Game developers tell us how they would make Half-Life 3

Here's Kynan Pearson's full brainstorming session for Half-Life 3, edited slightly for formatting. Be sure to read Cliff Blesinski's and John Gibson's thoughts before swimming to the deep end with Pearson.

Kynan Pearson's full Half-Life 3 brainstorming session

Kynan Pearson


Kynan Pearson is the creative director at Bluepoint Games and has previously worked on Halo 4 and 5 at Epic Games and Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns at Retro Studios.

Half-Life 2 and Steam were revolutionary at the time and it would be really difficult to find the right path to capture the same kind of impact now. All that said I think there are some new frontiers to explore that are inspiring and would imprint on new players in unique and different ways.

Unfortunately expectations are through the roof so it would be difficult to please everyone and Half-Life 3 would be compared to every major release over the last 10 years. Games like Grand Theft Auto 5 HD(in first person), Skyrim and Fallout 4 have had multiple iterations to take on the open world format. The Call of Duty series continued and escalated the Half-Life 2 style in game story telling and set piece moment style mission structure.

For Half-Life 3 to be successful it needs to be a great game but competing directly with or trying to outdo those games one their own playing field would be extremely difficult and costly. Half-Life 3 needs to be risky, revolutionary and memorable. I don't think Valve "needs" to make Half-Life 3 but if we are just talking about ideas for what Half-Life 3 could be if it were to happen here's how I'd think about it.

Traditional game or VR experience: The first thing to consider is if this should be a showcase experience for VR. Seeing GLaDOS in the Vive Portal demo was a mind blowing experience and completely sold me on the possibilities of VR. There are things that don't currently work well in VR such as playing a first person game where you can both look around and move using analog sticks while also freely moving around and looking using body and head tracking. If Half-Life 3 were to be created to be a VR experience then the entire premise, structure and mechanics of the game would have to be created taking these limitations into account to avoid vomit inducing gameplay sequences. I personally feel that the difference you feel when you actually exist in a world can offset the limitations of not being able to create the game as a traditional FPS.

I personally think this is the new frontier where Half-Life 3 could be a mind blowing experience and could have a similar impact to Half-Life 2 at it's release. It would take far too long to explain HL3 as a VR experience though so I'll instead treat my ideas as if they were for a traditional on screen experience.

Setting Change: Half-Life 3 Shouldn't just be a continuation of Half-Life 2: episode 2's cliff hanger ending. Half-Life 2 was a very unique setting compared to Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 3 needs to give players the same feeling of surprise and possibility. I think it would be great to Start the game with a recreation of the last moments of HL2:E2 that continue and create a situation where a break can occur in the story where lots of time passes. This gives a great excuse for allowing the world to change so you get thrown into a completely different setting. Half-Life 2 felt new and inspired and for Half-Life 3 to have that kind of impact it can't be just a recreation of the world of 2.

A Complete Story: While Half-Life 2 had an incredible setting and was a great experience, there were no fully realized revelations or resolutions in the end. People have grown to expect more and this a huge area where HL3 should be able to deliver. JJ Abrams and Gabe Newell had a conversation about a collaboration and this could be a great opportunity to create a complete cinematic story experience using talented writers in film and games. This could very well be the last Half-Life game ever so there are some real opportunities to end the story with a permanent world changing event. You want this to be a story that is remembered forever so it has to be unexpected and significant.

Mechanics: Half-Life 2 introduced many awesome and novel mechanics. Half-Life 3 would need to have it's own unique set of mechanics in order to impress players in the same way. Here are a few thoughts on mechanics that could expand on or compete with the awesomeness of the gravity gun or the portal gun.

New Core Systems Ideas:

- Conversational Gestures - While Gordon is a silent protagonist it would be interesting to allow him to communicate with characters using silent gestures. Just being able to nod "yes or no" when characters are talking to you could do wonders to create interesting moments and have players feel more connected to the world. It would also unlock many clever and humorous responses and keep players more focused and interested in what NPC's say and do. This would allow the game to have more replay value and divergent experiences. This could be expanded to use hand gestures if you had use of the VR controllers.

- Fine Manipulation - Half-Life 2 allowed you the ability to move objects around using the gravity gun and this let you touch the world in extremely impactful ways using these rudimentary mechanics. Imagine being able to have more significant abilities to touch the world and interact with things. In the Vive Portal VR Demo you could use the VR controllers to grab and move things such as parts, objects, panels or drawers. Just imagine the possibilities of Half-Life 3 if you could interact with the world at a more granular level.

- Procedural Destruction - Allowing surfaces, trees and structures to be destroyed in a physics based manner expands the ideas of physics based gameplay introduced in Half-Life 2. The gravity gun could interact with objects but this could be expanded so you have more world altering options.

New Tools and Weapon Ideas:

- Gravity Manipulation Fields - Imagine being able to control the flow of gravity in a field that could be as small as a person or large as a room. Let's just say you have a weapon or tool that allows you to create these fields by shooting a surface and the size of the field is altered by charging it longer. When a field becomes active any objects or characters inside the field will be pulled towards the surface. This could be used to allow you to walk on walls or ceilings, fight enemies in unique ways or even utilize large heavy objects and vehicles in unexpected puzzles or situations. The limitation is that it has to hit a surface and the things it interacts with have to be close enough to get influenced. This alone could be a fundamentally different way to play the game.

- Time Manipulation Fields - Imagine being able to manipulate time through placing fields. For the purpose of this explanation imagine that you could slow time or increase it inside of a circular field you put in the world. Imagine if the flow of time would also impact velocity going into or coming out of the field. Run into a fast forward field and you would come out of it at a higher velocity. Fling an object through a slow down field and it would come out at decreased speed, enough so that it would just fall to the floor when it comes out. There are other games messing with these types of mechanics so this might not be the best idea to pursue because it might feel too familiar.

- Dimensional Shifting - The idea of traveling back and forth through different dimensions that occupy the same space could be interesting if each dimension allowed unique interactions. This was touched on in Quantum Conundrum in a light hearted variation but could easily take on a completely different set of mechanics and meaning. Without turning this into a dark world light world system you could have a Zen mirror of our world where different things exist when traveling between. Objects, weapons and vehicles could have different properties between the dimensions. This could even potentially be a reaction of activating a device found on the Borealis which causes the two different dimensions to be merged somehow.

- Surface Manipulation - Portal 2 included mechanics that allowed you to paint surfaces to enhance their properties. There would have to be limitations but there are unique possibilities to utilize if players could change the properties of a surface directly. (Examples: Slick Surfaces, Gravitational Shift Surfaces, Magnetic Surfaces, Conductive Surfaces, Reflective Surfaces, etc.)

- Alien Mental Network - Combine Advisors use psychic powers that affect our reality and perception. It would be interesting to get a tool that allows you to access abilities that allowed you to interact with or see the world differently. We'll call this the Alien Mental Network and maybe you could use an astral projection tool that allows you to leave your body and fly around the world in a different form. Perhaps you could see aliens that exist beyond our perception and maybe the world is frozen in time while you do this. You could disrupt combine soldiers and use things that advisors use that are not visible in the real world.

- Portal Gun - I know this is a common thought but since Portal and Half-Life are connected it could make for some interesting set piece moments if you only have it for a while. Maybe taking on the idea of different sized portals messing with scale when entering and exiting.

Set Piece Moments and Major Story Sequences:

These key events and moments should be tied into which ever new mechanics get introduced through new tools or systems. Without knowing which new mechanics would drive the game here are just a few ideas for interesting scenarios and story beats. Some of these would be controversial but it would be fun to see people's reactions if some of these were done.

- Old Yeller - It would be great if there is a chapter where Dog ends up helping to resolve a major conflict and does something amazing. In the process the situation escalates and it seems dog sacrifices himself to stop the wreckage and save Gordon in the process. You have a sad moment where you think you've lost Dog but through a miracle he survives. In the next chapter you realize Dog is never quite right and in a quiet moment he suddenly turns on you. You have to fight Dog and put him down. Players feel terrible and if Alyx is with you this creates some dramatic tension. Many chapters later on it is revealed that Dog gets repaired and upgraded with new safety measures. Now you can manually override Dog and he can now be remote controlled by the player creating a new mechanic to play with. In the end Dog is still alive and players are happy they get to use him more directly in gameplay.

- Combine Advisor Mental Breakdown - Ravenholm was definitely a memorable moment in HL2 so it would be nice to take on horror themes again but in a different way. It would be awesome to have a run in with an Advisor that ends abruptly as the Advisor leaves. Once you recover Gordon walks through an abandoned space where strange and unexpected things happen. At this point you have no weapons and no tools at your disposal and you build up anxiety in the player. Think of the impact PT had and now imagine doing something along those lines for players who are in a mental prison or purgatory without knowing it. (Ultimately it's just an Advisor infiltrating your mind. This is a mental nightmare so anything goes and you can shockingly kill main characters to get reactions out of the player.)

- Using the Gunship - Vehicle sections were highlights of HL2. Would be great to use a Combine Gunship to fly around a location and turn the tides. The twist would occur when human soldiers mistake your gunship for the enemy and begin firing rockets that start to spiral and seek your ship. You'll have to shoot the rockets out of the sky and avoid getting shot down while another character disarms the situation. Air based gameplay would be an interesting change for HL

- The Rift Opens - The idea would be that there is a major world changing moment in the game when a huge rift tear across the city you are in, revealing a massive combine city in another dimension on the other side. The rift is foggy so you aren't able to see through clearly but you can pass through at some point. The rift is a strange place with odd gravity and ethereal effects. Kind of a plain inbetween different realms where nothing is as it seems.

- Fortress - On the other side is Fortress. A natural extension of the idea of a city eating wall and the citadel from HL2 combined (no pun intended). Fortress is a massive installation (a walking, unstoppable combine city/base)

- GLaDOS 2.0 on the Borealis - HL2 hinted at the Borealis, which is tied to Aperture. What if when you arrived there was a rampant GLaDOS alternative personality core which could be a remote extension of the original. You have to deal with her and the secret technology on board which ties into one of the tools you get from above. After she is taken care of you keep her with you. In a later chapter you end up plugging her into one of the combine/human tech interfaces and she takes over portions of their technology. She causes massive amounts of damage ultimately helping and hurting your cause at the same time. (Maybe you could even plug her into Dog for an interesting event)

- Tea with the G-Man - Maybe a surprise moment where in the middle of doing something you end up opening a door leading into a pure white room with a tea table. When you turn around the doorway is gone and all you can do is pretty much walk up to the table and sit down in a chair. Turning the camera and coming back reveals the G-Man who is sipping a cup of Tea and smiling. He says something condescending and there is a flash and you're back in the place you were before. (It doesn't have to be this exact idea but just the idea of throwing you off unexpectedly) Moments like this open a bunch of questions and give you something to talk about with friends. Plus they imprint on you and you remember them long after you're done with the game.

- Cataclysm - There is a point where you lose. Humans are transitioned through the rift in massive numbers into the combine city (Maybe you are among them) You make it back to the city on Earth but it's too late. Everything is destroyed. It's alluded to that this happened in many other places on earth. The world of Half-Life is permanently changed for the worse.

- A Moment of Silence - another idea is to do something irreversible and memorable. Maybe there is a mission of no return where Gordon fights into the center of the fortress and mirrors his actions in the intro of HL1 (The Lab Accident). This causes a massive accident inside the Combine center of operation and destroys it resolving the biggest factor in the conflict and releasing humanity from oppression. Players are shocked that Gordon is dead.

- Character Transition - After Gordon dies you begin the next chapter as Alyx in a twist not unlike The Last of Us. She still has to deal with everything outside such as uniting humanity but Gordon's sacrifice gives them a fighting chance. Alyx can talk so this opens up some unique situations as well.

- Aftermath - It's always nice to have a sense of hope even if the events leading up to the end have been tragic. Humanity is free and the Combine are shattered and even though Earth was wrecked we can rise again with possibilities on two different worlds.

Modding Storefront:

Much like Team Fortress allows you to buy hats I think Valve should allow the community to inject content into the game, from new cosmetic items to entirely new missions through a supported storefront. This way if teams that make mods like Black Mesa can sell them directly within the Half-Life 3 framework. It should be an option directly in the front end with promoted content and sales.


I'm not saying all of these things should happen but they are good starting points for discussion. Games are the people who make them and everyone brings something to the table that changes the outcome. If you start with bold plans and replace them with better ideas as the game reveals what it wants to become then you should end up with a memorable ride. It's not possible to please everyone and in many ways Half-Life 3 has too much to live up to. I think this is a fun topic of discussion and I have so much more to say but I will say I hope we eventually see HL3 even though Valve has no need to actually make it at this point.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).