Henry Jenkins’ transmedia framework has a clear criteria for transmedia works. His framework states that each entry must be “self contained” and a “point of entry into the franchise as a whole.” The most important rule that Jenkins describes is that the narrative “unfolds across multiple media platforms” and each entry must have “a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” to avoid redundancy; which “burns up fan interest and causes franchises to fail” (Jenkins 2006, p. 95-96). Utilising this framework, I will look at Valve’s Half-Life Universe, and analyse how it fits into this framework, along with fan-made entries, before reflecting on my own engagement with it.
Firstly, Valve’s Half-Life Universe mostly fits the first criteria; that each entry be self-contained and an entry-point to the series. The Universe can be split into two sub-series; Half-Life and Portal, and it’s worth noting that, although they are both game franchises, they differ in genre.
Most of the Half-Life games are stand-alone Horror/First-Person-Shooters, consisting of Half-Life (1998), Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999), Half-Life: Blue Shift (2001), Half-Life: Decay (2001) and Half-Life 2 (2004). However, two of the entries are not stand-alone, directly continuing and requiring knowledge of Half Life 2. The entries in question are Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006) and Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007). However, Episode 1 and Episode 2 do contain distinctive contributions to the narrative that is not present in any other entry.
The Portal series consists of the puzzle games Portal (2007), Portal 2 (2011) and the comic Portal 2: Lab Rat (Valve, 2011). Unlike the Half-Life games, only Portal has any sense of Horror, and very lightly so. Each entry has new information that expands the narrative, and none of them require any fore-knowledge. Both Portal 2 and Lab Rat explain the events of Portal, and although the events of Lab Rat occur before Portal 2, Portal 2 never requires the player to be aware of Lab Rat. All entries convey information not provided in any other entry.
Each sub-series acknowledges its counterpart, thus unifying them into the same universe. Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007) explicitly acknowledges Aperture Laboratories, the setting of the Portal series. Both Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011) have references to Black Mesa, the research facility Half-Life (1998) takes place in. Lab Rat (Valve, 2011, p. 14) depicts items and panels seen in multiple Half-Life games.
Each story dives deep, being high in drillability, into the events of the story and expands the lore in multiple ways. The majority of these entries also heavily rely on seriality: despite most of the games being connected by an overarching story, each game does have it’s own independent story. Although plenty of them end with smaller story threads left hanging ambiguously. The problem for the series as a transmedia narrative is that it is exclusively told via video-games, except for Lab-Rat (2011, Valve). If that were all the series had to offer, then the Half-Life Universe’s claim to being a transmedia narrative would be very weak.
However, that is arguably not all of the Universe’s content. There is plenty of fan-made content that are not exclusively games, of which Valve has largely been supportive of. This fan-made content is worth talking about, as Jenkins acknowledges that fans can have “a strong incentive” to theorise about unanswered questions and plot holes, “until they take on a life of their own”. He states that such Fanfiction can be seen as “an unauthorised expansion” of the franchise in question. (Jenkins, 2007).
The strongest incentive for fans of the Half-Life Universe were the questions prompted by the unfinished state of the narrative, following the release of Half Life 2: Episode Two (2007). For context: Episode Two ended on a cliff-hanger, which was supposed to be resolved with a planned Episode Three, which was never released (Birch 2019). As the fans grew restless, wanting answers and the conclusion to the narrative, fan content began to fill the void. The fan-content was also more varied. Some games were smaller side-stories, intended to explore more details about the Half-Life Universe, such as Entropy: Zero (2017), Lambda Wars (2014), or Portal Stories: Mel (2015), each of which were different genres of games. Others focused on the overarching narrative, such as Portal: Prelude (2008), Prospekt (2016), and most notably Project Borealis, which is currently in active development and intends to deliver a resolution to the narrative (Project Borealis, 2017).
The fans also expanded the series further into other mediums. There are short films like Portal: No Escape (2011), Half-Life: Rise Of The Resistance (2018) and Meet The Cores (2012). There’s the comedy shows Civil Protection (2007) and Freeman’s Mind (2013), both of which explore aspects of the Half-Life Universe. What is most intriguing however, is Valve’s friendliness to fan contribution. For example, Project Borealis is being developed with a story outline that was leaked by Half-Life 2’s writer, Mark Laidlaw, and is going to be a standalone game rather than a mod (Project Borealis, 2017). Despite this, Valve has not pursued legal action against it’s developers. Nor has Valve pursued the creators behind Half-Life: A Place In The West (Pelletier & Gardner, 2016); a comic whose chapters are about $3AUD each and is hosted on Valve’s own storefront, Steam. Even the game Hunt Down The Freeman (2018) is still available on Steam, at $14.50AUD, despite its poor reception (Livingston 2018). This willingness from Valve to help fans sell their content, using the Half-Life intellectual property, is an admirable approach to fan engagement. Especially when copyright law would be in Valve’s favour if it went to court.
My introduction to the Half-Life Universe was un-orthodox. I was born a couple years after Half-Life was released. I was three years old when Half-Life 2 (2004) came out, and I can’t remember if I played Portal 2 (2011) first, or if I read Lab Rat (2011) first. Upon reflection, it feels really strange to think that I may have started with an optional comic, rather than the game it was promoting. I would have been 10 years old at the time and either way, I still didn’t play any of the Half-Life games until I was 16. I was looking for cheap games; and Half-Life (1998), Opposing Force (1999), and Blue Shift (2001) were in a bundle for about $10AUD. I bought them. Since then, I have played every game in the franchise, and have tried some of the fan-made content. Some are not great, but some of the content is better than the original games. In fact, that fan-content seems to have caused Valve to begin developing the series again. In 2020, Valve released Half-Life: Alyx, the first VR experience set in the Half-Life Universe. Hopefully, Valve continues to make Half-Life content, and make it more of a transmedia narrative as the fans have in their absence.
Accursed Farms 2007, Civil Protection: Friday, 14 March, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoaIZKTBXIM>
Accursed Farms 2013, Freeman’s Mind: Episode 1, 3 August, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SQhfkpX9bc>
Birch, A 2019, ‘Why Half-Life 2: Episode 3 Never Happened’, Den Of Geek, 14 November, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.denofgeek.com/games/why-half-life-2-episode-3-never-happened/>
Entropy: Zero 2017 [Downloaded Software], Breadman
Half-Life: Opposing Force 1999 [Downloaded Software], Gearbox Software
Half-Life: Blue Shift 2001 [Downloaded Software], Gearbox Software
Half-Life: Decay 2001 [PS2 DVD], Gearbox Software
Harry101UK 2012, Meet The Cores 1, 1 August, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlFXCC4Hfa0>
Jenkins, H 2006, Convergence Culture : Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, New York
Jenkins, H 2007, Transmedia Storytelling 101, Confessions Of An ACA-Fan, Viewed 1st April 2021, <http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html>
Livingston, C 2018 ‘Why people are furious about that Hunt Down The Freeman game on Steam’, PC Gamer, 28 February, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.pcgamer.com/au/why-people-are-furious-about-that-hunt-down-the-freeman-game-on-steam/>
Pelletier M & Gardner RJ 2016, Half-Life: A Place In The West, Valve, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://store.steampowered.com/app/466270/HalfLife_A_Place_in_the_West/>
Portal: Prelude 2008 [Downloaded Software], Portal: Prelude Team
2017, FAQ, Project Borealis, Viewed 2nd April 2021, <https://projectborealis.com/faq>
Portal Stories: Mel 2015 [Downloaded Software], Prism Studios
Hunt Down The Freeman 2018 [Downloaded Software], Royal Rudius Entertainment
Prospekt 2016 [Downloaded Software], SCT
Trachtenberg D 2011, Portal: No Escape (Live Action Short Film by Dan Tratchenberg), 14 August, Viewed 1st April 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4drucg1A6Xk>
TheThreeLancers 2018, Half-Life: Rise of the Resistance (Short Fan Film), 7 July, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g6ubpVdg9c>
Half-Life 1998 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Half-Life 2 2004 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Half-Life 2: Episode One 2006 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Half-Life 2: Episode Two 2007 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Portal 2007 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Valve 2011, Portal 2: Lab Rat, Valve, Viewed 1st April 2021, <https://www.thinkwithportals.com/comic/>
Portal 2 2011 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Half-Life: Alyx 2020 [Downloaded Software], Valve
Lambda Wars 2014 [Downloaded Software], Vortal Storm
Image Source: Courtesy Of Valve