With approximately two months left to go until their next game’s launch, the developers at Valve opened up to the throngs at Reddit for a thousands-strong “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session on Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, most of the questions were ignored—especially ones that mentioned the number “three”—but the team still revealed some new and interesting tidbits about March’s upcoming VR-exclusive game Half-Life: Alyx.
Perhaps most importantly, the development team insists the game is still on schedule to launch in its announced window of March 2020. “With the exception of some tweaks to the absolute final scene, the game is done,” an unnamed staff member says in one post. “We let the Valve Time happen before we announced the game.” This statement alludes to the company’s tradition of letting release schedules slip until a game reaches “it’s done” territory, but that wasn’t clarified in further answers.
That means the game’s full suite of movement options within VR are complete, Valve says, “including things like Seated, Left-Handed mode, etc.” The new game’s suite of “accessibility” features are still being iterated on, particularly support for one-handed play.
In another answer, Valve confirms that the game is currently designed for fluid two-hand play, which may make any one-handed modes tricky to implement:
Our weapons all require only one hand, but they can be optionally grabbed and steadied by your offhand. We really wanted to focus on simultaneous two-handed play throughout the game, so we needed the player to always be able to easily have a free hand. We keep that hand pretty busy with gravity gloves, movement, world interactions, flashlight, and so on.
Additionally, Valve says a variety of contextual menus and indicators will “keep the player’s eyes on the environment as much as possible, including over-the-shoulder inventory systems and at least one menu revealed by flipping your real-life wrist.
No longer “maintaining a fragile friction”
Repeatedly, the HL:A team referenced the legacy of older Half-Life games. Longtime Valve writer Erik Wolpaw used the AMA as an opportunity to insist that original series writer Marc Laidlaw has actively participated with the current game’s writing team, despite no longer being employed by Valve. He wrote:
We’ve never been able to figure out where the rumors of us falling out with Marc came from, because there’s no truth to it. He’s been super generous with his time throughout the development of HL:A, answering many questions from Erik, Jay, and Sean as they hammered away on the story. As is always the case with Marc, we send him an email, and he sends us a response, and then roughly 40 more replies to his own email.
Unfortunately, as of press time, Valve hasn’t answered the AMA’s questions about Laidlaw’s work on an apparent Half-Life 2: Episode 3 plot outline.
Wolpaw says the new game’s writing and tone are in line with existing Half-Life titles, which he describes as “closer in tone to the Portal games than they are to, say, The Last of Us.” He insists that the new game’s use of a speaking protagonist, a first for a single-player Valve game, is “mostly liberating” and makes players feel like “they’re actually an active participant in the scene.” He acknowledges the fun that the Portal team had writing around its mute protagonist but indicates this wasn’t a good fit for another Half-Life game in the modern era: “It’s a lot more tricky when you have to maintain a fragile fiction that the player character can talk but simply isn’t for some reason.”
The AMA only included vague hints about returning enemies and characters from previous games (other than popular characters like the Headcrab, which were already outed by the game’s reveal trailer). One cool tidbit came from an unnamed developer about under-the-hood systems carried over from older games: “There are some things we think we did better in HL1 than HL2.” To make their point, this developer claims the new game’s Combine Soldiers are based on AI routines from the first Half-Life game.
In confirming the absence of original Alyx Vance voice actor Merle Dandridge, Valve says she had been approached at the game’s outset, “but in the end, felt we wanted to go in a different direction.” While Valve didn’t clarify that point any further, the AMA went so far as to say, “we hope to work with her again in the future.” Could this mean the new game’s “younger” Alyx voice actor and Dandridge may eventually be heard simultaneously in some time-traveling loop sequence? It’s Half-Life, so, who knows.
Like in previously released games, Valve says it “plans” on adding a commentary track to HL:A, though that’s “unlikely” to happen in time for the game’s March launch. And when asked whether this new game will include a train sequence, like other classic Half-Life entries, Valve said flatly, “It’s actually illegal to ship a Half-Life game if you don’t spend at least a little time riding in a train.” (Fans immediately jumped on this comment to demand a train sequence be patched into the free Half-Life 2: Lost Coast tech demo.)
No more jumping, but maybe jump scares?
In terms of raw VR mechanics, Valve confirms a few details. One biggie is that the game will not include a jumping function but will, rather, include either automatic “mantling” up climbable surfaces or a “teleport” tap to cross short gaps. (Assuming the game otherwise includes interesting and tense traversal moments, that should be fine by us; we don’t come to Half-Life games in search of Turok-like jumping challenges, anyway.)
Barnacles are set to return, though for similar reasons as the above jumping detail, their dangling tongues won’t physically lift HL:A players. “We experimented with moving the player, but moving the player without their input in VR didn’t work very well,” Valve says. “As with many aspects of working on this game, we’ve had to find new ways to take well-worn mechanics and other Half-Life staples into the specific framework of VR.”
Two of the AMA’s shortest answers hinted to some seriously trippy VR-specific moments: “some creatures respond to audio more than others,” and “limb dismemberment is not a factor in most combat encounters—but there is a very notable exception.” We wonder whether this has to do with the sounds of VR footsteps or whether VR headsets’ built-in microphones will be turned on for certain moments in the game. Valve didn’t clarify.
Both of those vague hints sound creepy, and one Valve dev, who outed himself as the team’s most timid player, answered questions about the game’s horror-scare potential within VR headsets at length:
Horror is part of the franchise, and through playtesting, we feel like we’ve gained some confidence about where to draw this line. Some of our gorier visuals tend to evoke a grim fascination rather than revulsion or panic, and apart from myself, we’ve hardly ever seen anyone nope out of a playtest, even during the creepier sections.
Boo to lack of SDK, yay to Headcrab bucket
To that end, the AMA included some wonky, technical breakdowns about the Source 2 engine’s sound implementations. This included a promising emphasis on the VR game’s sound design: “Figuring out ways of making environments sonically interesting for players who want to take their time and explore, which happens much more frequently in VR.”
Speaking of wonky, technical breakdowns: Unlike the recent, uneven VR adventure game Boneworks, HL:A will not include any visible body parts within players’ VR view beyond their hands. However, Valve says that its upcoming game actually models invisible arms and legs, primarily to stop nearby geometry (doors, drawers) from colliding unnaturally with your nearby virtual body.
Should fans be excited by the various new systems described in the AMA, particularly tweaks to the Source 2 engine for refined VR development, they’ll need to cool their heels for a while. While Valve has told fans that some VR-specific tools will be opened up for tinkerers when the game launches, the same won’t happen for the “full” SDK. “This is how we’ve done SDKs in our previous Source 1 titles as well,” Valve says. “Making the game takes precedence, and after that’s done, we start looking at what’s next.”
Valve says that one of the foundational experiments that led to HL:A nearly shipped as a playable mini-game in Valve’s free VR toy set The Lab (thus confirming fans’ suspicions after data-mining The Lab‘s files). This prototype, and a few others, may very well see coverage in Geoff Keighley’s upcoming Final Hours video special about HL:A‘s development process.
On the sillier side, Valve has confirmed that HL:A players can do stupid stuff like pick up a bucket, place it on a Headcrab, and watch the creature skitter around as a moving bucket. “Playtesters all keep reporting it as a bug,” the team says.
For the next two months, Valve says it has designs on releasing a stream of gameplay videos, which will “showcase not just gameplay elements, but also VR-specific elements like different movement options.” We’ll certainly keep our eyes peeled for those, as we’re still waiting on answers about more of the game’s VR-specific mechanics, particularly the Gravity Gloves and the wall-scanning Multi-tool seen in this article’s top illustration. For now, you’ll have to settle on a dump of text, and maybe furrow your brow at the questions Valve
didn’t answer, by flipping through the rest of the AMA