If you're like me, the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx came out of seemingly nowhere, and as far as the direction of the Half-Life series was concerned, I did not expect it to go in that direction. If you're not familiar with the Half-Life series, here's the gist of it... Half-Life is a series of video games that are set in a science fiction setting revolving around the invasion of Earth by interdimensional aliens. The gameplay is mostly about solving physics-based puzzles combined with conventional first-person shooter mechanics. What made Half-Life stand out is its focus on allowing the player to use the environment as a tool itself to solve problems, or kill enemies.
The release of Half-Life and Half-Life 2 during its times were seen as benchmarks of innovation in video games, particularly in storytelling, lifelike characters, and object-based physics. The introduction of Half-Life 2 in a dystopian European city occupied by ominous mysterious alien imperialists was jaw-dropping to first experience when I was younger.
Both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 respectively have given birth to countless user-created mods, thanks to accessible modding tools provided by the developers. Some of these mods have even given birth to their own standalone video games, such as Counter-Strike and Garry's Mod. In essence, Half-Life provided a base for amateur game developers to grow and fostered a thriving modding community.
Ironically, before the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx, a Half-Life 2 mod was already in the making that aims to tell the story of Alyx Vance, which is still in-development and not in any way affiliated with the announced retail game. I knew about this mod before the announcement, and admittedly thought that Valve (the developers of Half-Life) might have acquired it along with its development team. They haven't.
The last Half-Life game released by Valve was Half-Life 2: Episode Two more than 10 years ago way back in 2007 (yes, 2007 was more than a decade ago, feeling old yet?). That game ended on a cliffhanger, which was supposed to be wrapped up via a third episode that infamously never materialized. After so much time has passed, it makes sense that Valve has understandably abandoned trying to conclude the story.
Along comes Half-Life: Alyx, a shiny reboot to the franchise and prequel to Half-Life 2. However, this game has a number of notable problems. For one, it is VR-only. For people like me that don't want to spend hundreds of dollars (or more than a thousand) on what is really a wearable screen and Wii-like remote... And who have sensitive skin that makes wearing goggles in order to play a game a perfect breeding ground for "pressurized acne"... Oh and you need open physical space of course to use VR, so good luck to the newer generations who can barely afford rent to solve that one... VR is simply not worth the hassle.
Yes, VR is immersive. Yes, it's new and innovative. I'm sure Half-Life: Alyx will introduce many new ways never seen before in a game to interact with the environment and will probably be a VR masterpiece... And looking from the trailer, it's production values are top-notch with an interesting Dishonored-looking city... The obvious problem is that not many will be able to actually play it. Most people, I wager, will opt to watch playthroughs of it on YouTube.
Sure, the Christmas season is coming up, so maybe there'll be enough nagging Zoomers and rich Boomers to buy the latest entertainment gadget, but VR as a whole still seems like an expensive and impractical gimmick, like 3D television.
In my opinion, and call me old-fashioned, there's nothing wrong with the keyboard-and-mouse and standard game controller, apart from the tendency to give its users carpal tunnel syndrome, like any other repetitive activity involving a limited range of motion. And 2D screens are well... Fine. Wii was a thing for a while until people realized that if you want to play tennis, it's better just to play the real thing. 3D is cool for some movies like Avatar, but most people don't really want to wear special glasses just to watch TV... 2D is convenient and stimulating enough already.
Video games as a whole serve as escapism. People want to sit down, relax, and cease their attention on real anxieties. What attracted me to video games in my youth wasn't graphics per-se... It was the feeling of being in another world... The more dynamic it was the better. Playing Shenmue, Fallout, and yes, Half-Life, gave me a stimulating and addictive illusion. Lately I've noticed games going backwards on mechanics, becoming less dynamic, more cut-scene-y, almost more like an interactive motion picture than a game.
Think of SimEarth, now that is a true simulation... An entire planet's ecosystem, simulated, right from the beginning to total atomic annihilation... And it does all of this by itself. Or look at Sims 3, a bold experiment in an open world for a life simulation series. The latest Sims game, Sims 4, may add some interesting personality features, but as a whole is less dynamic (without mods at least).
The excessive focus on graphical innovation over less noticeable mechanics, like artificial intelligence, is in my view part of a general trend towards superficiality and dumbing down. Games like Minecraft, RimWorld, and Prison Architect... All of which happen to be indie games, at least when they started out... Are interesting not because of how they look, but because of how they work.
Fortunately despite the concentration of ownership in mass media, creating video games is more accessible than ever, with a plethora of affordable development tools available to independent amateurs.
I, for one, have been playing around with the idea of a grimdark life simulator in my head for years.