Half-Life: Alyx - Story
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
[CONTAINS FULL SPOILERS FOR ALYX AND THE FULL HALF-LIFE FRANCHISE]
While the gameplay feels perfectly paced in Alyx, the way the story unfolds is kind of odd. It's completely back-loaded, with significant and shocking ramifications for the entire franchise taking place in the last 30 minutes, but very little in the way of serious plot until then.
At the start of the game the familiar script that I’ve come to associate with a report by the G-Man to his employers tells you that you are Alyx, 19 years old, working in reconnaissance for the human resistance (‘Subject: Alyx Vance. Affiliation: Human Resistance’ etc.). You are also told that it’s five years before Eli Vance, Alyx’s father, will die. You are then very quickly introduced to Eli, his partner Russell (see my entry on Tone for a discussion of Russell), and the human resistance to Civil Protection, who are the Combine’s police and military force on Earth. Just as quickly, Eli Vance is captured by the Combine, and Alyx and Russell hatch a plan to intercept his transport train and get him back before he is taken to Nova Prospekt.
If all of that sounds quite familiar, that’s because it is: this is more or less the plot of the middle section of Half-Life 2, even down to the transportation of Eli Vance by train to Nova Prospekt.
When Alyx finally rescues Eli, it turns out that during his captivity he learnt about the existence of a giant floating metal vault, which seems to contain some kind of super-weapon. So for most of the rest of the game you are making your way towards it while it looms ever larger on the horizon. If this also sounds familiar, that’s because you also spend most of Half-Life 2 in the shadow of the Citadel, and the latter third of the game making your way towards it.
So far, so much a next-gen remix of Half-Life 2 then. And unfortunately this is pretty much the case for about 90% of Alyx. With the exception of the Xen infestation (which I’ve discussed here), most of Alyx does very little to expand Half-Life’s lore or introduce a detailed plot. One could argue that this is the case with Half-Life generally: what makes it intriguing is its minimalist approach to plot and storytelling. However, while the stories of Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are pretty sparse, the worlds they are set in and the environmental storytelling relayed through those worlds does wonders to fill out the edges. Just consider the change from Half-Life to Half-Life 2 and how much new information was derived from just observing the latter’s world: the Combine technology and architecture, their interactions, the Combine creation facilities at Nova Prospekt, etc. Alyx is largely a re-visit of this world and adds little new to it. With the exception of Chapter 11, in many ways Alyx feels to Half-Life 2 as Opposing Force did to Half-Life, just supercharged through VR. That’s not necessarily to say that I’m disappointed. The VR supercharge is enough of a game-changer that it compensates for the thin plot. Indeed, maybe a thin plot is precisely the point; in a recent interview with Edge magazine, Valve said that they stripped some of the ‘cutscenes’ back after playtesting because they found that players got fidgety. Valve were also reluctant to move the plot forward too much because they were conscious most Half-Life fans won’t get to play Alyx for years, given the small install base for VR. Still, it would have been nice to have something that was less of a Half-Life 2 re-tread.
Having said all that, the plot thickens by several orders of magnitude in the last hour of the game. By this point Eli has hypothesised that the metal vault is being used to hold Gordon Freeman captive and everyone is gearing up for the rescue. When you finally get inside and play through a VR take on the Exit 17 chapter (the strider section) of Episode 1 and the Dark Energy chapter (the super Gravity Gun section) of Half-Life 2, you learn that the vault is a prison not for Gordon Freeman, but for the G-Man. I don’t think this revelation is particularly surprising for any Half-Life veteran: the G-Man was teased in the reveal trailer for Alyx, but was very conspicuously absent from the game until that point. Likewise, it’s always been fairly clear that the G-Man’s goals, or the goals of his employers anyway, are not in agreement with the Combine, and so it would make sense that the latter would try to stop his interference if they could.
Nonetheless, it’s curious that the G-Man’s influence on the events of Half-Life 2 and subsequent episodes was triggered by Alyx’s actions. And it turns out this is just the beginning of a complete rearrangement of the Half-Life timeline.
With his powers untethered, the G-Man transports Alyx outside space-time, where he explains that his employers authorise him to ‘nudge things from time to time’ and asks Alyx what she would like to have nudged to repay his rescue. Eventually, in the grand G-Man tradition, he forces something on Alyx that she does not ask for: namely, he hands her his briefcase, which teleports her to the moment of Eli Vance’s death at the ‘hands’ of one of the Combine Advisors at the end of Episode 2. That’s right, we are taken right back to the cliff-hanger ending that has caused so much anguish for thirteen years. The G-Man removes Eli and the Advisor that is about to kill him from space-time, lets Alyx kill the Advisor, and then replaces the living Eli and the dead Advisor in normal space-time. The G-Man then explains that Gordon Freeman has not been performing to expectations (we see a rare third-person glimpse of Gordon) and takes Alyx as his new employee. In a final post-credits scene, we find ourselves in Gordon’s HEV gloves, in front of a living Eli Vance, a dead Advisor and no Alyx. Eli remarks that this must be the ‘unforeseen consequences’ the G-Man had warned him about (for those who remember Episode 2, Alyx relays this message to her father shortly before he is killed) and swears to get Alyx back.
Prepare for Unforeseen Consequences
The ending of Alyx has huge consequences for Half-Life. First, the obvious: it is a major retcon of Half-Life 2 and the episodes. The G-Man interfered in the Combine invasion because Alyx rescued him. He reached forward in time and replaced the timeline we know, where Eli Vance dies, with another, where he lives. And he seems to have formally sacked Gordon in favour of Alyx.
All of it, or most of it anyway, fits remarkably well with existing Half-Life lore (perhaps because so much of it still remains mysterious). The G-Man has always had powers that transcend space-time. He has always been at odds with the Combine. And following the Vortigaunts’ interference in his extraction of Dr Freeman from City 17 at the start of Episode 1, Freeman had grown increasingly independent, and the G-Man had become increasingly frustrated with him (‘Well, we’ll see about that’).
But some questions linger and are more difficult to hypothesise about. If Alyx is employed by the G-Man five years before Half-Life 2, why does it take until after the end of Episode 2 for this to bear fruit? Similarly, why does it take the G-Man five years to unleash Gordon on City 17, and why does Gordon seem to remain in his employment during that time? Why doesn't Alyx remember her interactions with the G-Man or discuss them in any way – why doesn’t she say anything to Gordon throughout their time together? If Alyx was shown the events at the end of Episode 2 five years before they happened, why didn’t she try to do anything to change them? And if she just couldn’t – determinism and all that – then why wasn’t she more freaked out by the way it all went down in Episode 2? Curious, but related, aside: we now know it’s possible to imprison the G-Man, but it takes a giant metal vault and all of the Combine’s efforts to do it. From Episode 1 we know the Vortigaunts are able to counter-act the G-Man, at least collectively, which suggests their powers are at least comparable. But then why is to so easy to capture and enslave them?
In short, as far as major, 180-degree retcons go, it’s successful, although I’m not sure that it’s without at least a few small holes. But I suppose that's not what's important here. Alyx's most significant achievements in terms of plot are twofold. It allows Valve to move past developing a story that has arguably become impossible to develop after thirteen years of expectations by erasing it altogether; and it resets many existing Half-Life theories, including Marc Laidlaw’s now famous Epistle 3 post. This in turn means that they have a much healthier space to start from if and when they develop Half-Life 3. Then again, I suppose strictly speaking the last few minutes of Alyx are the first few minutes of Half-Life 3. Who knew it was hidden inside the G-Man’s briefcase all along?