In late August, former Valve scriptwriter Marc Laidlaw published Epistle 3, a strange letter detailing what appeared to be the conclusion to the Half-Life series that Valve never produced.
After a decade of Half-Life 3 jokes, Laidlaw’s post felt like the bittersweet end of an era. Even though we’ve known it for a while, something about reading an ex-series writer’s fanfiction of what could have been made the truth clearer than ever: Half-Life 3 isn’t happening.
At least, not officially.
One day after Laidlaw’s post, game developer Laura Michet launched Epistle 3 Jam, a roughly two month-long non-competitive hackathon with just one rule: make a game based on the leaked Half-Life 3 plot synopsis.
The results are a mixed bag of earnest, Source-powered attempts at capturing what made one of the most popular first-person shooters so enduring; comedically broken, Garry’s Mod-inspired chaos; and clever adaptations of Gordon Freeman’s adventures into new styles and genres. A good portion of them aren’t complete. Some don’t work at all. Most barely exceed a few minutes or an hour of play. But they all burst with creative energy and a love for what could have been.
Here’s a small roundup of the fanmade Half-Life 3 games adapted from Laidlaw’s script. You can find all 32 entries as free downloads on itch.io.
Half-Life was revolutionary in more ways than one, but not least of all for its contributions to the story-driven first-person shooter. But would it be the same as a top-down shooter? That’s what Expo Decay sets out to explore. Described as a mashup between Hotline Miami and Lego Star Wars, the Half-Life-inspired adventure has you controlling a tiny, stylized Gordon Freeman as he slashes away at headcrabs and attempts to break into a snowy compound full of Combine soldiers. The controls are a little buggy, but for something made in a few weeks, it’s a delightful and visually impressive experiment any Half-Life fan should check out.
Straightforward in name, but that’s about it, game developer Heather Robertson’s Epistle 3 is a mostly surreal, sometimes silly exploration of a series Robertson admits she has never actually played — a constraint that actually serves her experiment pretty well. After all, Half-Life 3 is a thing that has, for most of us, only ever existed in our imaginations — a thing with only a dreamed-up snapshot from an ex-series writer to show for it, which lends the sleepy planes and alien worlds of Epistle 3 a weird familiarity. With nothing but a rectangular “gun” awkwardly jutting from one side of the screen, you explore vast zones empty except for boxes representing things explained in narrated bits at the top.
Robertson is also known for Secret Spaces, another surreal exploration game about planting strange vines inside an infinitely tall labyrinthine structure.
The Third One
Another creative take on the genre (and the source of this article’s thumbnail art!), The Third One frames Half-Life 3 as an on-rails first-person slasher broken up with little visual novel-y dialogue exchanges with familiar faces. And it’s all presented in a cute, handdrawn style. The developer even made a Halloween edition, which turns all the headcrabs into jack-o’-lanterns that explode into candy. A clever, slightly cheeky take on a beloved franchise. Developer DaveMakes is also working on a game called Pan Galactic Railway.
Lambda Wars was actually in development before Epistle 3 Jam, so it’s not surprising that it’s also one of the most impressive in scope. It’s a Source Engine mod for Alien Swarm that turns the world of Half-Life 2 into a real-time strategy game, putting you in command of either Combine or Resistance Armies. There’s even multiplayer with up to eight human or AI players.
Aboard the Borealis
You can’t recognize the profound impact the Half-Life series had on video game storytelling or the first-person shooter genre without also acknowledging the legacy of Garry’s Mod. The chaotic Half-Life 2 mod-turned Valve-published standalone game is a celebration of the emergent comedy of altered physics and unexpected mashups. The unfiltered multiplayer sandbox sim paved the way for an entire generation of internet inside jokes. It spoke its own language — a loud, broken, unrestrained language — and that language is on full display in Aboard the Borealis, an abrasive nightmarescape of glitching assets and wonky collision. It’s like someone played Half-Life 2: Episode Two while sick, and we’re playing the resulting fever dream.
There are 32 entries total from Epistle 3 Jam.
Play them all for free on itch.io.
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.