What Was Prospero, The Fantasy Game Valve Never Made?

The road not traveled is uninteresting to me when the road we are travelling is winding, densely populated and has no speed limit. (The road I’m talking about is videogames.) That didn’t stop me being intrigued to find out more about Prospero via the latest episode of Valve Time Database. Prospero was one of two game’s Valve were working on when the company was founded in 1996, and Valve Time Database is a series of short YouTube videos detailing elements of Valve’s universe of games.

Episode 3 contains previously unreleased screenshots of the never released game, along with quotes from Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw. I think the information is new, but either way it’s entertaining and embedded below.

When Valve was founded the company began work on two games, Prospero and Quiver. Quiver would eventually grow and change to become Half-Life, while Prospero seemed to disappear entirely. It was mentioned in Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar as a fantasy game inspired by Myst and Borges, but this is the first time that I’ve heard that it was third-person, or that it was set in a hub library through which you could access a database of player-created worlds.

It sounds in some ways, as the video touches on, like Steam Workshop: The Game. In fact, it seems like a lot of the ideas the game contained have been revived elsewhere, as recently as in Portal 2’s level creator and as significantly as the lambda symbol originating in this piece of Prospero, er, concept art.

There are Prospero screenshots over here, but it’s worth watching the above video for the quotes and details of what this thing could have been. The first episode of Valve Time Database, about headcrabs, is also good watching.


  1. lordcooper says:

    How did you resist the urge to title this post ‘Valve release episode 3’?

  2. LTK says:

    Interestingly, I learned about the concept of Aleph sets in Vi Hart’s recent video, so it’s nice to be able to put the terms into context.

    I know it should be possible to embed videos in comments but I haven’t figured out how. But now I know!

    • Big Murray says:

      You just post the link, and magic does the rest.

    • Metalfish says:

      If Bloodlines was about mathematics rather than vampires, this woman would greet you as you stepped into the nightclub.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I was thinking the exact same thing. Nice vid post! :D

  3. Ross Angus says:

    Valve’s that company who used to make singer-player games, right?

  4. Jeroen D Stout says:

    Just this week I played a bit of Half Life 2 again and I was struck by how well designed it is in places. It also has a moment where you control a giant crane lifting entire containers. It is interesting how the game feels old but in a good way; no game since really had me much interested in shooters, save for (the new forever ruined) Team Fortress 2.

    I think it is the calmness that comes with the 2000’s, in a way. The landscape is honest brush meshes, the physics objects just sort-of glide. There is no tacky ‘levelution’ or moments where the game tries to be a film. Instead it builds up a helicopter as your mortal enemy whom you slowly outgrow until you destroy it… the sort of environmental wordless storytelling Portal-the-first got right and Portal-the-second could barely be bothered with.

    It feels like a type of design which has gone out of fashion, which is a shame. I like shooters, once in a while, but miss the cuddly roughness of Half Life 2.

    • JFS says:

      I do so agree with you. HL2 was the only shooter that really gripped me, and that I finished. Goes to show how good it is.

      Wait. I did finish Modern Warfare, 1 and 2 I believe. But they practically played themselves and took like two afternoons each.

    • basilisk says:

      Very much so; HL2 is an absolute masterclass in progression, world building and implied narrative. I love what they did with the antlions throughout the highway chapters, for example, gradually turning them from annoying cannon fodder to deadly enemy to best friend and ally while exploring every facet of their AI along the way. So brilliantly designed and paced.

      A lot about the game is dated, but it seems to me that even though many games mined HL2 for inspiration, no one ever tried to copy these bits, even though they are by far the best thing about the game. The shooting itself is rarely more than “quite okay”.

      • Jeroen D Stout says:

        The game has some three arches in terms of conceptual progression investigated, I feel.

        First the helicopter is your nemesis on foot, then on water. Suddenly you wound it and it retreats, but comes back stronger when you no longer have a weapon. Then you gain a weapon and it has to retreat indefinitely. You find it at its ‘nest’ and although it desperately tries to wound you but you kill it.

        As you say, the antlions are a nuisance, then it is apparent they are nobody’s side, then you gain the means to control them. Meanwhile the rebel uprising is heavily shown in the increased amounts of rebel-involved shoot-outs.

        The uprising sees you gain increasing power of squads and terrain until you enter the citadel and suddenly nothing shoots at you; it is all quiet resolution. It uses the static level geometry to underline that even though you ‘gain control’ of the city, the citadel itself cannot be conquered because it cannot care. It is a perfect inversion of the build-up just before.

        Analysing it more, the only part without any real gameplay progression of this sort is Ravenholm, which is a sort-of stand-alone zombie shooter bit with no real ties to the rest of it. It almost seems like that bit was mandatory and needed no ties.

        • cpt_freakout says:

          This is what I often love about RPS: the comments can be as interesting as the articles themselves. Nicely done!

        • LukeNukem says:

          Very much enjoyed this analysis.
          Ravenholm is great – if it had gone on any longer it would have lost some of its terror etc, but I think looking at it as part of the whole, it is a brilliant change of pace and character. It may be slightly out of place, but instead of Valve trying to drag it out into a whole game or episode or something, they scratched the itch they had to make a horror shooter.

        • Turkey says:

          Ravenholm seems sort of opposite to the power progression of the rest of the game. You start off with a super powerful weapon and having some control over the situations you encounter, but as you progress the zombie population becomes more and more unmanageable until you’re finally forced to give up and flee.

          It’s kinda like the blueprint for Left 4 Dead when you think about it.

          • katinkabot says:

            Exactly. When I first played that “level” – I was exhausted by the end. That light at the end of the mine shaft was just wonderful. I was geniunely relieved – as if I was the one running out of that town. What fantastic game design. It’s sort of a joke now about HL3 and if it will ever come out, but every once in a while I’m reminded why I want it to exist.

  5. Jackablade says:

    I wouldn’t mind seeing them pick up that Peter Chung/Aeon Flux character art style for one project or other.

  6. CoryHalavan says:

    So steam is a game in and of its self… Knew it.