‘Return To Rapture’: how a modder brought ‘Bioshock’ to virtual reality via ‘Half-Life Alyx’

Somewhere, beyond the sea…

Afaint, facetious laughter starts growing in volume, just out of earshot. “Welcome to the Circus of Values,” says the disembodied voice, jolting me back to 2007. I’m playing Bioshock, but I’m not playing Bioshock. A headcrab crawls out of a vent meant for Little Sisters, and while I scramble to jam some ammo into my pistol, I reach the boundaries of my playspace. The ghostly topology of my living room fills my VR headset, saving me from the lurching creature.

Return To Rapture is an add-on for Valve’s Half-Life Alyx, but to call it an add-on barely does it any justice. This isn’t a tech demo – it’s more like a total conversion mod. Return To Rapture is an eight-part custom campaign based in a new world that feels like a natural fit. You really won’t have to suspend your disbelief for too long, as Alyx swaps vortessence for plasmids, encountering staged splicers and sea creatures. You can even save your game in Vita Chambers, operate Bioshock’s original vending machines and listen to fully-modelled and VR-grabbable audio diaries.

Yet, unsatisfied with the unenviable task of replicating the visual identity and tension of a game like Bioshock, modder Wim Buytaert even created a custom story for Return To Rapture. You’ll visit many fresh and familiar Bioshock locations on the hunt for the suitcase of Andrew Ryan, which has been captured by City 17’s Combine forces. To complement the narrative, there’s a custom soundtrack from Adrian Wasilewski of RPM Studio Warszawa and a radio companion with a thick accent who will join you throughout the adventure, voiced by Seamus Bryner.

It’s an incredible achievement, a mod so thick with atmosphere and detail that it could be mistaken for the real thing. Complemented by the airtight systemic foundations laid by Valve, it just feels like Bioshock VR. You start mid-plane crash and enter a lighthouse, listen to Andrew Ryan’s iconic speeches and even complete a convincing Bathysphere descent.

Return To Rapture
Return To Rapture. Credit: Wim Buytaert

The player can physically pull Plasmid energy from electrical boxes with Alyx’s Gravity Gloves, using it to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. They can also trip Security Cameras just like Bioshock, with hordes of Manhacks swarming the player if they enter marked zones. It makes for incredibly immersive gameplay as you amble through decrepit rooms looking for keys and clues, listening to forgotten audio logs and rifling through rubbish.

What’s mind-boggling about this add-on is that Buytaert created it alone, and they are certainly entitled to the sweat of their own brow for making something so marvellous. With so many authentic nods to the original game’s level design and puzzles, Return To Rapture comes from a place of passion, but it’s also clearly driven by a desire to push the boundaries of the Half-Life Alyx modding tools. Desperate to know more, I had a chat with Buytaert to figure out how this magnificent mod was made. Would you kindly read it?

Buytaert says that they started their modding career by indulging their creativity in games like LittleBigPlanet and Far Cry, both of which provided imagination-stoking modding tools on top of the typical user experience. Understanding the Source 2 Hammer Editor and Half-Life Alyx’s modding tools was somewhat more complex. Buytaert says it took “500 hours” to understand the basics. “I didn’t know anything about this engine and just started experimenting with it,” they said.

Buytaert had already created custom Half-Life Alyx campaigns such as The Lost Case and Resident Alyx Biohazard before moving onto Return To Rapture. The ambitious project took “1200 hours in 3 months” to complete, fuelled by Buytaert’s passion for the source material. “[Bioshock] is the best game I’ve ever played, and I thought it would be a perfect fit for VR.”

Return To Rapture
Return To Rapture. Credit: Wim Buytaert

Buytaert’s friend Remo Zehnder helped to pull the assets from the original game, which Buytaert modified with the logic baked into Half-Life Alyx. Old Bioshock vending machines like the Circus of Values spring to life in VR with pressable buttons and sound effects, spitting out music and dialogue when the player comes into their proximity. According to Buytaert, importing these old assets into the Half-Life Alyx editor was one of the trickiest parts of making the mod. They would love to see the import process made easier in the future.

To nail the tension and feeling of Bioshock, Buytaert would play the original game on their Nintendo Switch and stop moving periodically, swapping over to the Hammer editor to recreate rooms using Half-Life Alyx’s workshop tools. The mod’s environments are quintessentially Rapture, but this is by no means a carbon copy – Buytaert says they wanted the experience to feel special and new as well as nostalgic. Each level offers unique mini-narratives and clever puzzles that make use of the advancements of Alyx, rewarding veteran Bioshock fans in tandem.

Looking to the future, Buytaert is building “part 2” of the mod right now and learning more about the toolset. Specifically, they’re trying to figure out animations so that they can bring Bioshock’s most iconic antagonist, the Big Daddy to life. If you’ve finished Half-Life Alyx and you’re looking to explore its superb systems in a new light, look no further than Return To Rapture. This Bioshock VR mod is not messing around.


More Gaming Stories: