Half-Life 2: Episode One looks like a fifteen-year-old footnote to one of the most important games ever made. Valve crafted in Half-Life 2 an approach to storytelling that’s both hands-off and cinematic, and that has since influenced games spanning across multiple genres. This episode is a small-seeming four hour follow up to that title, but the developer’s meticulous work and frequent innovation means even a bite-sized chunk of game will garner attention. Unsurprisingly, Episode One sold over a million copies and received critical adoration. History, however, shows it as the beginning of the end for its series, and an unwelcome influence on an industry that now frequently delivers half-baked experiences.
It’s inevitably solid from a gameplay perspective and even provides a good experience. The level design is exceptional and there are some moments that might have been unforgettable in the main game. This particular collection of levels, though, has the feel of a map pack in its recycling of areas and assets from the increasingly familiar City 17. It’s a marked shift away from the surprise and country-traversing adventure of its predecessor, being a stopgap that does little to differentiate itself from what came before.
The narrative is an area where some of its most significant failings can be found. Its task of escaping City 17 hardly advances the more significant overarching plot of the fight against the interdimensional threat of the combine. Indeed, there are multiple small plot points that look likely to develop into the main thrust of the story – but they are so undernourished that they only remind us that this is just a small part of a wider adventure. There’s none of the sense of satisfaction that comes with the more complete predecessors and their epic stakes.
Subsequent Half-Life releases have followed in Episode One’s footsteps by putting everything outside of gameplay on the back-burner. Half-Life 2: Episode Two leaves tantalising hints but, once again, feels like an extension of an existing story. Half-Life: Alyx is a prequel set in City 17, also having some drama at its tail end but largely being about the technical wonder of its immersive VR. The adoration that Half-Life 2: Episode One received must have been a clear signal that people are interested in solid gameplay no matter how firmly familiar its game’s worlds are, meaning that something of what we normally expect from their releases was lost.
And the pressure to craft an epic, satisfying tale across multiple releases was clearly too much for a company that usually works on B-movie yarns. That the story was a series of breadcrumbs leading us to an unknown destination reflects how the story is largely just a prompt to move us through the game world, but an episodic structure necessitates multiple little threads that lead to moments more meaningful than a singular, one and done expedition. Valve creates atmospheric worlds with characters that we appreciate, but despite their skills, it was clearly outside their experience to create something that satisfies not just viscerally but also in the richness of its themes.
That Episode One was Valve’s first foray into an industry-undermining lack of impact is ironic considering how the first expansion for Half-Life, Opposing Force, set a massively high standard for add-on content. It brought back a familiar environment and some recognisable enemies, but it had superb level design, a host of new threats — and it had a length to make it seem equally valuable as its source. It wasn’t designed by Valve themselves but represented the peak of an era where gamers got real bang for their buck, and that’s before the original’s mountains of excellent fan-created content. Its later cousin, however, ushered in an era totally antithetical to the rewarding generosity of the late ’90s.
There are numerous examples of games that do a disservice to their fanbases by adopting Episode One‘s brevity and conservatism. Final Fantasy XV is a major release that leaned with a very unpleasant level of corporate eagerness into splitting its story across DLC: plot points were shoved into the main game to encourage interest in the short but often frustratingly important paid extras. Resident Evil‘s recent remake of its third instalment similarly brought players on board under false pretences, lacking significantly in the traditionally expected replayability, scope, and memorable gameplay. Half-Life 2‘s immediate follow up undoubtedly will have encouraged this creative stagnation by showing that people will continue to buy, and even venerate, franchise products no matter how uninspired they are.
Valve can’t be blamed for an industry that doesn’t always have enough of a creative spirit. Game designers have continued to be influenced by Half-Life 2‘s immersive cutscenes and playful physics, Resident Evil Village being a recent example of a game that definitely owes Gordon Freeman’s adventure a debt. However, if it’s the episodic approach that Episode One began that was the ultimate push for Valve away to leave its reputation-cementing series, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we might have seen Half-Life 3 without it. The company’s decision to release games more regularly for its fans might have stopped something brilliant gestating, and missed an opportunity to inspire an industry keen to learn from the very best.
Half-Life 2: Episode One is not worth remembering because of incredible gameplay or a rich story, but because time has shown that its impact runs deeper than we could’ve known: those days were the pre-DLC times where eagerly still awaited an episodic trilogy. It was impossible to predict that one of the franchise’s most dissatisfying instalments would still provide a template for the rest of the industry to follow. But perhaps the unwelcome influence of a disappointing title on a capitalist industry can be countered, no matter the odds. We owe it to other games and ourselves to exercise a bit more scrutiny than some of the Half-Life games received because of the mere brand, and that support for original, expectation-thwarting releases might break an increasingly crushing conformity that Episode One helped exacerbate.