Half-Life: Alyx - GAMEplay: Exploration & interaction
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
One of the main criticisms I have seen levelled against Alyx is that it doesn’t offer anything beyond classic Half-Life gameplay, or beyond things we’ve seen in VR before. The production values and general level of polish are obscene, sure, but the core mechanics are uninspired. I largely agree with this, but I also think it largely doesn’t matter. The point of Alyx, as I see it, is to show that VR doesn’t need to be at odds with traditional video game design – done correctly, each element elevates the other and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But whatever the case, it’s still just a great deal of fun to play.
Alyx’s gameplay is built on three core pillars: exploration, which includes interaction with the world using the Gravity Gloves; puzzles, which includes familiar HL2-esque physics-based puzzles as well as new ones involving a multi-tool; and combat. I look at exploration here, and puzzles and combat tomorrow.
Interaction and the Gravity Gloves
The world Valve constructed for Half-Life 2 was weird and wonderful to explore, with fascinating environmental storytelling and tantalising hints at grander conflicts. This remains the formula for Alyx, e.g. I mentioned the globe that appears to depict the progress of the Seven Hour War in my first post, and I won’t spoil anything else here (I’ll look at story, with full spoilers, towards the end of this blog series). Of course, the world is now immediate and tangible, and Valve leans into the opportunities this offers, and also acknowledges its limitations.
On one hand, instead of the infamous Gravity Gun, Alyx offers the Gravity Gloves (or RUSSELLS, as Alyx’s companion Russell calls them). These work much like the Gravity Gun: point at an item, grip it, flick your wrist to pull it towards you, and grab it in mid-air. However, whereas the Gravity Gun was able to pick up almost any object, the Gravity Gloves can only interact with smaller items. I don’t know if this design decision was made to limit the strain on hardware, or whether it was to stop players ‘breaking’ the game world, which I imagine could cause serious confusion and nausea in VR. But it sort of makes sense from a narrative point of view: Alyx takes place 5 years before Half-Life 2, so one would expect the Gravity Gun to be more powerful than the Gloves.
On the other hand, Alyx is less limited in the amount of interactivity it offers with other items. Each object, dead thing, or bit of scenery can be examined in great detail. Every filing cabinet, cupboard, drawer, locker, and most crates and boxes, can be opened and searched. Likewise, almost every piece of Combine engineering can be messed with in some way. For example, the health stations from Half-Life 2 return in Alyx, complete with the familiar pumping noise of Half-Life health replenishment. However, here they also need to be manually opened up, a vial containing an alien grub needs to be inserted into a special socket, and a hand needs to be placed on the station. The machine then liquefies the grub and needles move over the hand to transfer the life force from the grub to the player. It’s a long, drawn out process that would be intolerably boring in 2D with a keyboard and mouse, but in VR it feels like satisfying interaction with the game world and tells us something about it. (Again, I suppose it also sort of makes sense from a narrative point of view: one could argue the health stations were improved and streamlined by the time of Half-Life 2, so they work quicker there.) In this level and kind of interactivity Alyx is much closer to immersive sims like Deus Ex, Bioshock, and Dishonored than it is to classic Half-Life.
The Gravity Gloves also serve as an ingenious solution to the lack of an on-screen HUD – at any moment you can look at the gloves to determine what’s left of your health (using a hearts-based system similar to Zelda), ammo, and crafting components. And you can look at the gun you are holding to determine which firing mode it’s set to (see Combat tomorrow) and how many bullets are left in the current clip.
Fun tangent: the Combine and philosophy of mind
Exploring in Alyx makes it a lot more obvious than in Half-Life 2 how much of Combine technology is organic based. We know from Nova Prospekt in Half-Life 2 that the Combine grunts seem to be a fusion of machine and human body, but here it’s suggested that almost all their machinery is fused with organics. I mentioned the health stations above, and here is another example: the terminals that control doors and gates are powered by a set of slides containing organic brain matter. In other words, Combine computation seems to be done by organic-based rather than silicon-based AI. Here is a fun tangent: this is very closely related to the multiple realisability argument – the idea in the philosophy of mind that the same mental state, property or whatever can be realised by different physical kinds. For anyone interested, see this article.
Pick-ups and crafting
The items found during exploration fall into four broad types: unique pick-ups, ammo, resin, and health. Unique pick-ups range from new weapon types to special items to solve a puzzle or open something, like a crank for a door mechanism. Ammo is self-explanatory and is stored by making a dropping motion over one’s shoulder – something I was sceptical about at first, but that becomes second nature after a while and adds to the immersion. Resin is stored in the same way and is used to craft upgrades for weapons (see Combat tomorrow). Health comes in the form of injectable stims (like epi-pens, for anyone familiar with those) or the vialled grubs mentioned above, which need to be inserted into a health station.
Crafting is a curious addition and feels strangely regressive in terms of game design (seriously, how many games in the last five years have featured crafting?!). But it does offer another, pleasingly tactile way to interact with the world: in order to craft something, a Combine crafting station needs to be found and hacked (see Puzzles tomorrow), after which it unfurls like a weird cyberpunk music box, ready to receive a weapon and crafting instructions. But I expect the main reason it was added was to solve the problem Alyx appears to have with its weapons. Namely, there are only three of them: a pistol, a shotgun, and a pulse rifle. I suspect the decision was made to limit the number of guns so as not to overwhelm the player; I will discuss combat tomorrow, but it’s surprising how hectic swapping guns, gun modes, reloading and so on can get in VR while fending off hordes of zombies or commandos. I imagine crafting was introduced to rebalance this: yes, gun choice is limited, but each gun can be modded in various ways through crafting to expand your options. Burst fire for the pistol, laser sight for the shotgun, bigger clip size, etc. This way the player doesn’t need to keep learning new weapons, but can still keep existing weapons interesting and ready for increasingly difficult fights.