SPOILER ALERT: Warning, this article contains spoilers for all of the Half-Life games, up to and including the end of Half-Life: Alyx. Proceed at your own risk.
If there’s one thing that all Half-Life games have in common, it’s that they deliver one hell of an ending. Whether it’s a finale that leaves your jaw hanging open, or a head-scratching twist that you can’t stop thinking about, the end of each Half-Life game certainly leaves you desperate for more. There’s no better (or possibly worse, for reasons that will shortly become apparent) example than Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
It’s one of the most iconic scenes in gaming history: Gordon Freeman and his Resistance allies — the father/daughter team of Alyx and Eli Vance — get ambushed by the Combine, the alien invaders and occupiers you’ve spent three games fighting back against. But there’s no heroic victory to be won here. Gordon is — you are — pinned against a wall, forced to watch on helplessly as the Combine suck out Eli’s brains and drop him to the floor, dead. And then, with all hope for the Resistance seemingly lost, the game fades to black…
We’ve been stuck in that darkness for nearly 13 years. The planned sequel never arrived, meaning Episode Two was the final Half-Life game — until last month, when Half-Life: Alyx appeared. Yet for fans hoping for some much-needed closure, this was yet another disappointment. Rather than the Episode 3 that we’d all been clamoring for, the latest Half-Life is actually a prequel — picking up five years before the events described above. And when it comes to the nail-biting, Alyx’s ending is no exception.
Back to the future
Alyx tells the story of the Vances’ earlier efforts to take out a superweapon the Combine has locked up in an enormous Vault floating above the city. For most of the game, it’s your routine rebels-versus-evil-empire procedure: get the plans, decode them, launch an attack on the big enemy base. And then you finally reach the Vault, open up its doors and… well, at that point, Alyx carries on its proud Half-Life tradition.
The game’s final fifteen minutes alone have so much to unpack that it’d probably be enough to keep us all speculating for another 13 years. So, as we try to get our head around Alyx‘s ending, who better to ask for help than the three men who penned it?
Penning the beginning of the end
Meet Erik Wolpaw, who co-wrote Episode Two (meaning he’s partly responsible for that agonising cliffhanger). Jay Pinkerton, a National Lampoon and Cracked alumnus who first teamed up with Wolpaw to write Portal 2. And Sean Vanaman, who joined Valve when the company acquired his studio, Campo Santo, in 2018 — before that, he was one of the forces behind Firewatch and Telltale’s Walking Dead games. All told, then, it’s a pretty strong writer’s room. Which is lucky, because what faced them was a pretty daunting task.
They joined the project at the start of 2019, a couple of years into development. The bulk of Alyx’s levels and characters were already in place, and just needed arranging into a solid story. But what actually happened after you opened the doors of the Vault? That was still a big fat question mark.
“What was there when we jumped on board was: you were going to go to a Vault and think it was a superweapon and it was gonna turn out to be the G-Man,” Erik Wolpaw says. G-Man, for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, is a suit-wearing extradimensional bureaucrat with the powers of a god. He’s been around since the original Half-Life, when he first ‘hired’ Gordon Freeman, putting him in stasis to wait for his next mission.
In the final version of Alyx — as in the early plans the writers inherited — the G-Man is what awaits you inside the Vault. “Beyond that, what was gonna happen once you discovered it was the G-Man,” says Wolpaw, “there was… nothing.”
The trio — plus Jake Rodkin, another Campo Santo writer — had two weeks to figure out the rest. The bulk of the story came relatively easy, they say. “But the ending was a big missing piece,” Wolpaw says. “The whole thing hinges on the fact that you just basically let God out of prison, right? He needs to do something for you — and it’s got to be something good.”
“Nothing we came up with in the room was satisfying. We tried thirty, forty different things,” says Jay Pinkerton. “An early draft had some generic tragedy happen in the first act which the G-Man allowed you to go back and undo, which for us, coming on late, didn’t seem satisfying. It’s like well, you undid the only dramatic thing that happened. You’re essentially at net zero by the end of the game. Nothing has happened to move the story forward. And that always bothered us.”
It’s a classic example of the ‘prequel problem’, something people first started talking about when George Lucas made that trilogy of films we don’t like to talk about. “When you’re writing a story where essentially the ending is known, and the fates of all the characters are known,” Pinkerton explains, “it just sucks the air out of the room dramatically.” So the writers decided Alyx had to step outside the traditional prequel boundaries and do something that would move the larger Half-Life story forward.
Freed from the Vault, G-Man offers Alyx her reward: he’ll rewrite reality for her. She just has to name her wish and the big G will give events a “nudge”. Alyx asks for the Combine to be kicked off Earth. Which is less a nudge than a full put-your-weight-into-it shoulder barge, and G-Man understandably refuses. He counter-offers with “something you don’t know you want”, and shows Alyx the future. Specifically, that cliffhanger moment we’ve all been sitting on for over a decade — as Alyx’s father, Eli, dies in her arms.
Coming up with this idea was “just a stroke of luck,” Wolpaw says. “I come into the office real early and there’s an artist who comes in early too, Jim Murray, and we were just sitting around. We had maybe two days left before we had to pitch what it was going to be. And I was just laying out the problem to Jim, and he’s like, ‘what if you went forward in time and saved Eli at the end of Episode Two, hah hah hah.’”
As Murray laughed at his own idea, Wolpaw describes going through “this mini emotional journey, where you’re like, ‘no!‘ and then you’re like, ‘oh, wait, maybe…’”. When Pinkerton and Vanaman showed up at the office, Wolpaw pitched it to them. They went through the same mental process and wrote a quick draft of that ending.
It took three or four hours, they say, and the results were surprisingly close to the final script: Alyx takes G-Man up on his offer, he undoes Eli’s death, and Alyx pays the price — getting ‘hired’ the same way Gordon did, locked up in the inky blackness between dimensions. As Alyx’s screams fade out, a white screen tells us she is “Awaiting Assignment”.
At the end of their two-week brainstorming session, the writers stood in front of 120 other Valve employees and pitched them this ending. “It went over great, for the most part,” says Wolpaw. “There’s always a couple of naysayers… well, they’re not naysaying anymore!” He laughs.
“…time, Dr. Freeman?”
But there are some fair concerns to raise about Alyx‘s ending. On paper, at least, it commits a few of what the internet generally agrees are the very deadliest of storytelling sins. It’s a big retcon of an important moment in the series, undoing its most meaningful character death in the process, and it opens the door to a lot of potential timey-wimey nonsense.
Were the writers concerned about introducing time travel to the Half-Life universe? “When we first started doing this, we went back and reviewed all the games,” Wolpaw says. “And I didn’t remember it, but they do this in Episode One!” Pinkerton nods in agreement: “Episode One starts by retconning the end of Half-Life 2. Essentially it just rewinds time 30 seconds so that a different outcome happens.”
That game ended with a huge explosion, freezeframing at the moment before the fireball consumed Alyx, as G-Man once again pulled Gordon loose from time and space. But in Episode One, Vortigaunts — humanity’s alien allies — appear in that frozen moment to rescue Alyx, in the process freeing Gordon from the G-Man’s control. “It’s a thing people forget,” Pinkerton says. “I think even at Valve, a lot of people were not aware of that.”
Rewriting the future
There’s a big difference, though, between rewinding thirty seconds and jumping forward five years to rewrite the future. The reason G-Man wants to hire Alyx is that he’s lost control of Gordon as an asset — but, at the point in time where this game ends, that won’t happen for years. And then there’s the question of what happens to Alyx herself — does she suddenly blink out of reality at the end of Episode Two, or during Alyx’s ending? Does she still live through the events of Half-Life 2 and its episodic follow-ups as we experienced them? Does the version of Alyx we meet in those games know that this is all going to happen?
Writers aren’t sharing their answers, but they promise there is one already worked out. “We’ve made the decision among the three of us not to talk about it at this point, just because it’s more fun to hear people’s theories,” says Wolpaw. “But we do have a timeline, a series of events in our heads that make it all make sense.”
“It is something we spent hours and hours discussing,” Pinkerton agrees. “Online, I’ve seen all these discussions about Avengers: Endgame, Donnie Darko, Primer, and there are these incredibly complicated… time maps, essentially.” He hints that the writing of Alyx was no exception. “There were a lot of whiteboards, there were a lot of markers.”
If you’re thinking right now that you’d kill for a peek at those time-map whiteboards, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of why — for all the potential pitfalls — Alyx’s ending works so well. It opens up a tonne of fresh possibilities and mysteries to get your brain bubbling. Of course, for this to be satisfying rather than frustrating, it’d require another game to follow up on those possibilities. Which is where the very last bit of Alyx’s ending comes in.
In case a million Marvel movies haven’t trained you by now: make sure to stick around at the end. There’s one final scene waiting after the credits, and it picks up at a point further along the Half-Life timeline than we’ve ever seen before. (Or, at least, the newly-tweaked version of that timeline.) It’s the moment after the end of Episode Two — except Eli is alive, and Alyx is missing. Which, oh yeah, means you’re back inside Gordon Freeman’s head. Eli hands over the crowbar and it’s clearly time to get back to the business of kicking Combine arse.
In the 13 years between these two games, “Half-Life 3 confirmed!” has become a meme. But honestly, at this point, it’s hard not to feel like Valve might as well have just thrown those words up on screen.
“It’s pretty clearly a promise of more to come,” Wolpaw says. “I’m only a contractor, I’m not in the decision-making process — but I want to do more. I’m gonna do my darnedest to try and lobby people.”
“It’s exciting to us, in a way that it wasn’t when we first came on,” adds Pinkerton. “The fact that we have a new story to tell, all these new potential storylines, that’s what makes it so exciting now.”
So what’s next for Half-Life?
You have to ask, after everything that went into penning Alyx’s ending: does that mean that Valve know what story they’d tell in a sequel? “I don’t know about that — but we think we have… it’s like, it feels spacious,” says Sean Vanaman. “There’s a bunch of logs for the fire.”
Okay, so maybe not ‘Half-Life 3 confirmed’, exactly, but the wheels are turning at Valve in a way they haven’t for years. But the studio fiddled with multiple Half-Life projects before Alyx, so it remains to be seen whether that ends up going anywhere. And given what happened last time, were there any concerns about making that promise to players again?
“We were aware that this makes a promise, but we thought it was worth it because we were so excited thinking about the next thing,” says Wolpaw. The best explanation of how they overcame those worries comes from Vanaman. “The little beat at the end… we’d pitch it to ourselves and to other people. And you’d be like, ‘credits end, you hear the HEV suit, systems critical, seek medical attention…’” (Vanaman does a very good impression of the HEV voice, for the record.)
“We’re pitching that to each other in the lunchroom — ‘it fades up and Eli is there, “Gordon! She’s gone, Gordon!”’ — you’re pitching that, and you’re experiencing it in your brain as if you’re playing it. And it’s too f**king dope to not put in the game. We had to just put it in the game and live with the consequences.”