Half-Life: Alyx is not an immersive life sim

How the Half-Life series has all the ingredients of a perfect VR game and then subverts most of them

Valve released a new Steam Link app for the Quest headsets that lets you play wirelessly connected to a PC running your Steam library. At least with my particular home setup (Quest 2 connected via WiFi to a Windows machine in a different room connected via Ethernet), it runs flawlessly.

This is pretty huge, since it removes one last bit of friction that’s kept me from playing Steam VR games for a very long time. There’s not really enough space to play VR games comfortably in the room with my PC. And the whole process of starting up Steam VR with a physical USB connection was always more than a little clunky, especially compared to the just-pick-it-up-and-turn-it-on nature of the Quest1Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers..

Now there are only a couple of stumbling blocks left: I never have time to play games anymore, and I’m so bad at them that experiences designed to last a few hours will for me stretch out over months or even years.

On that note: I always imagined I’d write about Half-Life: Alyx once I’d finished the game, or at least gotten farther than the first chapter. But I’m realizing that that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, partly because I rarely get time to play, partly because of the weird time-dilation in video games caused by my ineptitude, and partly because being trapped in confined spaces with zombies is so creepy that I need to frequently take the headset off and take a break.

But Alyx is the absolute gold standard for VR experiences, easily the best one I’ve played at home and likely even better than location-based stuff like The Void. And it’s tonally perfect for the Half-Life series; in particular, the slow build-up to action, as you’re dropped into a mundane moment in a bizarre world. I think of the series so much as clicks and explosions and gunfire and shrieks and expository speeches and electronic music, that I forget how quiet it often is.

There’s a ton of fascinating stuff that happens before you even encounter your first zombie. And I found myself running out of superlatives for the whole design experience by the first time I fired a pistol.

First, though, a quick (?) digression from somebody who’s still a little traumatized by working at game studios obsessed with the “first five minutes.” I’ve been at places that seemed to have so little faith in the player, and were so afraid of the player losing interest and giving up immediately, that they insisted every experience start out with the cold opening of a Bond film.2I do recognize the irony of my complaining about studios too worried that players will lose interest, right after I’ve complained that VR is usually too much of a hassle for me to pick up and play. Very well, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes, etc etc.

With Half-Life: Alyx, Valve had the confidence to start you out on a balcony overlooking a dreary city, letting you explore at your own pace. Your interactions are as thrilling as tuning a radio, picking up cans or flower pots and dropping them on passers by, and writing on a window with whiteboard markers. And it’s still some of the most compelling VR content I’ve ever experienced. It probably helps that the “dreary city” is breathtakingly detailed, getting majesty out of a palette of browns and grays, and having the centerpiece of a massive tower off in the distance, like a matte painting resting behind some unnamed Eastern European city.

Plus some half-mechanized, half-organic strider creatures will occasionally walk by with no explanation, stomping on cars before heading off into the distance for dark purposes left to your imagination.

(A digression within the digression: one of my favorite details in the impossibly detailed opening of the game is a globe that, of course, you can reach out and spin. It has a circle and question marks drawn over Europe, suggesting that even the characters aren’t quite sure where or when the game is set, exactly).

After you’ve had your fill of touching things and picking them up, then you proceed doing non-VR Half-Life type things: winding your way through buildings and over obstacles, being introduced to new characters and new equipment, and then heading off on a solitary mission to save humanity. (Or at least one human. 3Who we’ve already seen die in a different game, so hooray I guess?!)

Playing through the first part of the game, I frequently felt that this wasn’t just a VR experience given a Half-Life skin; it was 100% a Half-Life game. And it made me realize how much goes into making something feel like a Half-Life game, that I either never recognized, or never fully appreciated.

It’s more than just the brown-and-sometimes-gray-and-orange palette. It’s about what you’re doing moment to moment. If you were to graph out your level of engagement with the game, it’s not just a steadily-rising difficulty curve, but peaks and valleys. Loud and quiet, amusing and horrifying, organic and mechanical, shooting and puzzle-solving. It’s cinematic.

And I realized that the Half-Life games have been cinematic experiences with VR constraints since the beginning. They’re entirely in the first person, and almost entirely real-time. There are no cinematic cut-scenes, and rarely any cuts at all. The storytelling is delivered by scripted sequences that play out in response to triggers. You interact with the world via guns and physics-based puzzles. It seems like they could’ve just taken one of the Half-Life episodes, added the bow and arrow mechanic as required by VR game law, and saved themselves a lot of time and effort.

But most non-abstract VR games that I’ve played use all of these constraints in the name of “presence.” They’re chasing a feeling of you-are-there verisimilitude, with the assumption that any kind of cinematic storytelling apart from cinéma vérité would break that. Half-Life games, and Alyx in particular, seem to be designed with the assumption that cinematic storytelling doesn’t break immersion, but heightens it.

And considering how I felt when I (not Gordon Freeman, me) was launching a speedboat off a ramp over an exploding oil tanker, with a keyboard and mouse and computer monitor nowhere to be seen but just me living fully in the moment, I think they’re correct.

So much of Alyx feels so deliberately constructed as to treat the whole suggestion ludicrous that linearity is a bad thing. It’s so thoughtfully paced, with the level design guiding you from one set piece to the next, and even one encounter to the next, with rarely an explicit instruction, but a presentation that makes you think well of course I want to go through that door and look at that thing, why would I possibly want to do anything else? It puts all the detail in all the right places, to establish the feeling that you’re in an exhaustively simulated world with the freedom to go anywhere you want and interact with anything you like, while the reality is that you’re being expertly guided to the next location as surely as if you were on a Black Mesa tram.

The best illustration of realism vs cinematic storytelling is in the tools the game gives you to interact with the world.

One of the many design constraints of Half-Life: Alyx was that it (seemingly) had to act as a kind of showcase for the Valve Index controllers — and I don’t mean that cynically, since I get the impression that it wasn’t even so much “we’re trying to sell you hardware” as “we’re trying to sell you on a model of how people can and should interact with VR experiences.” It’s meant to feel tactile, even more “present” than just hand pose recognition, since you spend so much of the game holding onto something.

I don’t have Index controllers, so I’ve been using the version that maps the controls onto Oculus controllers as much as possible. This results in Alyx’s fingers flexing and unflexing unnaturally, as if she’s got chronic hand cramps and also can’t help but give everybody the finger-guns. But the thing that has me convinced this wasn’t just a tech demo for new hardware is that the awkwardness goes away pretty quickly, even with controllers the game wasn’t designed for.

That comes with the introduction of the gravity glovesthe Russells, which just make me happy as the perfect intersection of mechanics, design, platform, theme, and storytelling.

The whole premise of Half-Life is that of a resistance made up of brilliant scientists against an occupying alien force, so it’s fitting that all of the games combine action with puzzle-solving. Even if Gordon Freeman rarely does anything more brilliant than pushing a button he’s just been asked to push, the idea that you’re fighting using intellect as much as firepower is a strong one. So, like with the gravity gun in Half-Life 2, you’re given a tool that is ostensibly non-violent, and is at least as much a part of the experience as traditional weapons.

But the best thing about the gravity gloves is that they’re just inherently fun to use. They solve an immediate problem in VR, which is how to interact with objects that are at a distance, but are every bit as fun as they are functional. You reach out to an item, give a flick to pull it towards you, and then grab it while it’s in mid-yeet. It quickly becomes second nature, and I soon got to the point where I preferred to stay mostly stationary and just pull things over to me from a distance. (But to be fair, that’s pretty much my default state in real life as well).

In the few VR prototypes I’ve done, picking up physical objects and interacting with them convincingly is the hard part. Having a virtual cursor to grab things from a distance is the game-like concession. Here, though, you’ve already been given a highly-detailed area full of stuff to interact with. Getting the gravity gloves feels like a super power.

Since this is still a storytelling first-person shooter series, one of the physical objects you can pick up is a pistol. Here, the game does go further down the path of verisimilitude, making you operate it much like you would a real weapon.4I’m assuming. I’ve never actually held a gun, so excuse my not knowing the actual terminology. When you’re out of ammo, you have to empty the clip, use your free hand to slide in a new one, and then slide across the top of the pistol to load it. LEDs on the side of the grip show how many bullets are left in the clip.

It might seem like an unusual bit of gun fetishism to go for realism here instead of abstracting it away like everything else. But in your first encounter with zombies on a deserted subway train, it quickly becomes apparent that the mechanic is there for cinematic tension and not just realism. You become acutely aware of how much ammo you have left, much more than if it had been abstracted into just a number on your HUD. And even more acutely aware of how wasteful it is to toss a clip with only one round left, and how much time it takes you to empty and reload the gun in the middle of a tense situation.

It quickly becomes clear that the game isn’t interested in realism for its own sake. It does simulate your inventory by having you drop items into an imaginary backpack over your shoulder, but that simply feels like acknowledging that the physical action is more natural than pressing a button. And it happily abstracts weapon switching and quick inventory into button and thumbstick presses, simply because that’s not part of the storytelling.

One of the best VR experiences I’ve ever had was Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire by The Void, a location-based game that had players wandering through constructed rooms wearing backpack-mounted computers and VR headsets. It was all about presence: you actually held a rifle, you actually walked through a space that looked like an Imperial outpost, you felt the heat of a river of lava as you shot stormtroopers, and you had actual, physical buttons to press. It’s impressive that it worked as well as it did, because while I’m a sucker for anything Star Wars, I wasn’t a fan of Rogue One and I’m usually not a fan of games that have shooting as their primary mechanic. But there’s something intrinsically satisfying about roaming through a physical space and seeing a virtual world built up all around you.

The problem is that it was basically a one-off. So much energy went into making sure that when I pressed a button, I felt the actual button. But the feeling of immersion was fleeting; I still couldn’t tell you precisely what the “story” was5I mean, it was Star Wars, so it was most likely stealing some secret plans or something. I’ve had dozens of more memorably immersive moments in traditional games and movies, none of which made me strap a computer to my back and a headset to my face.

After all this, it could seem like I’m suggesting that Half-Life: Alyx is just a port of a Half-Life episode to VR, more committed to the look-and-feel of the franchise than anything unique to virtual reality, and treating ideas of presence as little more than an afterthought. That’s not the case! I just believe that it’s more concerned with using VR to establish scale, mood, and tension in ways that only VR can.

Half-Life: Alyx drops you onto a balcony overlooking the city so that you can really appreciate the magnitude of the invasion and the impossibly huge tower off in the distance. You need to be in VR to get the full effect of a strider casually walking over your head. You need to be fully inside an organic cave to appreciate how weird and wet it all is. You need to be underneath a barnacle to appreciate how gross it is as it vomits out everything it’s swallowed. You need to be inside of a subway car to appreciate how claustrophobic it is, and to feel the tension as one zombie is slamming its head against the window and screaming.

Very little of this is about realism, but it’s all about immersion. To put it another way: Alyx says that the value of VR isn’t that it can put you in the middle of a dark, claustrophobic subway car, but that it can place a zombie in the car just a few feet away from you, and have it wake up at precisely the worst possible moment.

  • 1
    Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers.
  • 2
    I do recognize the irony of my complaining about studios too worried that players will lose interest, right after I’ve complained that VR is usually too much of a hassle for me to pick up and play. Very well, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes, etc etc.
  • 3
    Who we’ve already seen die in a different game, so hooray I guess?!
  • 4
    I’m assuming. I’ve never actually held a gun, so excuse my not knowing the actual terminology.
  • 5
    I mean, it was Star Wars, so it was most likely stealing some secret plans or something