Chet Faliszek’s decision to leave Valve after 12 years is a tough one to take for the dwindling number of PC players still holding candles for the company’s glory era of single player games. The flames were dimmed when fellow Old Man Murray founder Eric Wolpaw departed in February, and this news just about snuffs them out.
Between 2004 and 2011, Valve released Half-Life 2 and its two attendant episodes, Portal and Portal 2. Both Left 4 Dead titles arrived during this period as well. They were obviously co-operative multiplayer titles rather than strict linear narratives, but were games which nonetheless had the smart writing and characters found in Valve’s other releases.
Few games of that size are a lone writing endeavour, but of the four main, regularly named, writers at Valve during this era only Jay Pinkerton (brought on to co-write Portal 2) remains. Marc Laidlaw, Wolpaw, and Faliszek have all now gone.
Portal 2 was released just over six years ago, and Valve’s shift in gaming focus since (Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2) has a common theme: massively popular (and competitive) multiplayer with slot machine style loot crates and hats. They’ve also shown a keen interest in pushing Virtual Reality, though, with Faliszek’s departure, have just lost their main VR ambassador. People holding out for any kind of resolution to the Portal or Half-Life tales look increasingly naive in the face of these changes. Particularly as the latter has gradually transformed from anticipated sequel to overdone industry punchline.
Faliszek, Wolpaw and Laidlaw each spent a long time at Valve, so it’s understandable that they would want to move on, either to other industry projects (Wolpaw is doing work for Psychonauts 2) or to new pursuits. Yet despite all appearances that would suggest Valve have permanently moved away from single player games, the company (including Gabe Newell himself) keep insisting this is not the case.
As recently as January this year, Newell was telling people in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that Valve was absolutely still working on “fully-fledged single player games”. He agreed that there was a “a lot of story left to be explored” in the Half-Life/Portal universe(s), and confirmed that the company was using Source 2 as the foundation for several unannounced projects.
It’s a stretch to get from those terse answers to “Portal 3 is totally still happening you guys,” but unless Newell is outright lying (something I don’t think he has any reason to do here) then Valve’s interest in single player games is just about alive and well. They may, of course, be VR-centric single player games; but if anybody can push VR games into the PC mainstream by sheer force of will then it’s likely to be the owners of Steam.
Whatever the case there, any single player Valve games released in the near to distant future will be very different in tone to those 2004-2011 releases. People who follow the games industry sometimes make the mistake of attributing the continuing fortunes of a series to a developer or company, rather than the people who were at that studio at the time. The reason Mass Effect: Andromeda has a completely different tone to the prior trilogy is mostly because the writing team at BioWare in 2017 are also completely different. Exactly the same thing happens when the main writers for a long-running book or television series are changed.
A hypothetical Portal 3 might retain some of that familiar feel if Pinkerton is still at Valve. But if he’s gone, any new writing team would have the unenviable choice between attempting some Faliszek/Wolpaw/Pinkerton fan-fiction (please, no), or applying their own approach and risking a huge tonal shift in an incomplete series. Not impossible to pull off, but thanks to a significant passage of time Valve are now in the situation where they’d have to reignite beloved, partially complete series’ with brand new writers.
The company are in a unique position within the industry where they don’t actually have to do anything (besides keep Steam running) they don’t wish to. Valve are a private company, so they’re neither answering to shareholders, nor feeling any pressure whatsoever to follow up on previously successful games. Taken at their word, though, they do want to keep making single player games.
It is just about conceivable that Valve will return to that well, with new teams of writers and new ideas. But without the once-in-a-generation talent of Laidlaw, Wolpaw and Faliszek, reaching the heights of that seven year stretch between 2004-2011 will prove extremely difficult.