Half-Life: Alyx - Tone
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
When Alyx was announced people immediately noticed two things. First, contrary to the ever-silent Gordon Freeman, Alyx talks. And second, via a headset she is permanently in touch with her humorous sidekick Russell. Between them they have quite the bants. So I’ve been thinking about Russell and what he brings and takes away from Half-Life.
On one hand, it’s an odd choice. Half-Life has always had this slightly surreal, unnerving, minimalist tone to it (Marc Laidlaw, who was a key writer on Half-Life, is sometimes associated with the weird literary movement, which explains a lot here). I believe part of that is due to the fact that Gordon never said anything and the player spent large swathes of the game alone and in silence. By including a constant in-ear wise-cracking buddy, Alyx takes away some of that dark loneliness. The quiet moments are less meditative and serene because you know Russell could pipe up at any moment.
On the other hand, it makes sense. Russell, voiced by Rhys Darby (probably best known for his role as Murray from Flight of the Conchords), adds very similar levity and humour as Stephen Merchant did in Portal 2, and I can’t help but feel that Alyx is deliberately going for somewhere between ‘classic’ Half-Life and Portal in terms of tone here. There is also the fact that you do spend a lot of time in Half-Life with companions; Alyx is with Gordon for almost all of Episode 2, for example, and let’s not forget Dr Kleiner chasing his headcrab in the Red Letter Day chapter. I imagine this would be quite annoying in VR: you’d feel compelled to follow your AI friend and lose the sense of exploration that Alyx seems to want to give to the player. A disembodied companion is a compromise then: keep some of that classic Half-Life companionship without the virtual tether.
I imagine it’s also done to lighten the atmosphere a little. Shooting zombies in poorly lit underground corridors and crawling through brutalist alien architecture in a desolate Eastern European city that seems trapped somewhere in the early 90s could, I suppose, get quite oppressive after a while. So a friendly voice that’s quick with a joke every now and then may offer welcome respite. This is especially obvious in the latter sections of Chapter 3, when Alyx is repeatedly forced into very dark, claustrophobic areas with multiple zombies and headcrabs. I swore constantly and loudly the first time I heard the familiar rattle of poison headcrabs, alone, in complete darkness, able to navigate using only a newly acquired flashlight. It is one of the most intense gaming moments I’ve ever had, and I was genuinely grateful when a few minutes later Alyx confessed that she is afraid of the dark and asked Russell to tell her a story to keep her company.
And the banter is pretty good anyway. My favourite is when Russell tells Alyx that he downloaded the entire internet before the Combine took over, which is how he knows so much stuff about the world. Partly just an amusing joke, partly a clever jab at other in-ear narrators who seem to know everything (let’s remember that System Shock 2 and Bioshock got there first).
So that brings me to the overall atmosphere. Is it Half-Life? Yes, undoubtedly: just look at some of the screenshots. But it’s not quite the Half-Life we are used to. Having it wrapped around your eyeballs makes for a much more intense and immediate experience, which is offset with a lighter, more humorous tone.