Virtual reality has been the topic of many science fiction movies and novels – and some of them even got it right. Think of the VR internet browsing used by the protagonist in Robert Longo’s cyberpunk trash “Johnny Mnemonic” or the OASIS in “Ready Player One” – both the book and the movie. VR has always been an exciting technology – unfortunately, reality failed to catch up with science fiction so far. We are still ages away from the lightweight gear offering total immersion presented in so many works of fiction – pop culture has set the bar very high for this one. This doesn’t mean VR is not exciting anymore. Aside from the many real-life uses of virtual reality, it also has the potential to become the next generation of entertainment.
Some say that VR lacks what made gaming consoles a hit: truly big, exclusive games – like Halo for the Xbox, Final Fantasy for PlayStation, and Mario for Nintendo (don’t laugh – Super Mario Bros. is the sixth best-selling game in history, and Mario-themed games routinely sold tens of millions of units). Now, VR may get its big exclusive title in the form of Half-Life: Alyx.
Half-Life: A short history
The original Half-Life game was released in 1998, telling the story of Gordon Freeman, a mild-mannered scientist who has to escape the top-secret underground complex at Black Mesa. It was a massive success, gathering more than 50 “Game of the Year” awards, and influencing first-person shooters for years to come. And it was also a best-selling game: it sold more than 200,000 units in a month and a half after its release. As you might expect, Half-Life spawned follow-ups: Opposing Force, an expansion pack telling the story from the perspective of a US Marine stuck in the Black Mesa Research Facility, Blue Shift, a retelling of the same story from the perspective of Barney, a security guard working underground when things take a bad turn.
Gordon Freeman put on his HEV suit again in 2004, in a story set 20 years after the events at Black Mesa. Here, Earth is occupied by the Combine, a transdimensional species. Freeman must fight his way through City 17, an occupied city somewhere in Eastern Europe, get into the Citadel and destroy it. It was followed by two “Episodes” – these were, unfortunately, very short, and ended in a cliffhanger.
And then silence… for more than a decade.
Valve’s announcement of a new Half-Life game probably made a very large number of gamers very happy – only to cool down their enthusiasm in an instant when they found out it will be a VR exclusive. It is still an exciting project, showing that Valve has not forgotten completely about the Half-Life universe, and reignited the hopes for a potential Episode 3 (maybe a full-blown sequel).
But Half-Life: Alyx is important for the entire gaming industry for another important reason: it is the first big franchise releasing a game aimed exclusively on VR. Before it, VR development usually meant adaptations of titles and the release of “experiences”. Now, for the first time, a truly big and highly anticipated game universe gets the exclusive treatment, a “first-party” title, showing a commitment to growing VR as a platform like never before. According to many, “Alyx” might be just what VR needs to finally blast into the mainstream.
Dedication is the best word to describe Valve’s stance on this game. There are 50 people in the team working on the title. The story is written by Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton, known for their work on Portal and Portal 2, and most of the voice actors from the previous Episodes also return (except for Merle Dandridge, the original voice of Alyx, because the game needed a “younger” voice). The team spent the better part of the last three years developing the game, getting it ready for its March 2020 release.
Will it be a great selling point for VR hardware? Well, it already is. A week after it was announced last November, Valve’s “Index” VR headsets, controllers, and base stations sold out in the US, Canada, and Europe, and in the rest of the regions, they sold out until the middle of this month. By the way, all Index owners will get the game for free.
While VR may never become the mass market the enthusiasts expect, it will definitely take the first step toward this status this year. And the new Half-Life game may just prove to be the boost it needs.