Half Life: Alyx and how the Menial Becomes the Magnificent in VR
A lot has been said and written about Half-Life: Alyx over the past month and the rave reviews are more than justified. It’s a superlative ‘best of’ first-generation VR ideas, all packaged together in a highly polished package that completely sells the idea that not only is AAA VR very much possible but that it is the future for the gaming industry. I defy anyone to play a more immersive and enjoyable game this year in any format.
Seemingly mundane actions can ground you in a fantasy world
There is one area of Half-Life: Alyx that hasn’t been talked about so much and it’s an area that I’ve long felt while being one of the obvious strengths of VR, is worth exploring in more detail; it’s power to simply let you exist and interact in a virtual reality space. Or, in other words, how seemingly mundane or boring actions can be incredibly immersive and fun in a fantastical VR space. Each chapter of Half-Life: Alyx brings something fun and unique to the game, but I have a particular fondness for the very first one as you’re given the time and space to simply look and poke around Alyx’s flat, the nearby streets and Russel’s lab. Each area is incredibly detailed and, crucially, you’re able to pick up and interact with almost every object, all of which demonstrate fully believable physics and react to your manipulations exactly as you would expect. Opening and closing drawers, flushing toilets, picking up and squeezing bottles and rearranging boxes all sounds remarkably mundane, but when you’re doing this in a fantasy space – one as beautifully realised as City 17 – it’s amazing how it can ground you and make everything feel more believable. The environments are just begging to be interacted with and explored, creating the ultimate in mise-en-scène and something that is only possible in VR. If you’ll excuse the pretentiousness of a term I’ve coined for this, I’d describe it as the ‘magnificent mundanity’ of VR interactions (I can feel your eyes roll – that’s fair!).
More tidying than Mary Poppins
This ‘magnificent mundanity’ is central to many of Half-Life: Alyx’s core gameplay loops. Riffing on the survival horror theme that makes up a significant proportion of the game’s overall run time, a core part of the game is your ability to rummage through cluttered shelves, desks and drawers to find scarce ammo. As every item on each shelf, drawer or table (which are normally packed with rubbish) has realistic physics it’s hugely satisfying to sort through it or push it all aside like you’re some sort of ragged city fox and chimes perfectly with the desperate underground resistance fighter you’re embodying. As the game progresses, ammo and resin (used to upgrade weapons) get hidden in increasingly interesting jumbles of mess, that sometimes require Mary Poppins levels of tidying to find. You’ll be amazed at how much is hidden away if you take the time to search every nook and cranny and how fun it is to discover these hidden stashes. The game really takes this to another level when you’re desperately scrambling to find ammo while you’ve got Combine units searching for you or when you’re under heavy fire. It just feels incredibly realistic and immersive.
How throwing a bottle might be the best moment of 2020
The further you get into the game the more it leans into this magnificent mundanity, with two particular moments springing into my mind. Without spoiling anything, one is a majestic boss fight that takes place over multiple areas and is based around the simple action of picking up objects (mainly bottles) and throwing them against the scenery to create noise. Again, on paper, this sounds boring but because you’re mimicking a real-world action within a fantastical environment – one which is dripping with atmosphere and tension – it’s not only incredibly realistic but also very intuitive. How many times have you got to a boss fight in a traditional game and struggled to work out what it wants you to do because of some strange game logic and the disconnect inherent of having to input your actions through a gamepad? That problem simply melts away in Half-Life: Alyx.
Secondly, some puzzles can be completed by using bits of rubbish that are just lying around. You can pick up and throw almost everything, and it turns out that throwing certain objects through tripwires can detonate them. However, you need to be standing quite far away to not die from the explosion and so finding items that are ‘heavy’ enough to be able to throw a long-distance but not so heavy that you have to stand close to the tripwire becomes a mini-game in itself. It’s also worth noting that most of these wires can be disabled in a more conventional way by hacking them using your multi-tool. I love that Half-Life: Alyx presents you with the agency to tackle many of these mini puzzles in whichever way you think best. I had a great moment leaning over a deep elevator shaft and then throwing a paint can through my legs so that it tumbled through a tripwire that was in a door frame below me. No way was that how the developers had planned for that tripwire to be overcome but it worked!
Breaking the 4tt wall with the mundane
Taking player creativity one step further, I also doubt that Valve expected geometry lessons to be taught in Half-Life: Alyx or for it be become one of the hottest places online to watch a piano concert (ok – maybe Valve expected that a little bit!). If you go on YouTube you can watch a teacher give a full geometry lesson using virtual felt tip pens on the window panes of Alyx’s flat and there’s a whole string of videos with people playing on the piano you can find during the hotel level. The piano is a full 1:1 recreation of a baby grand piano and dexterous players have been able to play everything from Numb by Linkin Park to Still Alive from Portal! It is quite incredible to see how creative (and skilled) people have become using these real-world objects in Half-Life: Alyx.
Embrace mundanity in VR!
In isolation, these seemingly mundane interactions – throwing a bottle, opening a draw, using a felt tip on a window – can all sound a bit boring and perfunctory, but when they’re combined within a game of the scope of Half-Life: Alyx it’s amazing how much it can add. Sure, we all want to use incredible guns and experience exciting set-pieces (which it does superbly) but these moments are made all the more significant and tangible by the grounding that having real-world interactions in these fantastical environments provides.