It's been six years since Portal 2 was released. It feels like a lot longer.
Today brings word that Chet Faliszek is the latest Valve writer to depart the company, the second one this year. Faliszek worked closely with Eric Wolpaw, who left in February. The two were known for refining Valve's canny ability to mix humor and drama across Half-Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead. Faliszek and Wolpaw join Half-Life series writer Mark Laidlaw, who left in 2016.
It's normal for employees—writers or otherwise—to come and go; Valve's been around for nearly 20 years. But you can't blame people for being frustrated. Who is Valve in 2017?
Everyone who's left has said it wasn't due to anything more than wanting change.
"[It was] Nothing exciting or drama filled," said Faliszek to GamesIndustry.biz "I worked there 12 years, shipped a bunch of great games and some amazing hardware and wanted to change things up."
"I'm gonna move back to Cleveland and work at my niece's juice shop," he told Polygon. (Wolpaw will, at least, be helping write Double Fine's upcoming sequel to Psychonauts.)
"They [Valve] taught me everything," said Laidlaw. "I had a good run but lately I have been feeling a need for a break from the collaborative chaos of game production, and return to more self-directed writing projects."
Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's everything? The thing with Valve is that you never know. It's not like the studio doesn't have other writers.
Much of the fan-driven frustration and confusion associated with the departure of Laidlaw, Faliszek, and Wolpaw has little to do with the lack of Half-Life 3, Portal 3, Left 4 Dead 3, or any sequel to a beloved series they've worked on. Nobody knew they were going to fall in love with any of those games—they were new. Valve became known as a studio who could meld story and gameplay in striking, unpredictable ways. When we talk about developers trying to figure out how to tell stories in games, Valve was at the forefront. Then, it quietly disappeared.
In the meantime, Valve has publicly shifted into a different company, which is argument that people should rethink how they look at Valve. It's better known for Steam, an online marketplace that might have single-handedly saved the PC by creating unity on a platform that long thrived without it, and competitive sports games like Counter-Strike and DOTA 2. Valve used to be known as storytellers, and in a sense, they still are. The stories are playing out elsewhere, in esports.
And look, there are obviously millions of people who play and enjoy the games-as-service and competitive world that Valve has built around Counter-Strike and DOTA 2. It's certainly made them a lot of money, and though I don't begrudge them for that, I'm not one of those people. I'm selfish! You've got a seemingly infinite revenue stream to do weird games shit, yet it's been six years since Portal 2.
The Steam Controller is cool. Steam Machines were an interesting failure? Steam Link is one of my favorite pieces of hardware, effortlessly pumping PC games to my projector in another room. The Vive is a clumsy but effective way to experience high-end VR in my own home. But again, I'm selfish. I'd happily wave all of those away if it meant Valve became focused on telling stories again. It's irrational, yes, but damn—Valve was my favorite developer for years.
Valve's influence on other games has, no doubt, been profound. But the Valve name means something. When Valve releases a new game, it's a big fucking deal. When we got a small taste of something new with The Lab, a collection of wonderful mini-games for the Vive, it felt like we were possibly turning a corner.
For a long time, Valve has been joyfully coy about what they were working on, but you went along with the winks and nods because, at the end of the day, you knew something special was coming. These days, trying to read the tea leaves of an interview with Gabe Newell is more frustrating than exciting. When he says Valve is working on three games for virtual reality—not tech demos, but full-fledged games along the lines of what we've come to expect from Valve—it should be a cause for excitement and speculation. Instead, it's easier to feel cynical.
I'll believe it when I see it, you know?
And that's the funny thing about this whole situation. If I woke up tomorrow morning and Valve announced a brand-new game—I don't care if it's VR or related to Half-Life—it would at least signal how to feel about the company. If the future of Valve is refining an online marketplace and figuring out competitive multiplayer games, fine. Just let the rest of us know, so we stop dreaming about "what if?"