Will Half-Life: Alyx Set VR Back?

Half-Life: Alyx poses a conundrum for the future of VR. On the one hand, it is praised as one of the best VR games yet. It is critically acclaimed and immensely popular, bringing a best-of-class experience to countless enthusiasts and VR-newbies alike. Yet, as some (disgruntled) people have pointed out, it hardly seems like the game is native to VR. Little in the game requires VR to be playable. The environmental exploration and the gunplay, arguably the core loop of the game, could be turned into a paint-by-numbers flat FPS.

How can we reconcile this paradox? If VR is truly a medium that can upheave and uplift interactive entertainment, how can its poster child be a simple shadow of a regular flat gaming experience? Will every VR game just be a watered-down pancake game with a small garnish of VR laid on top?

Previously, I posed two questions for determining if a game belongs in VR:

  1. Would I rather play this game in VR, or on a flat screen?
  2. If this game wasn’t in VR, would I choose to play it instead of another flat game?

The answer to the second question is almost certainly “No”. Flat games have had decades to refine their metaphors and mechanics; a game that has been shaped to fit in VR will inevitably lose out to non-VR games in their home territory.

So if the second question is answered “No”, the answer to the first question better be “Yes”. But it’s tricky to get a “Yes”. If you play VR games, you have likely felt frustration or boredom and wished that you weren’t wearing an uncomfortable headset and could instead snuggle on your couch and play on the TV using a gamepad.

But perhaps surprisingly, the answer is “Yes” for Half-Life: Alyx. Of course it’s subjective, but it seems that most people (myself included) are eager to strap on a headset in order to dive into that immersive world. What other games make you eager to throw on the headset? Only a handful. Beat Saber’s continuing popularity is in part due to the fact that user’s are willing to jump into the headset just to play a few rounds of Beat Saber.

There is no one answer to why Alyx succeeds where so many fail. Polished audiovisuals; excellent pacing in visuals and spatial design; finely-tuned tension in combat encounters; compelling characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. The game keeps you present and immersed in the virtual world, and that is the value of the game. Conversely, the game’s core loop is sufficient, but not spectacular. You come for the virtual adventure, and the core loop keeps you from being bored.

Previously, I posited that a VR game can succeed only if it stands out on at least 1 of 3 pillars:

  • Kinesthetically pleasing core loop
  • Compelling character
  • Fantasy fulfillment

Alyx certainly succeeds at having compelling character. The worldbuilding, environments, characters, dialogue, and humor are all engaging. For fantasy fulfillment, the game leverages its distinguished IP, drawing you back into a universe that has been in our collective consciousness for nearly two decades, growing to near-mythic proportions.

And yes, its core loop has kinesthetically-pleasing elements. The tuning on the gravity pull is just right, making it a simple joy to fling objects towards your hand. The stress of reloading the pistol during a tense fight is exhilarating, when in other VR games it can be frustrating. Jabbing a syringe into yourself to heal while in cover makes you feel like an incredible badass.

It’s no wonder Alyx succeeded. It executes expertly on all the things that people seek in games, and VR games in particular.

And yet.

Mechanically speaking, the actions you do in the headset are things that can translate to non-VR. Point at a thing, pick it up. Reload a gun. Climb a ladder. Push joystick to walk. Point a gun, shoot. Crouch behind cover.

Compare to the acrobatic gun-fu of SUPERHOT, where you can dodge or block individual bullets, or the savage skull-bashing of GORN. Compare to the rhythmic, full-body synthesis of Beat Saber and Pistol Whip, or the graceful low-gravity navigation of Lone Echo.

Previously, I said that the promise of VR is one of hyperreality, a world that is better than reality: denser, more exciting, more enabling, less annoying. 

Half-Life: Alyx is hyperreal. But its delicate tuning is a brute strength solution to the problem. It isn’t through new clever design paradigms that Alyx captures the hearts and minds of VR gamers, but by relentlessly polishing a mediocre foundation. It is a triumph of budget, not a triumph of innovation.

And accordingly, history will not remember the game for its design. The other games mentioned above will accord a place in history as innovative pioneers, similar to how Spacewar, Pong, and Pacman are still fun to a modern gamer. But in 10 years, Alyx will hold little appeal for VR gamers. Game development tools will advance, decreasing the cost of fidelity. Its audiovisual polish will become less impressive. Correspondingly, its laggard design sensibilities will become more grating.

***

The sad truth is that there is an inverse relationship between design innovation and the overall scope of a game. When following well-worn paths, a development team can spend their energy creating more content and polishing the game. 

Gamers want big, polished games. VR is young enough that the bar has not yet been raised too high in terms of design expectations; players will suffer clunky design because, for the most part, they don’t realize it could be better. 

But clunky design limits the growth of the medium, because it restricts more casual players from being drawn in by the experiences. When an uninnovative yet polished game succeeds, it lures more developers into believing that it is fine to settle for less when pursuing the promise of VR. Collectively, the level of expectation is dragged down. The raising of the bar is stunted. And the longer the bar stays low, the longer new casual users are being exposed to an imperfect incarnation of hyperreality.

So Half-Life: Alyx makes me happy and sad. It is a triumph that gives visibility to the medium and may attract new users in the short run. But it is a mediocre vision of what VR could and should be like in the future. It is sufficiently hyperreal in today’s marketplace, but it accomplishes this with brute strength, not with cleverness. And in doing so, it threatens to set the medium back in the long term.

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