Half-Life: Alyx delivers the watershed moment VR gaming needs

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If you weren’t playing games when Half-Life came out, it’s hard to drive home just how shocking a departure it was from what had come before. Though some familiar mechanics served as a base to build off of, the injection of elaborately scripted sequences that put you into the action, mature humor and genuinely engaging set piece-driven plot put Half-Life into its own special section of the stratosphere.

It’s not often that you can say that a product changes everything in its category from that moment on. Half-Life did that.

And then when Half-Life 2 debuted, it did it again with its method of delivery, incredible building tools and yes, inventive-as-hell gameplay.

Half-Life: Alyx does that again for VR, making such a direct impact that this will be a demarcation line forever in the way we craft immersive virtual experiences.

Alyx begins in the period of time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, taking place mostly just before the action in the latter. The world is familiar, as are most of the cast of characters (along with some bespoke new additions). Given their high-fidelity look and carefully stepped variety, even newbies to the Half-Life universe should be kept entertained as they encounter new threats.

Those of you returning will find a large part of the new experience in inhabiting the same virtually physical space as headcrabs, barnacles and combined forces. Let me tell you, seeing the underbelly mouth of a ‘crab flying toward your face in VR versus on your monitor definitely hits different.

That sense of presence that is so pivotal to VR is something Valve leaned into hard with Alyx. You are rewarded for treating environments and encounters as a place to pretend to be rather than progressing through. There are a variety of tricks that Alyx uses to make you comfortable existing in this world, not the least of which is the presence of a voice in your ear in the form of an engineer named Russell.

Played hilariously by Rhys Darby, Russell’s voice serves to mitigate issues that many VR aficionados may recognize. One of VR’s primary powers is that of embodiment — making the experience of being there so convincing that you generate real memories of presence. Along with that, though, comes isolation. Long VR sessions can make you feel cut off from reality, and horror experiences, especially, can become overwhelming. Having Russell there offering humanity and humor to punctuate the darkness of this supremely dystopian environment is a fantastic choice. You’re a solo operator, but you’re not alone.

The environmental intensity of Alyx is well paced, too. An intermix of heart-pounding horror with moments of harsh beauty and humor can often be a difficult cocktail.

“There’s a lot of different things that we give you the opportunity to do that give, I would argue, different types of players, different things to go deep on,” says Half-Life: Alyx character animator Christine Phelan. “With intentionality, we definitely spent a bunch of time trying to figure out what is that line?”

Phelan notes that when there are horror elements, VR is well-known to be an intense experience, and modulating that was key to not alienating players. Rather than a relentless onslaught, you are brought up and down.

I checked my Apple Watch heart rate data over the past week that I’ve been playing Alyx and, sure enough, there were the spikes in rate during my play sessions to prove the impact of those choices. Some of the more intense segments play like the best horror action movies you’ve seen — “Aliens” comes to mind, as well as more recent fare like “A Quiet Place.”

Keeping you engaged in that environment, of course, means that control schemes are incredibly critical. Valve’s choices on Alyx reflect a desire to make sure that the widest array of people can experience the game. They offer all of the accepted travel modes. including teleporting, a continuous travel mode like walking and, my favorite, shift — a sort of zooming snap that keeps a sense of context to your movement.

Personally, I am unable to walk continuously in VR without wanting to toss my cookies, and Alyx is no different here. In fact, the game takes a lot of pains to make sure it moves the character involuntarily as little as possible, even offering a “toggle barnacle lift” setting to avoid the motion sickness some people may feel being virtually hoisted in the air. A wise choice, as there’s a lot going on in Alyx already, with some encounters forcing you to move rapidly through the environment to combat enemies or solve puzzles.

The sheer accessibility of Alyx’s options speaks to the desire by the team to make sure it accommodated as many people as possible. Standing, seated, either hand, choice of dominant eye, room-scale or not — if there’s a way to play a VR game, Valve has you covered.

One of the biggest effective bits is the presence of Alyx’s hands in the game world. Because most people interact with the world via their hands (though not all), Phelan notes that you get a lot “for free” when you make those the primary interaction method. People already know what to expect when they do things with their hands and at that point your job just becomes to make them act exactly as you’d expect in as many situations as possible.

And they do. Your hands realistically grasp, tap, push and poke the environment (and there is a lot of environment with the most interactive objects I’ve ever seen in a VR game).

The hands even adapt to the contours of things, curving or turning corners as you slide them across objects. The fingers are used to tell you that you really can’t interact with this, but you can feel it — this is not an action point for you. But then, when there is an action point, the hand naturally curves around something, and you get the message “Oh, yeah, I can grab this.”

A lot has been said about the Knuckles controllers that come with the Valve Index headset, and they’re great. But the marquee feature for me is the soft hand strap that keeps them attached to you. This frees you up to make grabbing and grasping motions with your whole hand, as you would normally.

I have the Vive controllers, the Oculus controllers and the Knuckles. Certainly, the Knuckles, with the individual finger control, absolutely locks it in, I think, for people on the hand interaction. If every company doesn’t dupe the work that Valve has done with these, they’re dumb.

“I think the Knuckles and the Index broadly is essentially Valve’s attempt to say, ‘This is pointing towards a heightened VR experience. This is what we think of as a really great direction for this hardware to go,’ ” says Valve’s Chris Remo, who also added that they did a lot of work to make sure all the compatible VR hardware turned out a great play experience. “It was obviously pretty important that this wasn’t a Valve Index game. It’s a VR game. We genuinely tried our best to support those features, [including] all the finger tracking the Index does on the Knuckles controllers and everything else.”

A lot of the work on interactions mirrors what other creatives have done in VR, but polishes it up a level. And a lot of that work is hidden unless you look very hard for it. Doors open in the direction of your hand’s travel, for instance. Magically outwardly opening doors that open inward is a perfect affordance. Most people will never notice. The people that care will, and that’s fine, but most people will just have a better time of going through this way versus that way without fussing too much.

The gravity gloves shown off prominently in the gameplay trailers are another such affordance. They neatly avoid the VR problem of people constantly inching out or down and ramming into things outside of their play area while trying to grab objects on the ground or inside containers. They also give the player the ability to quickly utilize the environment to fend off enemies or distract them with a speed and agility that you’d never be able to realize otherwise.

Call it fate or design that Half-Life 2’s gravity gun offered the perfect in-world explanation, but it works incredibly here. Grabbing a gas mask off the ground and attaching it to your face, fending off a headcrab with a trash can lid, throwing a brick to stagger a zombie, it’s all possible with Russell.

“You can move through a space just as quickly physically, but people do end up taking longer, because you’re naturally invited to do so,” says Remo. “You can look around something in a physical way that just, there’s no equivalent to that in a non-VR game. It also meant that you can get up close to props in a way that isn’t really possible or feasible as much in a non-VR game, which meant that all that stuff has to actually hold up and be worthwhile.”

I can vouch for the time put in. At one point I grabbed a random half-crushed water bottle laying in a corner and looked inside the mouth to find the interior dimples of the bottom lovingly rendered. One person’s trash, etc.

There are so many other things that I could talk about here. The use of spatial audio anchored in what seem to be Gaussian spheres that attach sound and (incredible) music to environments, with nested encounter scores inside. The dynamic loot system that keeps the balance of the resources you have available to you tuned so that the game remains fun. The encounters that take those early scripted scenes in Half-Life and plus them to create a symphony that taxes and rewards the player for creative and thoughtful gameplay.

It’s not so much that Valve has executed One Weird Trick for making VR good. Many of these major ideas has been tried by one team or another over the past few years. But the execution has never been more precise and thoughtful. One after another the good choices keep coming — and the whole adds up to something truly special and bar-setting.

Inventive, clever and completely engaging, Half-Life: Alyx is the first masterwork of VR gaming.

But that could actually be understating its eventual impact on VR, if that’s possible. Though the template for what a truly A-list title looks like has now been truly sketched, it has always been Valve’s willingness to share its tools that has made the most impact on the gaming scene at large.

That’s why I’m looking forward to an eventual SDK. Hammer 2 is easily one of the best game-building tools ever created. Valve is already going to ship Source 2 tools for building new VR levels in Alyx, but as fans of history will remember, the level building scene really took off once the deeper tools to craft a game became available. The ripple effect on the industry will be felt long after people have dissected every sliver of what makes this game so fun. You can trace a major portion of the $1 billion esports industry directly back to mods enabled by Valve being generous with their internal tools.

Imagine what that kind of impact looks like for VR, a field that has been experimenting like mad but has no real coda of best practices for building. It could be massive, and though members of the team have said that they’re not currently planning to release an SDK, my hopes are high.

Until then, we have Alyx, and it is good.