'Half-Life: Alyx' And The Promise of Virtual Reality

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 9, 2020 3:01 pm

When Half-Life released in 1997, it was unlike any other first person shooter — a genre of video games predicated on the central mechanic of blasting things with a firearm. Popular pioneers of the genre, like Doom and Quake, were known for being over-the-top and full of bombast.

Half-Life is not like those games. It begins not with a bang, but with a slow, methodical tram ride.

"Welcome to the Black Mesa research facility," says a sterile voice over the tram speakers; it is the first day on the job for MIT graduate scientist Gordon Freeman. During that tram ride, players are introduced to a government facility of dubious intentions, and forced to question their own role in it.

Things quickly go wrong. Really wrong. Like, opening interdimensional portals and introducing a hostile alien race to Earth kind of wrong.

Half-Life doesn't have an earth-shatteringly original premise for a a sci-fi story. What makes it unique is how it tells that story: Cautiously and intentionally — not with exposition and cut scenes — but with a focus on player immersion. The player's camera never leaves its first-person view. The entire story is experienced through the eyes of the main character.

Half-Life 2 introduced a similarly evocative experience. It has a cast of life-like, compelling characters, and is driven by exhilarating action set-pieces. "Simply a masterpiece — a work of art in the genre," wrote IGN's Dan Adams at the time of it's release. "It does so many things right in so many ways that it might be possible to write a thesis on the topic of Half-Life 2."

But in 2007, the story of Half-Life came to an abrupt, and unfinished, end, on only the second episode of a planned trilogy. The story ended on a cliffhanger, with the fate of a major character left unanswered.

For a long time, fans have been desperate for those answers, pleading with Valve — the studio that makes the game — for another entry into the series. In one notable instance, the series' former writer Marc Laidlaw shared a would-be plot outline for this never-released, mythic follow-up.

Valve / YouTube

But after a very long wait, a proper addition to the Half-Life franchise is finally here.

It's called Half-Life: Alyx, and somewhat unsurprisingly, it arrives mired in a web of qualifiers.

First things first: This is not Half-Life 3, but a prequel to Half-Life 2. One that may or may not hold answers to the plot threads left severed in 2007, but nonetheless, a prequel.

It's also one of the first big-name titles for virtual reality gaming. Virtual reality — where players strap on a headset and trackers that orient the body within a simulated world — is a medium that hasn't quite taken off yet, and remains inaccessible to many players.

But the Half-Life series has always had a symbiotic relationship with innovative tech, both relying on it and pushing its ideas a step further. Virtual reality is no different.

"It's not like looking at a television screen, where you say 'oh, that's a picture of another world!" says Jeremy Selan, who designs hardware at Valve. Selan insists that in a series where immersion is a central tenet of it's design, virtual reality is an almost too-obvious answer. "VR done well truly makes you feel like you're somewhere else."

Put on a headset yourself, and it's easy to buy in: The opening moments of Half-Life: Alyx are just as quietly radical as that tram ride was over 20 years ago.

The player is standing atop a balcony overlooking a familiar, dystopian cityscape. Beside them is a workbench filled with objects: cans that can be crushed in your hands, cups that can be thrown to the ground and shattered, a radio that can be fiddled with.

Alyx Vance is headed to The Vault to rescue her father in Half-Life: Alyx.
Valve

The tactile pleasures in Half-Life: Alyx are everywhere. There's as much joy to be found in picking up a marker with your virtual hands, pressing it against a window, and seeing your words materialize over a dirty pane of glass as there is in any of the game's long-awaited plot details.

Robin Walker, a designer at Valve, says that in Alyx, even reloading your weapon is hands-on. "Traditionally in games you might just press the R key, and we show a fancy animation showing you reloading." Now, it's a physical act. You have to reach back behind your head and into your virtual backpack, and then do the rest of the work yourself.

This means that for long-time gamers, virtual reality requires an unlearning of old habits. But Walker insists that VR also opens the door for those who have never picked up a controller before. "We used to joke that our parents couldn't play Half-Life 1, or Half-Life 2," he said. "But they can play Half-Life: Alyx just fine."

But just how many people, let alone parents, are playing the game remains uncertain. While Valve did not provide NPR with specific sales figures, the website PlayTracker estimates that over 500,000 copies have been sold — a strong number for a VR exclusive title. But that number is nowhere near other highly anticipated games from similarly established franchises.

That's because many consumers haven't bought in to virtual reality yet. Jeremy Selan says that a big challenge is that few consumers realize how proven the technology actually is. "Imagine you were trying to convince people to try and buy a TV, but they haven't seen one before," he says. "I think good VR has that same challenge. You put someone inside a headset for five minutes, and it can be a moving experience. Seeing something on a screen doesn't do it justice."

Familiar enemies return in Half-Life: Alyx.
Valve

Another reason for hesitation among gamers has been the lack of a "killer app" — a single piece of software so compelling that just about everyone feels they need to have it. And while Half-Life: Alyx has received stellar reviews and delivered on the promise of a must-have virtual reality title under the banner of a celebrated franchise — the structural barriers between virtual reality and the average consumer are still there.

Take, for example, cost of admission. To play Half-Life: Alyx, you need a powerful and expensive gaming P.C. Then, you need the virtual reality hardware itself. Headsets and controllers range in price, but Valve has their own option — the Valve Index — that costs nearly a thousand dollars. "The cost right now is pretty substantial," Selan acknowledges. "Over time, it'll get more accessible," he promises, "where everyone will have access."

Availability is yet another problem. One of the more popular and affordable headsets is the Oculus Quest, which retails for around $400 with controllers. However, the coronavirus pandemic is restricting manufacturing operations for popular headsets made in China, which means there aren't many headsets to go out and buy. Recent weeks have seen headsets being resold at a premium on sites like eBay and Craigslist.

All of this makes it hard to gauge whether high-quality software will be enough to spur mass market adoption in the long-run. Stephanie Llamas, head of research and strategy at SuperData, says that at $250 million in revenue a year, the VR gaming market is "just a drop in the bucket," when compared to the general games market, which makes up at least a hundred billion dollars.

Other virtual reality insiders, like Charlie Fink who writes about VR at Forbes, agree that the hype around Half-Life: Alyx alone is probably not enough to cause a major industry shake-up.

But he does think one surprising culprit — the coronavirus pandemic — has served as a surprising reminder of how important it is to be able to meet in digital spaces. "I think it will have put considerable momentum behind the industry," he says, "Because it's so clear what the value would be if we were separated again."

And for those Half-Life fans stuck indoors who can play Valve's latest game — a new story in a digital world couldn't have arrived at a better time.

This story was edited for radio by Sami Yenigun and adapted for the Web by Vincent Acovino.

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