Writer’s Note: This is an older piece from earlier in the year we found rummaging around in the archives, a piece from a different time with a little different style, enjoy!
Half-Life 2: Episode One is one of the most competent VR experiences I have ever played, surprisingly so for a game that was never built for it.
Something a lot of people struggle with in Virtual Reality is how there’s a sense of presence that people find hard to articulate. Using the Oculus Rift felt very underwhelming until, out of the dark rubble of City 17, Dog’s hands smashed through to pull a piece of rubble blocking my sight.
Moments later, I found myself standing under Dog. A faithful robot companion I had spent many years fighting alongside in the troubled setting of Half-Life 2. But there I was, truly standing underneath Dog, towering over me like a giant! Any person I put inside of that headset to experience that opening scene was as shocked as I found myself in that moment.
And that was just the beginning of seeing Gordon Freeman’s exploration of the ruins in a whole new perspective.
City 17 stopped feeling like the level I had sprinted through numerous times, finally elevated to the heights of a real and tangible place, an authentic, living vibrant place. It felt as real to me as any city I had been to in person, and for the first time my memories of a virtual space were being written into my neurons like I was really there. It’s a threshold of immersion that I have only reached on rare occasions outside of VR, and there was a sublime contrast against playing the game so many times outside of it. I wasn’t just playing a fresh, new tech demo meant to wow me with visuals- I was revisiting old friends in a new light.
I think this is part of what made the game feel so much stronger than it originally did on it’s troubled release. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 was a much needed but crestfallen follow-up to the cliffhanger Half-Life 2 left off on, and despite its impressive visuals for the time it never really captured my imagination even with its impressive setpieces. VR resolved this in a way I didn’t know was possible, it captured the magic of having the burning citadel rise into the skies, debris and ash raining down on you.
What I didn’t fully grasp until getting further in was the side effect this immersion would have on other less obviously impactful elements of the game: namely Alyx. Originally, she was a strong character and a faithful companion, someone you both found helpful and wished well. In Episode 1, they sought to further define both her character and how she interacted with the player. At the time, these changes were appreciated but overall underwhelming despite achieving their intended outcome. Now, suddenly in VR, those subtle changes made her exuberant personality come through loud and clear.
It became easier than ever to become attached to her well-being and have deep seated concern for her. The look of relief and the sense of tangible emotion when she hugs Gordon, freshly plucked from the ruins, is palpable. You expect the hug, you feel it even though it’s impossible to physically do so, setting the larger tone for the emotional bond that develops over the course of the game. The same is easily said for Dog, Eli, and everyone else you encounter even for brief moments on Gordon’s Journey through the underworld of the city.
What does this experience get so right that contemporary VR shooters don’t? Why is it so hard to capture these strong feelings in Virtual spaces?
Part of the answer seems to lie in the excellent craft that went into producing the holistic sum of Half-Life 2. We have yet to really see a title that builds upon the legacy of over fifteen years of game development that had a relatively clear vision. And for all the work Valve put into VR as a platform, even extending that functionality to the Source Engine, they have strangely not made it readily accessible to their own HTC Vive platform.
Sure, you can play it in direct VR mode if you can figure out how to get it to work, but it doesn’t feel quite the way it did on primitive VR prototypes years ago. Most of the work put into making the Source Engine VR compatible is still better than many adaptions I’ve seen. It isn’t room-scale VR, no, but it does somehow translate a mouse and keyboard control scheme fairly naturally to a VR headset.
Unfortunately, there is a lot that goes into making a game compatible with a VR headset, and the engine has never really seen a solid retrofit for the Vive. There are a myriad of rumors that Valve may be working on some yet unannounced VR title set in the Half-Life universe, but I sadly doubt we’ll be seeing it anytime soon.
Until then, it would be nice if we could fully revisit the game in a higher resolution than early hardware prototypes offered us. If modders have any say in it, we may just get that opportunity at some point.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice