I’m writing this story under self-quarantine for novel coronavirus exposure. I’ve been sequestered for over a week while the city outside my apartment has become America’s COVID-19 epicenter: 13,000 known cases and 125 deaths so far. The governor has ordered six feet of space between all residents in public, and my days are punctuated with the screams of ambulance sirens; at a hospital nearby, doctors have resorted to cleaning used face masks with hand sanitizer. I feel fine, but many New Yorkers are dealing with lost jobs, suddenly shuttered schools, or with the disease itself — deadlier and more contagious than the flu, with no vaccine or cure.
It’s a strange week to be writing about a video game, especially one that sounds fairly grim on paper. The newly released Half-Life: Alyx is set in a post-apocalyptic city run by mysterious entities who are surgically mutilating and slowly exterminating humanity. At least one reviewer couldn’t enjoy Alyx during the pandemic. Paradoxically, though, I’ve found playing the game almost soothing. It’s a demanding virtual reality shooter where I’m playing somebody a lot more level-headed and competent than myself. With a headset on, I can’t check my phone for coronavirus updates. And apparently, making the game was a form of escapism for its creators, too.
Valve Software released its last Half-Life game in 2007. So Alyx was built by a combination of veteran developers and newcomers, including Firewatch co-director Sean Vanaman. Vanaman became one of the primary writers in early 2019 — a time obviously free of the novel coronavirus, but full of anxiety over climate disasters, xenophobia, and other dystopian fears. And the game’s world felt like a refuge.
“I actually found it to be an escape,” said Vanaman in a video interview before Alyx’s launch. (Valve originally invited reporters to its offices around Seattle, but it canceled after a novel coronavirus outbreak in the city.) “We never considered explicitly trying to modernize the themes of the game for what we are going through now. There’s no way this stuff doesn’t inform the way you think about stories and characters, and everything is a byproduct of its cultural moment. But I found it to actually be kind of what I needed in the year 2019.”
Some game studios are worried about controversy and deny even the most blatant political references. Dystopias are like horoscopes: easy to scour for messages about our lives. But Vanaman’s description of Alyx feels right.
Protagonist Alyx Vance’s world is ruled by an alien empire called the Combine, and she’s looking for a superweapon that could help defeat them. In her world, the Combine’s takeover required competence, advanced technology, and a master plan — not just inaction and myopia and petty malice, which have all wreaked havoc in ours. You see a lot of corpses and kill a lot of monsters in Half-Life, but there’s a dignity in fighting powerful aliens. Nobody dies because of a gradually dismantled social safety net, because a world leader fed them lies about a pandemic treatment, or because you didn’t wash your hands.
In Alyx, the Combine feel particularly omnipotent and unknowable. Half-Life 2 featured a smarmy human collaborator named Wallace Breen. Breen’s voice actor Robert Culp died in 2010, though, and original series writer Marc Laidlaw left a lot of the Combine’s goals and abilities ambiguous. “You can’t even write a word before you know where all the chess pieces are on the board, so we would sit in the room and be like... what do the Combine want?” said Vanaman. (He wouldn’t reveal the answer.) “Not having Breen was a real loss — it was kind of just the job. But it was an interesting job to be able to do.”
A post-apocalyptic world could still feel “unfortunately too real,” acknowledged Valve level designer Corey Peters. Among other things, the Combine wreak havoc on Earth’s ecosystem, siphoning its oceans and killing its animals. “But at least with Half-Life, we can still escape a little bit because we’ve got the whole sci-fi element to layer on top of that.”
Ironically, dystopian sci-fi is sometimes criticized as a narrative cop-out. Annihilation and Borne author Jeff VanderMeer has dismissed stories that coat real disasters in a safe glaze of science fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson described the genre as “fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent,” indulging audiences with the feeling that “however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through.”
That fairly describes my experience of Half-Life: Alyx, but it feels different from playing an exaggerated caricature of reality. Alyx is a cathartic collection of terrible but currently unrelatable problems, like having your father kidnapped by psychic worms. It doesn’t make the real problems of the past few years seem less urgent, nor the system that exacerbated the recent pandemic’s spread less broken. The sirens are still blaring outside my window.
And Alyx is optimistic about humanity, starting with its protagonist who’s matter-of-factly trying to save her nightmare world. As Vanaman put it, “We would write dialogue where she’s like, serious voice: ‘The apocalypse is all that I’ve ever known.’ But you don’t feel that way if it’s all you’ve ever known! If it’s all you’ve ever known, you’re like... this is what it is! This is just my life!” When her ally Russel explains the concept of a BLT sandwich, made impossible by the extinction of the pig, he’s nostalgic, and she’s bemused.
It’s not a spoiler that Alyx doesn’t defeat the Combine; after all, they’re the antagonists of Half-Life 2. But the game ends with a meaningful event that feels like a bizarre but hard-won victory for Alyx and her father Eli. “There’s something really hopeful about the Vances,” says Vanaman. “Sometimes it’s nice to be like: these characters like each other and are overcoming odds to succeed in the end. This feels good. People are good. Smart people coming together to solve impossible problems is still something we should be thinking about.”