chance to sit down and play the latest iteration of Valve‘s upcoming release Half-life 2: Episode 3. I was able to play the game under the watchful guidance of Erik Jacobson.
“It’s still not done,” said Erik as he sat me down in front of an impressive HD monitor. “We’re still polishing a lot and reworking parts of the game.”
He didn’t need the caveat since from what I played the game looked polished already.
Erik told me that I was playing a section of Episode 3 that occurs somewhere towards the beginning of the game. The setting was a Resistance outpost harassing a Combine shipyard. Alyx and Gordon stop here to refuel their helicopter and take out some Combine anti-air guns. Much of the dialogue was missing in this preview so the plot was explained by Erik.
First though: combat. Combat is just like rest of Half-life 2: tight, clean, satisfying. Most Combine soldiers have returned as have some of their cybernetic alien companions (though I didn’t see any Striders in the Arctic regions). There is also a new Combine enemy in Episode 3 which I’m not allowed to spoil except to say it looks very cool and was engineered by the Combine specifically for cold climates.
Most of what I played in the preview of Half-life 2: Episode 3 involved cooperative puzzles between Gordon and Alyx, or Gordon and Vortigaunts. Most of the puzzles with Vortigaunts revolved around getting them to devices that needed electricity so you could progress to the next area. Eventually the Vortigaunts are able energize the helicopter so it doesn’t require fuel.
There were moments fighting the Combine which also gave me the chance to see a new mechanic in action. Whenever the player is about to die, the Vortigaunts will teleport him to a safe area and give his shields an energy boost so he can try again. “We implemented this mechanic after hearing from playtesters that they didn’t enjoy dying and starting over. The playtesters responded positively to the change so we’ll probably leave it in the final version of Episode 3.” I shook my head at this. I told Erik, “So these guys are powerful lightning sorcerers who can weld guns onto boats, power generators, power tv sets, juice up helicopters, confront the G-man in nebulous nether realms, stop time, revive people near death, and teleport protagonists when they’re in danger. It seems like the Vortigaunts have become a race of deus ex machinas. How did they even become slaves in the first Half-life?” Erik laughed at this. I wasn’t joking.
“I’ll show you some of our Arctic levels,” Erik leaned over and typed something into the console. Suddenly Gordon was standing in ice and snow where the noses run and the cold wind blows. In these levels there’s more focus on Gordon and Alyx together against the odds. In Half-life 2 the relationship between Alyx and Gordon started off with her having a school girl crush on Gordon and Gordon being rigid in his Chivalric vow of silence. Over the subsequent episodes this grew into Alyx having a coworker’s crush on Gordon and Gordon having his flashlight and his sprint connected to separate power supplies. In Episode 3 the two continue to grow closer. Erik tells me this wasn’t always the case.
Originally the death of Alyx’s father, Eli, in Half-life 2: Episode 2 had a profound effect on her emotionally. Erik told me that Alyx slowly drifted away from Gordon and the player interacted with her less and less until finally she left Gordon (and the player) so she could pursue her own agenda. Seeing Alyx grow more grim and watching her slowly drift away was meant to drive home the effects of the war against the Combine.
There was a gameplay reason for doing this as well. Leaving players to fend for themselves towards the end of Half-life 2: Episode 3 was hearkening back to the first Half-life‘s gameplay. “We really liked the idea of creating this gameplay epilogue which mirrored the gameplay of the original Half-life. We liked the balance it created.” Ultimately though it didn’t work. “Playtesters exhibited really negative reactions to this. Some of them became really angry over losing Alyx.”
As a result Alyx remains at Gordon’s side throughout the game, or at least throughout the preview I was given. The only time we see the effect her father’s death had on her is when Alyx says, “They’ll pay for what they did to my father.” Erik told me playtesters really sympathized with that remark.
In these arctic missions I was hoping to play on the Borealis but Erik told me that players would never set foot on the actual ship. When I asked why, Erik told me the story and I liked it so much I asked him to email me a written account. This is what he had to say:
We were worried about setting a level on a ship that rolled with the ocean waves. The entire level would rise and fall and objects would slide around, but we didn’t want sea sickness interfering with the gameplay. It was during a cabal when Brian Johnson suggested that the ship could be stuck in ice. We implemented the idea right away. But, after repeated playtests we learned that players didn’t realize they were on a boat. The interior seemed like every building interior in the entire Half-life 2 series. It was really important for us that players knew where the story was set so we experimented with windows that looked out over the sea and then we experimented with having rifts in the hull and letting the player jump onto the ice outside. Finally we got playtesters to udnerstand where they were, but then they started telling us, ‘I’m on a boat, I’m on a boat, I never thought I’d be on a boat.’ Almost every playtester gave us that feedback; we were astonished. We never want to ruin the player’s experience by creating moments that conflict with their expectation so we had to abandon the idea. We decided Gordon and Alyx would fly past the Borealis and she would say, ‘What a tragedy.’ It was a reference to the Borealis narrative as well as an internal joke about the level being abandoned. Eventually that line of dialogue had to be cut as well.
While I never saw the Borealis I did see Dog as he makes a surprise appearance when he bursts from a storage crate in a Combine warehouse. Erik explained that Dog returns because players tended to ask why Dog wasn’t in the game anymore. “One of our playtesters exhibited a strong desire to see him doggy paddle swimming.” So at various points in the game Dog will swim like an actual dog through the water. “How old was this playtesters?” I asked. “Eight,” replied Erik.
The narrative explanation for Dog’s return to Half-life 2: Episode 3 is given in a transmission from Dr. Kleiner. He says that, despite Dog’s usefulness to the Resistance, Dog missed Alyx so much that Kleiner had to let the robot follow her. Then Kleiner expresses his wish that Eli and Alyx had spent some time building a few more Dogs for the Resistance. This last dialogue bothered me. Valve was essentially pointing out a flaw in Half-life 2‘s plot that I hadn’t noticed until they drew my attention to it in this scene. I mean, why didn’t the Resistance build more versions of Dog, a weapon clearly designed from scrap metal and junk? Kleiner briefly mentions that Eli and Alyx were too busy doing other important work, but you’d think that if you’re dealing with a robot that can go toe to toe with a Strider that you’d take a break from whatever you’re doing and build a few more. I mentioned this to Erik and he told me it was time to go.
As Erik walked me to the door we passed a bathroom marked “Playtesters Only” and a voice shouted from within, “Hey! I need a wiper!”
Erik looked at me, “I’ve got to go… do… this…” He indicated towards the bathroom.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
“We used to have everyone wipe their own ass, but playtesters seemed happier to have us wipe their ass for them, so…” he shrugged helplessly.
“I guess I’ll just let myself out,” I said.
Erik said nothing. As he trudged into the bathroom the voice of the playtester came echoing from a stall, “Hey, why isn’t Cave Johnson in Episode 3? Portal and Half-life are in the same world, right?” Immediately I heard a thunder in the distance as writers scrambled to their desks to write Cave Johnson into Episode 3‘s plot.
As I walked I saw a pack of rabid playtesters, whose clothes had worn away over the years, fighting and snarling at each other over meat still clinging to the bones of some unfortunate coder. They were blocking the exit doors.
When I first entered Valve’s studios I had noticed a shelf covered in alarm clocks and didn’t know what they were for (I had thought it was a joke of some sort). By the time I was leaving I had figured it out.
Taking a clock from the shelf I set the alarm and threw it down the hall. When the alarm went off, with its red light flashing and high pitched beeping, the playtesters jumped up and converged on the device. Swarming around the blinking red light of the alarm clock they gnashed their teeth, “I want recharging health”, “Where is the dedicated melee”, “Aiming is too hard”. I made my way to the doors.
One of the playtesters, less distracted by the noise and flashing light, detached itself from the pack and approached me on all fours sniffing the air with its nose. I met its gaze without fear.
It reared up on its hind legs. “I think the G-man should—”
I punched it in the snout before its opinion could lead Valve to ruin one of the best written characters in gaming history.
Then I left the building and went home in my rocket car.