Mathoms from the Lambda Files (c. 1998)
PREFACE: For the past few months, as part of my post-retirement purge, I’ve been organizing papers, rummaging in drawers, going through the basement, getting rid of moldy paperbacks, looking for the occasional piece of debris worth saving. At the end of the process I ended up with a stack of 3.5” floppies, so I bought an external floppy drive to see if there was anything on them worth saving. Mostly they held back-ups of old manuscripts and story fragments from before I joined Valve, but on one disk I found several documents from the summer of 1998, late in Half-Life 1’s development, when I’d been working on the game for a year.
The first one is called “Finale” and appears to be an attempt describe the whole final sequence, which makes it pretty clear that we didn’t have an ending built yet. Another interesting thing is that it ends with a third-person cut-scene view of Gordon Freeman. As I’ve stated before, we only committed completely to first person when we realized we didn’t have time and resources to do a good job with third person views. Resource constraints forced our hand and gave the game its strict first-person integrity. It was all very seat-of-the-pants.
Note the confused naming convention as well. I think Nihilanth and Overmind both refer to the same thing. We didn’t have a settled name or even a monster. Nothing had been modeled yet, as I recall.
I present these as curiosities. These are not necessarily things that might have been, these were just sketches I wrote and threw out there to see if any of the ideas might stick. Level designers didn’t necessarily read them, they kind of just kept building what they thought would be fun and, more importantly, possible. Building with words, everything costs nothing, so you can make anything.
FILE 1: “FINALE”
[created 6/4/98, last edited 7/21/1998]
You step out from between dark towers into the glowing core of the Nihilanth’s power. At first all you notice is the Nihilanth itself, a supreme and supremely tortured intelligence, suspended in space above a bottomless abyss. It begins to drop toward you, as if you were worth noticing; and you shrink back in fear, for you are weak and nearly defenseless after your ordeal in the Gonarch’s den. As it descends, an alien pulse or heartbeat begins to toll—slowly and softly at first, but gathering intensity. But then you see that it is coming not for you, but for something which is emerging from the open portal down below.
Two Xen Masters, their bulbous heads gaping in the presence of their living god, rise up with a struggling morsel trapped between them. It is a suited figure like yourself—a scientist, probably, one of the survivors of the survey team. At any rate, a human being. They drift up from the portal and take advantage of the lowered gravity at the core to sling their prize straight up into the maw of the Nihilanth, while sinking back themselves into the portal. A moment later, the awesome sight repeats itself. They are feeding the thing a steady diet of people.
You want only to get away…to remove yourself from any possibility of its noticing you. You discover an opening near at hand, a place perhaps where you can hide. But even as you enter, you can hear the electric crackling of the Vortigaunts. This place cannot possibly be safe—and yet…there is nowhere else to go.
Within, the Vortigaunts are busy. Too busy, in fact, to take notice of your presence. The air is charged with their power, and yet the trails of energy are aimed not at you but at the powerful machines that crowd your path. The creatures work in unison, tapping power from immense reservoirs and feeding it into huge cathodes, segregated into a few separate tasks in the first few rooms you explore. You move among them, avoiding the lighting blasts, but otherwise unhindered. But eventually you find a human prize, another scientist in an HEV suit, imprisoned in some sort of device which is drawing out his soul. You take his weapon and he begs you to kill him—and in fact, there is no other way to progress.
Once provoked, the Overmind lets out an alarm and raises its arms. Lightning flickers from its fingertips, sweeping the ground around you. A tide of snarks comes seething from every surface—spawning from teleports, appearing between crannies in the stone. They threaten to engulf you. You can fight them with the hivehand, and by leaping across gaps in the rock and using the effects of lowered gravity to dodge them, causing them to fall into the void. The Overmind fires jolts of psionic lightning at you, which has the advantage of crisping many snarks.
When you have mostly beaten the snarks and inflicted sufficient damage on the Overmind, it will begin to retreat, rising through the iris into the darkness above. As part of its retreat, it blows out the floor, and chunks of rock begin to rise in the Overmind’s wake. [DESTRUCTION OF ENVIRONMENT; RELATIVE MOTION/PARALLAX EFFECTS; MOVING TRAINS] You must keep your footing on the fragments, for they will carry you to the dark transition above. You are carried through a transition into a .bsp stacked directly above the first.
Zone 2: Controllers, Conveyors and Homing Missiles
Floating up into the second level, you find the Overmind awaiting you. (The region below is now completely dark, except for the orange beam extending upward.) It is accompanied by Controllers, who immediately come after you. [SQUAD/FLOCKING AI] The orange beam still streams up from the level below, and the violet beam extends from its crown straight up through another iris in the ceiling of this area. The surrounding rocks are less frequent here—it is much easier to plunge into the sky. Navigation in this area is accomplished via some sort of organic conveyor belt equivalent…a surrounding webwork of living goo-strands whose cilia scull you along the “walls” and across the space while the Overmind attempts to eradicate you. [CONVEYOR BELTS]
The pulsing heartbeat is even louder here, and it is now mixed (very occasionally) with a chilling alien whisper which sounds all too much like “Gordon Freeman” being uttered by an orifice unaccustomed to human speech. Possibly a telepathic threat—at any rate, evidence of recognition. The Overmind knows you. You’ve managed to become something important to it. [AUDIO EFFECTS]
The Overmind now starts drawing on its secondary attack–a “homing salvo” attack. It periodically (and frequently) fires off a cloud of silver spheres (directly related to the Controllers’ spheres) which scatter about in random directions then converge on your last location, exploding with tremendous force. You must stay on the move constantly to avoid being caught by the spheres. [AMAZING MONSTER BEHAVIOR]
You can do only limited damage to the Overmind from your awkward position. Every time you try to get the advantage of height, it rises toward the ceiling, giving the impression that its crown is fairly vulnerable. Whenever you kill the existing Controllers, the Overmind will send jolts of lightning out to portals located in the level, and summon in reinforcements; it will do this until, injuring the Overmind directly, you cause it to flee. When you have injured it sufficiently, and taken care of the Controllers (hopefully by luring them into the path of the Overmind’s homing spheres), the Overmind will retreat once more through the open ceiling. The area darkens. You follow through a transition into the third and final of the stacked levels.
Zone 3: The Portal
In the third level, you see that the violet beam connected to the Overmind’s crown is connected to a large portal mounted in a floating web directly overhead. The portal is open at the bottom (where you cannot reach) and guarded by some kind of mesh or protective cage on the upper portion, so you cannot jump in. Showers of lightning, energy beams, sizzle down from the portal, giving juice to the Overmind. [BEAM EFFECTS] Up here it is almost alone. The two of you hang in a darkened sky. There are enough chunks of circling and bobbing rock to allow you to make your way directly overhead and into the webwork, where you at last escape the lightning attacks and find good footing. But the gravity is lowest here, and you must be careful not to leap incautiously, or you will find yourself falling straight toward the Overmind and its sparking crown of lethal energy.
At the third level, the Overmind could introduce yet a third attack in combination with its lightning and salvo attacks. This is still unspecified. [MORE MONSTER BEHAVIOR]
Now that you are directly above the Overmind, you are finally at an advantage. It cannot fire lightning up at you because the portal is in the way. It is fairly easy to dodge the homing missiles up here. The pulse is at a high pitch, but the wailing telepathic echo of your name is almost pitiful. [AUDIO]
You can fire directly down into the core of the Overmind’s brain. You find the body of a fellow scientist trapped in the webwork, with tripmines and grenades, and by lobbing several of these into the Overmind’s sensitive region, you eventually wear the beast down to nothing—it implodes violently, splattering the rocks and portal-web with alien gore. [DECAL EFFECTS] Lightning and sparks are spawned to fill the area at the instant of death, and when they subside we see the orange portal beam from below growing stronger and stronger. In the absence of the Overmind, the orange beam has arced straight into the heart of the portal, and the portal is starting to go critical. [BEAM EFFECTS]
The cage surrounding the portal shatters [DESTRUCTION OF WORLD OBJECTS], opening the way for you to jump in. A high-pitched electronic shriek signals that the portal is overloaded and about to undergo a cosmic meltdown. The Overmind’s pulse has been replaced by a scream of pure energy rising to a killing pitch. An explosive power starts climbing the orange beam, shooting up the shaft from the levels below. You see a blazing pulse of death surging toward you from the hollow pit. Before it reaches the portal, you must leap in. If you remain behind, the explosion kills you. [EXPLOSION EFFECTS]
Then we switch to a third person camera, showing Gordon framed within a circular portal: a tiny speck or silhouette tumbling against a background of immense explosions. Everything goes white. When it fades, we are back on Earth…. [SCRIPTED SEQUENCE/NARRATIVE]
Apart from its attacks (lighting and homing salvo), the Overmind’s behavior is fairly simple. It needs to rotate to follow your location, and it needs to rise and fall within a restricted cylindrical space.
It would be great if the Overmind were not immediately visible, but partially shrouded in darkness, revealed by the flashes of its lightning attack. At the very least, when you commence battling it in the lowest level, it might show you only its lowest portions, and you won’t get sight of the entire creature until you climb above it in the uppermost level—where the play of portal lightning reveals the entire anatomy of the thing.
Health should be resupplied to the player in the form of floating localized pools of healing light…energy effects that are common and random in Xen, and which you will have learned to use by now. In the upper areas, they will be located in mid-air, so that in order to heal yourself you will have to make some precarious jumps through the middle of a healing light. Weapons and ammunition should be refueled with the bodies of your peers, which can be located in crevices.
The next file is called “Nihilanth” and dates from 7/21/98, making it a later and slightly more coherent development of ideas in the first file.
This one seems more like an attempt to sum up the ending thematically, and also it was an attempt at whipping up some marketing. Not sure who the audience was for this piece. Was it intended only for internal consumption? Were we trying to explain the story to others? I see in this (at this remove) the first hint that we were starting to look beyond HL1 at what the next threat might be. It was nothing as coherent as the Combine, and in fact for a while we threw all kinds of aliens at the problem before settling on a unified force.
FILE 2: “NIHILANTH”
[File first created and last edited on 7/21/1998]
The Nihilanth floated enchained, enmeshed in agonies. The light of colors without name bound it implacably. “You are nothing,” said the voice that echoed in its mind. “And yet you hear me, you feel everything, and in your pain you cast off the very stuff that holds the universe together.”
Horrible as the Nihilanth may have seemed, there was another thing more awful still which tormented it.
The Vortigaunts were not enslaved, except in the broadest sense. They did their duty out of devotion, and whatever befell the Nihilanth they accepted gratefully. It had been so always, in their collective memory; but the Nihilanth could still dimly recall a time when it had not been so, a distant age when it had not yet gathered so many entities around itself and made them necessary to its existence, forming a complex colonial organism which was sentient and malevolent in all of its parts.
There are numerous stories of humanity on the edge of reaching the stars—a small-minded and predatory race, more dangerous to others than even to itself, on the verge of extending their reach throughout infinity. Usually the technology that they are about to discover is that which makes space flight possible, faster than light travel. In Half-Life, the technology is teleportation.
Teleportation has been mastered by a chain of superintelligent (compared to us) aliens. Mainly, they use it to exploit and enslave the races they encounter; their exploitation may be open or it may be extremely covert, involving political manipulation of the worlds they control. It all depends on what they want out of the species they intend to dominate.
The civilizations which are potentially the most dangerous—and also the most useful—to them are those which have independently arrived at the creation of a teleport technology which could surpass their own…for as in all things, even advanced alien superscience is bound to become obsolete, and the drive for a more powerful technology is unending.
Earth is at exactly this point. We made a few strong experimental forays into the science of teleportation, began to discover the practical underpinnings of the art, and then succeeded against our wildest dreams—stumbling into a weird dimension whose properties defied our understanding of natural law. Nor were we alone in this realm, which we named Xen—for that which is forever alien and inexplicable.
Xen proved to be a meeting place, a point where universes collided and hung in endless freefall, the elements of countless worlds intermingled. No sooner had we begun to explore Xen—with particular attention to its wealth of natural resources with unknown properties—than we found ourselves the object of unwanted inspection. Members of the survey team were collected in a cold and systematic manner, much as we gathered living specimens of alien wildlife. Realizing our precarious situation, we shut the portal completely, stranding the last members of the survey team and forcing them to survive alone in Xen.
But shutting our gate was not enough, for now the predators of Xen had traced our signal—found our location. And come looking for us.
The only hope seemed to be to find their portal and close that down from Xen itself; but we had lost contact with the survey team, and there was no one willing to cross over until Gordon Freeman reached the lambda portal. Eventually he reached the portal and killed the Nihilanth, which held the portal in existence by a concentrated effort of thought. But there was a deeper mystery awaiting him on his return to earth.
We had been pointed to Xen, all our efforts aimed there. Rather than a random fumbling through the white noise of possible cosmos which the teleport might have reached, we had settled almost immediately on Xen. The cause of this was a certain element, found in Xen, which had been made part of the portal’s tuning mechanism. It was introduced into the portal research with the pedigree of a man-made compound, something created in a separate secret research facility, but actually it was imported to Earth by a devious route, involving several of the aforementioned superintelligent alien races. By steering us to Xen, they immediately forced a confrontation with a troublesome race which would either annihilate us or force us to show our mettle. If the former were the case, then they were rid of a pest. If the latter, then they would further shroud their presence in secrecy and work their manipulations deeper into the fabric of our society, in hopes of harnessing us from within.
The G-Man is [REDACTED].
Teleportation is only the first of many new empowerments for humanity. Greater surprises await us as we begin to plumb the depths of the universe, finding in Xen the gateways to all the other worlds. For Xen is the waystation, essential to all travel that takes us out of this universe and into the next. Whoever controls Xen, controls all the worlds. And the battle for Xen is just beginning…It will rage on Earth, it will rage on Xen, it will consume entire realities before it ends.
Beware! Yours may be one of them.
Afterward: I’m not entirely sure that the second document has never been seen before. Maybe parts of it showed up in Raising the Bar. Maybe? The second part seems like something intended for promotional purposes. I’m sure people will let me know if it’s old news.