Can Half-Life: Alyx Save Virtual Reality (And Us) When Actual Reality Is Too Much to Handle?

Would you escape in a VR game designed to make you feel hunted down and paranoid?

Perhaps you should say “no”. Unexpectedly, I did exactly that.

It’s been years since I memorized World War Z tips in case one day they might come in handy, set up a bug-out bag in my house anticipating an earthquake, hoarded at least 3 months of supplies for a situation that requires hunkering down (useful nowadays!), learned how to make water filters and researched how people survived the Bosnian Wars of the 90s.

Considering my coping mechanisms and how easily I escape real life through gaming, I thought I’d jump at the opportunity to play Half-Life: Alyx.

Not this time, though… and it seems I’m not the only one thinking like that.

Meet the Most Detailed VR Game Ever

With weeks of lockdown behind us and who knows how many more ahead, I think many people will (unfortunately, I might add) avoid the best thing to happen for the VR industry so far.

Valve clearly has a different opinion.

The PC gaming market leader and owner of the Steam platform went full steam ahead with the release of Half-Life: Alyx, a 16-years in the making project and a VR-exclusive blockbuster, in spite of the current zeitgeist.

The official description of the game entices you so:

“Playing as Alyx Vance, you are humanity’s only chance for survival. The Combine’s control of the planet since the Black Mesa incident has only strengthened as they corral the remaining population in cities. Among them are some of Earth’s greatest scientists: you and your father, Dr. Eli Vance.

As founders of a fledgling resistance, you’ve continued your clandestine scientific activity—performing critical research, and building invaluable tools for the few humans brave enough to defy the Combine.”

This is the biggest, most detailed VR game ever made, coming from a company that’s both a stellar games developer and one of the major players in the virtual reality industry.

Just how detailed?

Extremely. And you can even put a bucket over your head if it gets too scary, as noticed by this Redditor.

half life alyx gif

Ever since the official announcement of Half-Life: Alyx, many wondered if this franchise has the clout to swing the tides for the underperforming VR industry.

According to this IDC report, global shipments for Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets “reached 1.3 million units during the third quarter of 2019 (3Q19),” an annual decline of -23.8% for the market.

Could Alyx, powered by the mighty resources from Valve, put VR headsets on the table with laptops, tablets and phones as essential consumer devices?

All the Time in the World to Play + Stellar Reviews = Half-Life Success?

One week has passed since the launch and stellar reviews are already pouring in. Just go to Metacritic and see how great of a performance Valve delivered.

Even more, the World Health Organization kicked off a #PlayApartTogether initiative, with the support of major game developers to keep people indoors.

Usually, gaming-related headlines warn about the health and social isolation risks this hobby poses. With the COVID-19 outbreak here, now everyone is singing a different tune.

Gaming is now hailed as a productive, entertaining hobby to pass the time and keep spirits high.

However, despite more and more people turning or returning to gaming as a pastime, it’s unclear whether Alyx is who they want to see (or become) in these troubled times.

I, for one, didn’t save up for a VR headset but considered buying the game nonetheless, then watched other people playing it on Twitch or Youtube.

Then I started wondering what chances Half-Life: Alyx has to save an industry, considering I’m a prime example of the ideal customer for this type of horror, anxiety-inducing experience.

Why You Couldn’t Pay Me to Be Alyx Now

My social anxiety is only matched by my financial anxiety, my sense of security perched precariously on what I consider to be the lowest rung of the middle-class, and I spent years soothing those anxieties with movies and games about the collapse of civilization and the unlikely heroes it will create. Still, you couldn’t pay me to be Alyx today, and the numbers show I’m not alone.

But first, let’s see where she came from and why so many expected her to be a prophet leading us into virtual reality. If you could hop into a time machine and travel back to 1998 and see what everyone was playing, it’s probably Half-Life.

half life gordon freeman crowbar

The first game ever released by Valve, Half-Life redefined the shooter genre through a combination of fast-paced action, clever puzzles and unexpected storylines.

Like what? Like a regular physicist, Gordon Freeman, is one day late for work. After an accident, he finds himself thrown into a world of hostile aliens, equipped with just a crowbar and his wits.

Even today, if you are to look at some walkthroughs of the original Half Life, you’d still be impressed by the quality of the storyline and innovative gameplay mechanics.

After smashing sales records, Valve then took 6 years to launch a sequel, prompting some fans to desperate measures. A year before the 2004 launch, a hacker stole the unfinished Half Life 2 and leaked it online. 😮

It was merely the first hint that this series might gain cult status and drive some to desperation. Little did that hacker and the series’ fans know that they were in it for the long haul.

In 2014, after a decade’s wait, some fans started a crowdfunding campaign to finance a Google Adwords campaign targeted at Valve employees, hire a lookalike for Valve’s CEO to beg the company to release Half-Life 3 and other similar hijinks. 

Still, Valve did not budge.

The next official installment of the Half-Life series was to come almost 16 years after Half-Life 2. Even Black Mesa: Source, a fan-made remake of the original Half-Life, has been in development for a decade itself!

It soon became a running gag that anything Half-Life would take a lifetime to reach fans.


And here we are. The game is here and the shelves are full of VR headsets.

Did Alyx reach us in time? I’m really not sure.

Everything Seems to Be Against Steam and Half-Life: Alyx

Valve released the third entry in the Half-Life series on March 23, 2020, in the middle of a worldwide coronavirus epidemic that forced millions to stay isolated. Some omens are good, some are bad.

The reality is that the game is available for just a select niche of gamers. Its success relies on their willingness to play an anxiety-inducing game and dive head-first into an “immersive experience”.

Alyx runs on most devices that support SteamVR, from the HTC Vive series to Oculus Rift headsets and even mixed reality devices like the HP Reverb or the Samsung Odyssey.  

There is no regular version, you need to own a VR headset, so another few hundred bucks go with the $60 price tag of this game. Of course, you also need a decently capable PC with at least an i5 processor and 12 GB of RAM.

All of this is the first, basic obstacle, considering players like you and me also have to overcome a psychological hurdle.

valve index vr kit

“Alyx has been the last week of my life, switching between this virtual reality world and the horror of our actual existence. In a week where we’ve had all the time to do what we want, it’s been hard to do anything but think. Alyx is the only thing that has grabbed my attention away, like an alien barnacle waiting high above with a hungry mouth and a sticky tongue,” said one game reviewer about the game’s potential to distract during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other side, Mike Minotti from VentureBeat appreciates the game but not the timing:

“[…] Considering how stressed out I already am about being in shelter-in-place and practicing social distancing, I have to say that I’m envious of my friends who were spending all of their time catching virtual fish and paying off digital home loans.”

One thing fans and reviewers agree on is that Half-Life: Alyx is a VR tour de force and a showcase of the full potential of this industry.

Half-Life: Alyx Can Save the Virtual Reality Industry… Just Not Right Now

As I said before, with three weeks indoors, I have had all the time in the world to sit and wonder and ponder.

I’d venture to point out this fantastic meta-review of empirical research on psychological responses to horror films and this report.

I’d even dare to suggest that this is one of the reasons why Valve optimistically decided to go ahead with the launch of Half-Life: Alyx.

Excitation transfer theory, one of the ideas cited, states that we love horror because of the “feeling of suspense”. We love it even more because “when a threat is resolved, our negative affect converts to euphoria and suspense end”.

Yep, horror in a nutshell.

michael myers

However, the theory also continues to say that, if the resolution does not occur, “then residual negative affect will lead to increased dysphoria”.

It then posits that“if there is no suspense but a complete certainty about what will happen, suspense is replaced by dread”.

It’s a formula you’ve seen time and time again, especially with Laurie kicking Michael’s ass but leaving the door open for more. Since I’m no researcher and no mental health expert either, I won’t attach myself too strongly to this idea in order to explain why Alyx can’t save VR just yet.

My feeling is that we don’t need to cultivate dread these days. Experts will tell you that feelings pass and you can get a sense of security from numbers, so let’s see those.

Unfortunately, as I expected and despite its stellar resume and achievements, Half-Life: Alyx won’t be climbing the best-selling charts anytime soon.

At launch, there were 43,000 concurrent players on Steam, with 300K viewers on Twitch watching those players, many of them presumably watching because they themselves could not budget for a pricy VR headset.

Valve has not released the numbers of sales Alyx had for the past week. It’s also impossible to find out just how many people watched Let’s Play videos about it. Even if the real numbers of players and viewers was 10x or 20x as high, that would still put Half-Life: Alyx sales at around $430,000 in the first week.

For AAA games, even multiplatform ones, that’s not usually a number that will help developers and satisfy investors. The cost of development for a AAA game can easily clear $50 million and GTA V reportedly went to $500 million.

With so many PC configurations and headsets available and the challenges of developing the first blockbuster AAA game for VR, not to mention how heavily PC gaming relies on deeply discounted titles in what some developers call “a race to the bottom”, Valve’s investment is probably eye-watering. It saddens me that it won’t be recouped soon.

half life alyx

As someone who has worked close and around the video games industry for nearly a decade, any other time I’d have added the game to cart and figured out a budget to buy a VR headset as well to show support, and I know I’m not alone in this.

In the context of a pandemic and generalized anxiety, Alyx doesn’t seem like the person I want to be right now.

Today, most of us feel like we’re trapped in an absurd, alternate reality.

How we cope with the psychological strain might not involve escaping into an even scarier virtual reality. No matter how much we’re driven by nostalgia, love of new tech, escapism or the hunt for adrenaline, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Half-Life: Alyx had the best chance to bring virtual reality to life but, like a headcrab, it landed just when it could unsettle us most.

VR headsets themselves, in the context of a looming economic and psychological crisis, are a luxury few are able to afford right now. 

Hopefully, developers have the resilience to hunker down and continue creating memorable experiences until we’re all in a better place to enjoy them. 

Personally, after spending three weeks isolated at home, annoyed by social media chatter, and reading this review recently, I think Headspace might be a better investment than a headset.

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