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.
GamesBeat: A lot of VR games are shorter experiences, things you play in bursts. Is it a challenge to make a longer VR title? Does that change the way you approach development?
Coomer: For us, no, because we didn’t have a cadence of development that was tuned for VR before. We had a type of development that was pretty highly tuned around how to make a Half-Life game. There were a lot of things for us to figure out about the translation into this new medium of VR, but as far as creating a 15-hour experience, that was much more about how to create a Half-Life game, which Valve really, that’s just our core competency, to the extent that we have one. It really is about crafting that kind of thing. And so it felt normal to us to — the kinds of craftsmanship that go into fleshing something out that is a Half-Life experience that’s about this length, it felt like a normal development cycle to us in a lot of ways.
GamesBeat: Some people have been asking if we’re going to get a VR killer app. Do you feel any pressure to deliver that? Or is that not something you actively think about?
Coomer: Primarily, although we didn’t use that phrase when we were building the game, we did really set out to make a meaningful piece of content for the medium. We knew that — we were actually taking a big step forward compared to what had been created so far on the platform. We were intentionally doing that. We threw ourselves into that task pretty wholeheartedly. To that extent, yes, we really set out to accomplish that, and we hope that other people agree that that’s what Alyx represents. We didn’t use that phrase, but we knew that what we were taking on was really moving the medium forward.
Benson: I was possibly in a funny position in that we were very — my household was already a super-VR household. My wife is really into competitive-ranking Beat Saber stuff. I’d voraciously hoovered up VR in general before working on Alyx. I was a big VR booster generally. To me it was like — I was essentially already very happy that the VR landscape was providing a ton of stuff that I love. The scale and scope and the sheer production value of Alyx is obviously pretty far above and beyond anything that I’d ever played. But I had been really deep into having a ton of stuff I was playing at home. So it wasn’t like, if Alyx doesn’t come out then VR is over. But I certainly think it’s above and beyond the thing that everyone is going to need to put on their machine if they have a headset. It would be insane not to play Half-Life if you have a headset.
GamesBeat: For some years, Valve was focusing on other projects and a bit less on game development. You’d see people saying things like,” Valve doesn’t make games anymore.” Is that a frustrating sentiment to see?
Coomer: Yeah, I think it was. Inside Valve, there’s a story to tell about how many things were going on. Some of that, I think, is beyond the scope of our current conversation. But I would just say that on many fronts, there were game projects that we were exploring. There were many game projects that were just ongoing and public that are these big service titles that have so many users on Steam playing them. And a lot of work going on just on the Steam platform. We were simultaneously becoming a hardware company to some degree. We were accomplishing things on a lot of fronts, and shipping games that entire time. But simultaneously, we completely understood where that sentiment was coming from.
There’s a set of people who, like many of us, consider their very favorite things that Valve has produced to be the games that have a ton of craftsmanship and attention to detail and a single-player component. Those things were not coming out of our studio for a long time. To us, that didn’t feel like it was because we had decided to stop making them, or that we really had stopped making them. We were just figuring out what’s the right next thing to do, and how we should get back to some of our most important franchises like Half-Life. Figuring out a way to do that that made sense, like Alyx does, we think, really was a relief, to get back to that. When we were announcing the title, we had a little bit of trepidation about how it would be received, because of the VR medium and everything, but we weren’t worried about whether or not we had actually returned to making that kind of title, because we had a lot of confidence in the game that we had ended up being able to produce.
GamesBeat: Crunch continues to be a hot topic in gaming. Is there a crunch culture at Valve? Was there any crunch happening on the development of this game?
Benson: My experience, I’m a father of two. I moved my family over here a couple of years ago now. That’s a huge deal, a big thing. You can probably hear my accent, that I’m English. We lived in Liverpool and I worked from home for the previous eight years on different projects. All that kind of thing, okay, well, I’m in a new country. Health insurance is a big thing in America. Contracts are different. Also just the company culture could be this or that or the other. There’s a lot of changeability. Who knows what this adventure will be like? When my wife and I talked about moving over, it was like, let’s find out. It’s this big adventure. The thing I ended up finding about the working culture at Valve is, essentially it’s very family-oriented. In ways that I was actually surprised by. One of the floors of the Valve building, the canteen and food sort of area, there’s a big kids’ play area that’s all secured and has all these toys to play with and so on. On Thursdays that’s family lunch day, and everyone brings their kids and eats together.
A few of my friends who all moved over to the company together — at the time when we moved over, they were either expecting a child or they’d just had a child, or they ended up expecting once they joined. And so it would be fairly common for someone to be walking around the office — plenty of times Greg’s seen me walking by with my two-year-old on my shoulders babbling. I’ve gone to talk to my mate Pete, who’s a programmer here, and he’s there looking after his son. My personal experience is that the company is very family-friendly and family-oriented. Greg can talk more to this than I in terms of the balance at the company, but it seems to me that Valve basically doesn’t think it’s good or useful in terms of good game development practice to slowly erode your home life by working you to death.
Coomer: I think explicitly, we’ve purposefully made it so that crunch mode is not the norm, and hopefully not a thing that goes on at Valve. Except in very rare cases where people are in the last couple of weeks of development, a subset of the group will choose to work hours that are sort of extended in order to get through certain periods. But I think as somebody who’s been around forever at Valve, I’m pretty proud of the fact that, even in recent months, as Alyx was wrapping up, I would walk around the office and if it was past normal working hours, the office was empty. The kind of thing he was talking about really is an intentional design, to not burn out the very best people in the world. We managed to hire them. If we were causing them to not be able to see their family or work too many hours, it would be shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s almost not a thing in the company. But we can’t keep some people, at the very end of the project, from working a few late nights. That’s almost the extent of it.