The Joys and Limits of Playing in Reality

Over the past month I’ve been playing through Valve’s Half Life: Alyx in my free time. For those unfamiliar, Alyx is a a prequel to Valve’s hugely successful and influential Half Life 2, but more importantly, it is the first virtual reality game developed by a AAA studio with a large budget. While it is unlikely that Alyx will be a hugely profitable title because of the low install base of VR headsets it shows just how far “virtual reality” has come. In this short post I’d like to explore a few facets of Alyx: what it’s like to play in virtual reality, how it remediates the PC first person shooter and Half Life series, and what it means for the future of games.

Alyx is a uniquely immersive experience. Valve went to great lengths to create a game where the player feels like they are in the world of the game. The player can interact with so many of the assets: they can pick up markers and draw on glass and white boards, mess with pigeons, move boxes, open doors by their handles, and all kinds of things you can do in “real life.” While there can be some jerkiness to these actions, they go a long way toward losing oneself in the game. This level of interactivity goes well beyond the kinds of arcade-y VR games like Beat Saber in which the novelty of VR and full body movement are on full display rather than the ability to place the player in a room and letting them pick up the bottle on the counter.

This interactivity can create some really awe inspiring moments of gameplay. During a particularly memorable level from my time with Alyx I was descending a construction site. Beneath me I could see a zombie corpse, but I was unsure if the corpse was alive or dead. I didn’t want to waste ammo shooting it if it turned out to be dead, but I also didn’t want to descend without knowing, being scared of getting close. Then I noticed that there was a bucket next to the zombie. Using the “Russels” (magnetic gloves you can use to pull items to you in the game), I pulled the bucket to myself and then threw it at the zombie. Upon being hit the zombie groaned like its alarm clock had just gone off. I felt so damn smart for figuring out a way to use the immersive world to my advantage. These kinds of creative problem solving seem uniquely possible in virtual reality, in worlds where the player can interact with nearly every object they see.

Alyx does have a unique problem to solve though: it is a Half Life game. Not only this, it is the first Half Life game to be released in over a decade. It seems unlikely that a virtual reality game can embody the characteristics of one of the most beloved first person shooters of all time, yet Alyx manages to accomplish this in spades. The tone of the game hits that kind of strange bureaucratic post-apocalyptic anxiety the series hits, but instead of making the hero out to be some kind of scientist superman in Gordon Freeman, we are instead in the body of Alyx Vance, a young woman with little to no combat experience. Vance moves through the world in a much more frightened and less emboldened manner more befit for the slower pace of VR. A single zombie is nothing for Freeman, but a frightening encounter for Vance. But while the scale of the game’s action set pieces are reeled in to accommodate the new hardware, the way in which the player solves problems, particularly using the environment to their advantage, feels right at home for the Half Life games.

In some ways, Alyx feels like a feminist reimagining of the first person shooter and series: encounters are more intimate, we rely more on communal aid from allies, and instead of “rising above” the world like the typical shooter protagonist, Vance feels constrained by the physical realities around her. And this is, strangely, the greatest strength of virtual reality and the game, its ability to make us feel limited. When I play something like Doom Eternal I feel capable, in control, and powerful, it’s really a power trip because the player avatar is an unstoppable killing machine like a force of nature. I do massive damage and destroy everything in my path. But when playing Alyx I feel tactful, aware, and, a lot of the time, scared, watching my back, checking my corners, hiding behind objects, and fleeing in terror if I feel overwhelmed.

The craftsmanship on display in Alyx is rare, but more importantly, it points to what VR is and isn’t. It isn’t just an extension of other video games: you can’t just plop a player adept with the mouse and keyboard into a new reality and expect them to flourish. Instead VR makes one feel small and insignificant, it points to the shortcomings of our bodies and, even when we’re at our most powerful with the headset on, we are nothing compared to our avatars without it. We are dependent on our ingenuity and others because our raw strength is not sufficient. Yet, I would rather feel that insignificance because, especially in this COVID times, it feels real. And if that is the kind of “virtual” reality that is to come, I welcome it.

Erik Kersting

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