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Let it go, Gabe

Valve needs to let someone else develop Portal and Half-Life


Another GDC has come and gone.  And par for the course, GDC was a spotlight for Gabe Newell’s PC gaming behemoth, Valve.  We saw Steam Machines, Steam Controls, Steam Virtual Realities, and Steam OSesses.  But despite for one brief heart-stopping moment both of Valve’s most beloved game franchises, Portal and Half-Life, failed to make an official appearance.  

E3 is on horizon, and I think it’s a safe bet will be saying, like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, we have all be skunked onced again.

So why has Valve, purveyors of the PC’s most popular gaming platform, remained so obstinately opposed to providing one more trip to Aperture and Black Mesa when the waves of meme-creating fans have so ubiquitously offered their fistfuls of cash?  Has Valve spent so much time with Steam that they are incapable of producing anything but vapor?

Well, no….ta 2. Dota 2.  Valve’s dedication to their incredibly popular MOBA proves that they still have both the will and the chops to build genre-defining games.  Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike:GO have also continued to attract enthusiastic audiences and continued revenue for the company.  It’s not that Valve has stopped being a developer of games, but it has become disappointingly clear that they are no longer interested in developing games without a long-term profit model.  And to their credit, Valve’s games have been a beacon of fair-play in a market that increasingly sees micro-transactions as a way to exploit addiction rather than reward enthusiasm.  

But who cares?  I want Portal 3.  I want Half-Life 3.  With one more GDC behind us and neither of those titles on the horizon, I think we as a gaming community have waited long enough.  It’s become clear to me that the only way we will see through the eyes of our favorite silent protagonists is if Valve let’s those franchises go.

The idea of some other studio taking over the icons that Valve built its empire upon is almost as distasteful as Nintendo allowing someone else to take their iconic, mustachioed plumber for a spin.  But if Valve no longer has an interest in non-multiplayer, cinematic experiences, there is a litany of studios that have proven their mettle that I think could take either Half-Life or Portal and do amazing things.  Who would have thought Wolfenstein would see another success, but ex-Starbreeze upstarts Machine Games proved they could take a beloved franchise and make it feel fresh once again.  Likewise, the Call of Duty franchise seemed doomed to a Madden-like malaise until Sledgehammer came along and reignited our interest in the series.  It may seem sacrilegious to let anyone but Valve wield the holy crowbar, but just like many major movie franchises have realized, if you have nothing more to say on a subject, it’s time to let someone do the speaking.

If Sony could let Marvel have Spider-man, Valve could let someone else make Portal.  If George could step away from Star Wars, Gabe can step away from Half Life.

Here are a few game developers I’d love to see take a crack a Portal or Half-Life game.

  • Galactic Cafe (The Stanley Parable) - Davey Wreden proved that as a Source-modder, he and William Pugh were capable of wielding that engine for whimsy and profit.  The Stanley Parable already feels like it’s made from the same genetic material as Portal with its omnipresent, wise-cracking narrator, and its clever use impossible geometry.  While it’s less obvious whether the team could craft as clever puzzles, I’d gladly sign-in up for some lab-hours led by the Galactic Cafe crew.

  • Arkane Studios (Dishonored) -  Arkane and publisher Bethesda proved they are equal to the challenge of a thematically rich, dystopian alternate future with Dishonored.  Not to mention much of their design aesthetic was directly informed from Half-Life 2.  I think with a little bit of guidance, Arkane could create a fresh, dynamic, and appropriately epic final chapter to the Half-Life series.

  • Alexander Bruce (Antichamber) - Maybe not as narratively skilled as The Stanley Parable, Alexander Bruce’s criminally underplayed Antichamber proved it is more than capable of teaching your mind to escape the bounds of euclidean geometry in a way that you can only do in a video game.  I think with a little practice in tempering the difficulty curve, Bruce could show us that there are ways to think with portals we haven’t begun to think about.

  • Ken Levine (Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite) - While the controversial game designer has eschewed the world of triple-A game development for the quieter pastures of indie games, when I think of games that completely pulled me into their reality, Ken Levine’s Bioshock games are easily at the top.  Half-Life introduced the idea of “moment” gaming, times purposely fixed in a game to take your breath away and stick in your mind.  Levine’s games have carried on that torch, whether telling a story via environment or creating giant set-pieces which you can’t wait to discuss with a friend.  I’d even go as far to say that the mysterious, space-time-ignoring Lucete twins bear a striking similarity to Half-Life’s G-Man.  I think there are few designers with the credentials to be trusted with Gordon Freeman, and Ken Levine is one of them.   

I’m an unabashed fan of Valve, and I’d be remiss not to mention all the good they’ve done with Steam, whether for indies or the PC at large.  That’s great, and I hope they continue to the pour resources into making that bigger and better.  And even though I’ve never played a round of DOTA 2, I found myself sucked in to the excitement of their yearly, twitch-streamed mega-tournament, the International.  

Valve is smart, and if we haven’t seen Half-Life 3 in over ten years, it’s because they would never ship something they weren’t prepared to stamp with the Valve seal of approval.  But maybe it’s time to recognize that while they have matured beyond this kind of game development, they don’t have to deprive their long-standing and patient fans of the single-player games they crave.

It’s time Valve.  It's time Gabe.  Let it go.