It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for residents of Earth. City 17, formerly one of our planet’s finest remaining urban centers, has been destroyed. A nearly spontaneous uprising has destabilized the Combine Empire’s two-decade stranglehold on humanity. It’s a time of danger, but also hope, and we owe much of it to one woman: Alyx Vance.
Vance hasn’t received as much attention as her colleague, the theoretical physicist and military hero Gordon Freeman. But a recent chronicle of her early time in the Resistance has sparked renewed interest in her background and achievements. The story itself is worth hearing in full. If you’ve been restricted to official Combine media for most or all of your life, however, you might want a refresher on the context. To get everybody on the same page, we’re answering some questions you might have about Alyx Vance but are too embarrassed (or busy fighting headcrab zombies and antlions) to ask.
Who is Alyx Vance?
Alyx Vance is a leader of the human resistance against the Combine as well as the daughter of Eli Vance, a former physics researcher at Black Mesa.
Wait, back up a lot. What exactly are the Combine?
The Combine are an interdimensional empire that has occupied Earth for roughly the past 20 years. Their goal is to fully colonize our planet, strip its resources, force its residents into prison-like cities, and effectively exterminate the human race by suppressing our urge to reproduce. This plan has been widely condemned by the Resistance as well as many other residents of Earth.
Yes, obviously. But what are they?
Giant brain-eating psychic worms.
It’s more complicated than that since the Combine Empire has absorbed many alien species. But the worm-like Advisors, as they’re called, appear to control the Combine Empire on Earth.
More practically, “Combine” refers to the whole range of the Empire’s biomechanical weapons, including its trans-human military troops. So when a neighbor warns you about a Combine raid before screaming or abruptly going silent, that’s generally what they mean.
Why did the Combine invade? And what’s Black Mesa?
I’m glad you asked those questions together. The Black Mesa Research Facility was a top-secret laboratory located in the former American state of New Mexico. As its name suggests, it was the site of the Black Mesa Incident, which indirectly led to the Combine invasion.
In the early 2000s, a team of Black Mesa researchers discovered an alternate dimension called the Xen Borderworld. An expedition recovered a crystal from Xen, and the research team examined it with an Anti-Mass Spectrometer, an extremely large device designed to test exotic materials.
For unclear reasons, however, the test produced what’s known as a “resonance cascade” — essentially an unstable reaction that opened a rift between Earth and Xen. This allowed an invasion by several hostile species, including ones that we still see today, like the Vortigaunts.
Hostile? Aren’t the Vortigaunts our allies?
Definitely! Vortigaunts are a vital part of the Resistance — they can shoot electricity, heal wounds, commune through a collective hive mind, and (sort of) see into the future. They’ve taken an increasingly central role in fighting the Combine.
Back then, though, Vortigaunts were enslaved by a superpowerful and apparently hostile being called the Nihilanth.
Who’s the Nihilanth again?
A giant floating psychic fetus who ruled the Xen Borderworld.
And the Nihilanth worked for the Combine?
Actually, the opposite. The Nihilanth was a refugee from a different Combine invasion. It took up residence in Xen, then either disappeared or died during the Black Mesa Incident. We’re a little vague on that point — all of our accounts come from the Vortigaunts themselves, and human language doesn’t seem complex enough to capture the nuance of their explanations. But either way, you don’t really have to think about it too much.
Then how did the Combine get here?
Through a series of “portal storms”: hurricane-like extreme weather events that create interdimensional openings. Portal storms are uncommon now, although they’ve increased sharply in recent days. But a wave of them hit Earth shortly after the Black Mesa Incident. While they’re presumably related to the resonance cascade, it’s difficult to be sure, since Black Mesa was destroyed by a targeted nuclear attack and many records were lost during the Seven Hour War.
Did the Combine really conquer Earth in seven hours? Couldn’t we have held out longer?
Probably. But most experts say the Combine had a decisive advantage over human military forces. So the real question is: should Earth have held out longer?
It’s hard to say. The quick surrender arranged by Wallace Breen — who was Black Mesa’s administrator before being appointed planetary administrator — may have saved countless lives. However, since the Combine’s apparent goal is human extinction preceded by unspeakable atrocities and mass internment, the ultimate efficacy of this choice is questionable at best.
But the Resistance has started racking up victories against the Combine lately. What changed?
Gordon Freeman, mostly.
I always thought he was a myth.
That’s reasonable! Few people survived the Black Mesa Incident, and some stories about Freeman are probably exaggerated. It seems unlikely, for example, that anyone could neutralize hundreds of hostile aliens with a crowbar. And he did disappear without a trace for 20 years.
But eyewitness reports indicate that Freeman debarked a train in City 17 approximately two weeks ago. Since then, the Combine’s Earth headquarters (otherwise known as the Citadel) has been neutralized — albeit not without massive collateral damage since it appears to have caused an explosion that leveled City 17 as well. He also apparently helped Resistance fighters close a “superportal” that might have allowed Combine reinforcements to arrive.
Does that mean Gordon Freeman single-handedly saved the world?
Not by a long shot. Freeman was a vital catalyst, and the Resistance would be almost certainly doomed without him. But his greatest enemies and allies tend to oversimplify his achievements. Breen’s recent claim that “some of the worst excesses of the Black Mesa Incident have been laid directly at his feet,” for instance, is dubious.
Based on interviews with City 17 refugees, Freeman has played a mostly frontline role in the recent conflict, leaving large-scale logistics and strategic planning to Resistance leadership. Despite his scientific background, he’s uninvolved in Resistance research and development programs. Some reports have stated that Freeman simply doesn’t talk at all. Again, that may be an exaggeration or a joke, but it speaks to the importance of his allies. Which brings us back to Alyx Vance.
Right. So seriously, tell me about Alyx Vance.
Alyx Vance is also a survivor of the Black Mesa Incident, although she was a young child at the time, and the exact circumstances of her escape are unclear. Her father, Eli, has helped run the Resistance since then. As a result, she’s basically grown up inside the movement, receiving extensive training in combat, mechanical engineering, and computer hacking. She’s also one of the Resistance’s most charismatic figures, maintaining a tone of hopeful pragmatism that’s rallied citizens to its cause. And in a movement dominated by first-generation Black Mesa researchers, she provides some much-needed new blood.
Vance has reportedly accompanied Gordon for large parts of his journey in the past couple of weeks, providing backup firepower and helping him infiltrate Combine facilities. Recent accounts have offered far more detail about Vance’s earlier life — and the Resistance’s history — before the recent uprising. But as we said, they’re worth checking out on their own.
Where is she now?
We’re not sure. It’s rumored that she and Freeman are trying to locate an Arctic research vessel called the Borealis, which was created before the invasion by a Black Mesa rival called Aperture Science. But we’re not sure what they want with this ship, and we’ve gotten virtually no new information since the closure of the superportal. Hopefully, we won’t be waiting too long for an update.
Wait, one last thing. There’s a thin man with a suit and briefcase sneaking around my neighborhood. But every time I try to catch him, it’s like he magically disappeared. Does this guy work for the Combine? Is he actually human? Should I be scared of him?
We have no idea.