Today marks the release of Valve's first Half-Life game since 2007's Episode 2. More than just another game for the Bellevue based developer, Half-Life: Alyx is a return to the story-driven single-player game that made them famous. In comparison to Valve's previous landmark releases, Half-Life: Alyx stands apart by being designed for VR from the ground up. In order to learn more about why Valve chose VR as the platform for their return to one of our generation's most beloved series, why Alyx is the new protagonist, and how the brilliant gravity gloves came to be, we sat down with designer/programmer Robin Walker and animator Brad Kinley.
The interview was originally slated to be conducted at Valve's headquarters in Bellevue, Washington - as part of a larger trip - but as is the case with most other events these days, COVID-19 had other plans. Luckily, Skype is a thing and even though the Internet connection in the building we're currently confined to threatens to end things prematurely a couple of times, Brad and Robin come through reasonably loud and clear from their own homes, which have doubled as a workspace for them these last few weeks. The society shut down most of us are currently facing nearly wrecked havoc on Alyx's release date, but luckily the timing was generous enough that only parts of the localisation have been affected. Launching your baby of four years in the midst of a global health crisis is a surreal experience, Robin tells us. Of the two, he is the Valve senior with 22 years of experience, while Brad has "only" worked there since 2014. This, of course, means that Robin, as well as several other key members on the team, has worked on the original Half-Life and Half-Life 2, but even though Valve has shifted focus several times since he started working there, by and large, it feels like the same place, he says. The hierarchy is still somewhat flat and there is the freedom to start and join exciting projects in small groups, which is exactly how Half-Life: Alyx started out...
Robin Walker: "When we start working at something like Alyx, you can't just convince 80 people to stop what they're doing and come work on this instead, because they're smart people and whatever it is they're working on is also really valuable - whether it's supporting Counter-Strike, supporting DOTA, working on Steam or building something else we haven't announced. What that means is if you want to convince people within Valve to come join you on a new project, you need to have a really compelling case for why the thing you're building makes sense. We regard that as a strength. That means you tend to start out with a small team. With Half-Life: Alyx we took a bunch of Half-Life 2 assets and the gloves from Counter-Strike: GO and built a 45 minute VR experience. It had a pistol and headcrabs and zombies. We started showing it to people at the company and pretty quickly it was clear that there was something really interesting there. After that, more and more people joined the team as they finished other projects. They came over and played what we had at the time and said: "This is interesting, I want to come work on this."
What made you want to work on Half-Life again after being away from the series for such a long time?
Robin Walker: "Well, I think we always wanted to work on a Half-Life game again. It [the hiatus] wasn't through lack of desire. Half-Life is an interesting IP to us at Valve. I think if you look back over the history of it, it's always the thing we go to when we have this large scale opportunity - often it's technology-based but sometimes it's game design based. If you go all the way back to the original Half-Life, we started building that because at the time we thought there was an opportunity around first-person shooters to do something more narratively than had been done before. We thought the medium of a first-person shooter could tell stories in a way people perhaps hadn't thought of beforehand. So it wasn't so much we thought there was an opportunity to tell an amazing story but rather how we tell amazing stories in first-person shooters. That was the thing we held onto as we built Half-Life. And then when you go forward to Half-Life 2, we saw a couple of opportunities. One was in the way we represent characters in first-person shooters. There was an opportunity to go deeper and drive the narrative forward that way. And the other thing was, of course, the emergence of physics engines. We thought we could use physics for real gameplay opportunities. So they were both products that, as you worked on them as an individual developer, you had a real sense of what its hooks were that you were going to build something novel with.
"The problem we ran into after the Half-Life 2 episodes, as we tried to build more Half-Life, was we kept searching for a hook and it's really hard to build a Half-Life game without one. We would start to build one and in the process search for a hook and that's a scary and hard problem to solve because you have to face the prospect that you could do a year of work and then at the end of it still have nothing. So when Half-Life: Alyx started it wasn't because we wanted to build a Half-Life game, it started because we wanted to build a VR game. And we start by doing what we always do, which is spending time using our existing IPs and codebases to try and explore a design space as quickly as possible. Pretty quickly we found out Half-Life was the one that worked best, so we ran with that. The difference working on this [Alyx] compared to previous Half-Life experiments was significant. You could have someone play that prototype and they would leave and know exactly what it was that we were trying to do and then start to write code or make art assets immediately because we just had to take everything that works in Half-Life and figure out how it has to mutate, change, and improve in VR. That's a much less scary problem than: go find some novel idea, that we don't know what is yet."
Speaking of VR, which games have inspired or simply just impressed you?
Brad Kinley: "The thing I find really interesting about VR is almost every product has a single idea that they take in a big direction - because it's usually a small team. So even games that fail in other aspects like story have taken one thing and done an amazing job with it. It's almost like 2D indie games, they concentrate on a single gameplay mechanic that they do way better than their peers. VR games are kinda the same. I played Budget Cuts five years ago which was bigger in scale than most VR games on the market. It wasn't something you would just play for 5-10 minutes. That was a hint that we could take an existing IP and make it work in VR."
Robin Walker: "Yeah, if you had to pick a game that had the largest impact on Alyx, it would be Budget Cuts."
Let's talk a bit more about mechanics. The gravity gloves are a candidate for the best new game mechanic of 2020. Where did the idea come from?
Robin Walker: "It was very early in the process. Like any good game design element, they're not just solving one problem, they're solving a bunch. The gravity gloves come out of a discrete set of actual problems we know of, whereas the gravity gun was more of a fun way to mess around with physics. For instance, we know there is a lot of stuff to collect in the game because players love exploring and collecting things in VR spaces. And a core goal was to make sure the game could be played on essentially every VR headset out there using every VR controller. That created some problems since not every headset has the tracking that makes it easy to, for instance, bend down and pick up an object. We also wanted to reduce unnecessary teleporting and the gravity gloves allow you to enter a room and just take whatever you want from where you stand. You don't need to move to each object to pick it up. So the gloves start out as a functional workhorse solution to problems but of course, they don't stop there. We start exploring opportunities such as taking a clip from an enemy so you can reload and shoot them with it or steal his grenades. Some of these things come from us thinking about them but a lot of them come from just watching people play the game."
And what about the multi-tool? It brings a lot of physicality to the puzzles, which is great.
Robin Walker: "Early on, we discovered through playtests that doing things with both hands at the same time was really interesting. It's one of those things where it seems incredibly obvious in retrospect. In the past we've had one controller and one camera and the two have essentially been fixed. We lost that and instead, we got three full six degrees of freedom movement - your left arm, right arm and head who can all move independently at the same time. What's awesome is you can do it really naturally, you can provide very complex input through those in a way that you couldn't before. As I say, there's no way my mother could play Half-Life, but she can play Alyx, even though she is providing more complex input into Alyx than she can into Half-Life. So, we really wanted to try and spend a lot of effort on trying to find ways to use that, to create moments where you are providing multiple sources of independent tracking input. One of the first we explored was the hacking minigames. They are all about using the multi-tool in one hand, your other hand to manipulate something else and you'll also want to move your head around. So the multi-tool is important to Alyx as a character but it's also us encouraging you to think carefully about the position of your hands and head."
Brad Kinley: That became a repeated theme throughout development. Whenever we found something that would only work really well in VR and was fun in VR, we would explore that space. It was almost like discovering this uncharted territory of fun, which was very exciting.
Let's talk about the setting of the game. Why did you choose to set Alyx between Half-Life and Half-Life 2 instead of making, for instance, a sequel?
Robin Walker: "Throughout development, we worked on finding a good balance between nostalgia and novelty. You go too far on either side and it can become really problematic. Early on, we felt like there would be so much novelty in what you were doing and how you were doing it that having some recognisable stuff in our setting would serve us well. So, we start in a familiar place and over time it becomes less familiar, it starts to go off the rails as you get further in. When you want to do otherworldly or alien stuff, it's always better served when it's juxtaposed with something recognisable and real world. This time period gave us an easier time tackling this. We also had a story in the time period that we were interested in telling."
And what about the choice of Alyx as the main character?
Robin Walker: "Well, to some extent Gordon is not around so that was a hard constraint. But at a high level, you're doing a lot of the things you did in previous Half-Life games but you do them all differently. They are part of the Half-Life DNA but you do them in a new way. So, it seemed appropriate to do that in a different character. We used to joke, "Gordon can only solve things without speech, Alyx can solve them with speech". A lot of the combat we were looking to do would benefit from a character that didn't seem like they had an armoured suit on, that was more vulnerable and had a different focus than Gordon."
Half-Life: Alyx is an exciting new direction for Valve. It's them saying to the VR doubters: this is the AAA title that shows the potential for big productions in VR. Whether the audience is there yet remains to be seen but nonetheless Alyx is a wholehearted attempt to pull VR further towards the mainstream. When asked about future projects, the pair naturally came up with a vague answer, however, they do emphasise how much fun it was to work on Half-Life: Alyx. It seems there is a wish to develop more story-driven titles in the future and if Alyx's quality is an indication of things to come, we second that wish.