Half-Life: Alyx isn’t just the long-awaited return to a beloved gaming series. It’s arguably the biggest VR game yet. It’s a full-sized, triple-A experience. It’s not some short, bite-sized chunk of Half-Life made for VR. It is a complete Half-Life game.
The VR market is still relatively small. One big game can do a lot to grow the industry. So Half-Life: Alyx has some big expectations. It has to both revive a dormant franchise and give a boost to side of the gaming world that is still pretty niche.
I chatted with Half-Life: Alyx designer Greg Coomer and animator James Benson about these challenges.
GamesBeat: Was it hard for Valve to return to the Half-Life series?
Greg Coomer: By way of introduction, I’ve been around Valve forever.
James Benson: I’ve been part of the company since March 2018, so not quite as long.
Coomer: I worked on Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2, some of the episodes, I worked a little bit on, and I’ve watched that whole progression. For the most part, no, it wasn’t hard at all. It was hard for us, along the way — it’s been a long time since we’ve gotten back to the franchise. Along the way we were trying multiple things to figure out how we could return to the franchise. We were busy, and we were figuring out what was exactly the right way for us to return. Once we had figured out that we should build Half-Life: Alyx, returning to the franchise and getting that project up and running and finding enthusiasm for it was not at all difficult. It was something that Valve I think has in its DNA. It felt like coming home. That’s not difficult.
GamesBeat: James, what’s it like to come in and work on such an iconic franchise?
Benson: I was not aware of the game’s development — I was part of a group that all came to Valve together. When we arranged that to happen, we didn’t know about Half-Life at all. The first time I came onsite to visit, which was February 2018 or something, [Team Fortress co-creator and Valve employee] Robin Walker was like, hey, nice to meet you; come check out some of the stuff we’re doing. And he took me into a room, put a headset on me, and … here’s a headcrab. So for me, selfishly, it was just a really perfect introduction to the company. I’ve been a huge fan of the series for basically my entire life. Half-Life came out when I was about 9 years old. If I were to write down my Christmas list of things I would get to do at Valve, a Half-Life game would be at the very top of that list. That was ideal, essentially. It’s funny, in a way; I always had this feeling when I first started doing stuff on the game itself, what if the sausage-is-made effect comes into play, having a weird distance created between me and the series itself? But the benefits there have far outweighed the negatives. That’s been a personal wish fulfillment thing, almost, at this point.
GamesBeat: How does VR change the Half-Life experience?
Benson: In every way. In tons and tons of ways. It’s almost a level-of-detail change. My perspective on playing the game is — for example, say you’re in Kleiner’s lab in Half-Life 2. You have these tidbits of world-building that get plastered all over the place. There’s a newspaper that’s has some blurry headline about the war, and you’re poring over spaces. All the things where you pick up physics things and toss them at people. There’s a level of interactivity in Half-Life 2 that’s like, hey, physics. And then the thing that I find playing Alyx is the specificity of how you can go into touching the world and feeling it and being careful with things. Not having to be messy as you pick up objects and pore over stuff. Particularly someone like me. I really care about the world-building aspect, the lore and the role-play element of being in those spaces. The level of fine control you have over everything, over your camera and over your place in the environment, is so crisp and so much more precise. That’s what I end up getting out of the experience. It’s very Half-Life, but on a different kind of level. It’s a way of going much deeper on specific elements in the environment.
GamesBeat: How does it change things from a gameplay perspective?
Coomer: The interactivity really is quite different. It’s actually useful to talk through some of what is the same in order to talk about those differences. The core things about Half-Life, you could try to articulate a formula for Half-Life, which is about the narrative experience, the technology, the physics. Treating action as a thing that is intermixed with that narrative. Those elements that you would really have described as the core parts of a Half-Life game don’t feel like they are fundamentally changed when you visit City 17 in VR. But the moment-to-moment interactivity of what you end up spending your time doing, and the way that you engage in some of the core elements like combat, they feel fundamentally different. And like James was saying, the intricacy of that interaction matters a ton. When you’re in a room, the density of things to do is extremely high. The exploration you can do is fundamentally changed because of how, with your head and your hands and your body, you can explore a room. And so being in City 17 feels quite a bit different. Inhabiting that space is, according to our playtesters and our own experiences, a lot more fun than it traditionally was, because of the depth of interactivity.
In combat, a bunch of interesting things happen. We had to learn things that were core differences to combat when we were crafting the AI and writing code for how combat was going to work in Alyx. It turns out, almost everyone is way better at the fundamentals. Just aiming. When you’re aiming in a traditional 2D game, even when you have a great pointing device, a high resolution mouse like we almost all have now, navigating a space and aiming with those tools is really relatively crude compared to what a person can accomplish when they have 6 degrees of freedom times 3: one on your head, and one in each hand. The facility with which someone can lean around the corner and point their pistol exactly at an enemy is extremely high compared to what most people can achieve using the tools that they had when Half-Life or Half-Life 2 was around. That made us rewrite a lot of how the game works and a lot of the rules of combat, because those things are just better tools fundamentally.
GamesBeat: You’re making this VR game, but it has to come out for multiple VR platforms with different capabilities or limitations. Is that a particular challenge?
Coomer: We mostly see it as a single platform, actually. There are different headsets, but we look at the PC and Steam as our platform, and we’re quite happy that there are multiple headsets and multiple companies slicing that in different ways. Facebook’s doing one thing. HP is doing another thing. Valve chose to slice it a different way. Customers have these choices. But to us it’s not separate platforms. So we just had to pay attention to, how do the different input devices work? What’s the inventory of buttons on them? And then make sure all the core actions in Half-Life were accessible to all those devices. And really the input devices ended up mattering more to us than the various headsets. Headsets are lovely and wonderful, but the interactivity of the game is even more fundamental. That was our primary task during the whole thing.
Back to (half) life
GamesBeat: Episode 2 had this big cliffhanger years ago, and Half-Life 3 is basically a meme at this point. Were you worried about revealing a new game that wasn’t a sequel moving the story forward, but instead a prequel?
Coomer: From most perspectives, I think, inside the company, that wasn’t the primary worry. That was a concern, but the worry for us mostly was that when we announced the game, it was a VR-only title. Compared to that, the fact that it’s a prequel seemed like a distant second to us on our list of concerns.
Benson: In a funny way, the distance in time between the last Half-Life game coming out and the new one — as a person who’s interested in the story, it alleviated that a lot for me. God, I’m really hungry to get back to this world, you know? But also I think the main concern with the prequel would be, is this story materially relevant to the larger ongoing world and characters? That’s not a concern I have with this game at all. It’s an extremely big, relevant, meaningful piece of the Half-Life story. It was pretty quick. Once we got in and was playing the game and learning about what the beats are and what happens, that fell away immediately. There’s also just — in the same way that if you’d say there’s an isometric game, and then suddenly you say we’re doing a full free-camera Mario 64 thing now, even just the change of camera perspective and the change of every verb you have in the game and every way you can be present in the game, fundamentally higher fidelity and a literal change of perspective — that does a huge job of making you not feel like you’re retreading or rehashing anything at all. It’s extremely — it’s a very different sensation, being inside a city street in City 17 compared to piloting the camera around in 2D with a mouse and keyboard. It’s a very different sensation.
GamesBeat: Going back to the announcement, that happened relatively close to the release of the game. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Coomer: Primarily, we waited to announce the game until we were confident about a whole set of things. We waited until we were confident about the game being ready within a time frame — that we knew when it was going to ship. At Valve it took us until late last year to be roughly confident in when we were going to be able to ship the game. It isn’t really normal for Valve to wait that long to announce something, or to be confident in our own ship date. But in this case, because we had some trepidation around the rest of the announcement, like how we were going to help people understand why it was VR-only, and that it was a prequel and everything else, we wanted to be pretty buttoned down about the state of everything before we went out the door with any news.
GamesBeat: Alyx Vance is obviously the star of this game. How is this version of Alyx going to be different from the one we’re used to from Half-Life 2?
Benson: She’s younger. She’s obviously — Alyx as a character forms a different function and role in the game than she did in Half-Life 2 in that Half-Life 2, obviously, you’re Gordon, and Alyx is your sort of companion. At times she’s a mechanical element in that she helps you in combat. At times she’s a reinforcement for puzzle design, where she’ll say, hey, you should check out this thing. She’s also a kind of booster for you while you’re playing, where she’s very encouraging if you do the correct thing. She’s a story element and she’s also a game design element that can be brought in. When you are Alyx, it’s much more about her interests and what she’s thinking, what she’s doing. She’s not playing a supporting role. That’s essentially the huge difference. And then in terms of the literal story and the character of that, the state of the world is in a pretty different place. She’s being asked to perform a bunch of hurdles that are not things she went through in the other games.
It’s also just — it’s very different in that she’s a verbal character. This is not a silent protagonist. The nature of her being verbally active while you’re interacting with things and you have the back and forth with Russell and things, that ends up giving a different tone. In Half-Life 2 you have a sort of back and forth with Alyx in the sense that as you’re playing the game, she’ll comment on things you’re doing, but there’s not a literal back and forth between Gordon and Alyx. Having that between Alyx and Russell allows for a lot of incidental character moments to come through that are not directly, literally about the puzzle you’re solving or about the combat encounter, but that are more character building and world building in and of themselves. You’re able to get a lot more out of Alyx’s personality, I find, in this game.
GamesBeat: I was going to ask about the whole silent protagonist thing, because in every other Half-Life game we’ve played as a silent character. Is it refreshing to go against that tradition?
Coomer: I would say absolutely, for sure, for exactly the reasons he just said. It allows much deeper character definition. Really it allows for character definition at all. The Half-Life games previously, the protagonist is probably the least defined character. You end up embodying, or imbuing the main character with a bunch of projection, either about yourself or only indirectly, what characters end up saying about Gordon Freeman. Having Alyx speak and have a back and forth with other characters in the game is night and day for what we can accomplish at making the character actually have some definition. It isn’t just that Alyx is positioned as a sidekick in the previous games, and having her become the protagonist — it isn’t just having her become the protagonist that allows us to define her better. It really is having her speak and have a back and forth with the other characters that lets that all come into focus.