The Game Awards creator Geoff Keighley returned to his journalistic roots earlier this month, delivering another edition of his insightful The Final Hours series, in which he covers the last stretch of a game’s development with unprecedented access. This time around the game in question was this year’s watershed VR release, Half-Life: Alyx.
Alyx is Valve’s first Half-Life game in 13 years, and its first proper single-player game since Portal 2, which launched in 2011. As such, the endeavour doesn’t just cover the game’s development, but the 10 years of cancelled games that ultimately led to it.
There has been a lot of bad faith and ire in the games industry concerning Valve’s approach to game development over this past decade. A lot of the discussion around the Seattle studio centres on the idea that Valve has simply been riding a tidal wave of triumph and embracing the complacency it affords.
Fans of the studio’s most beloved IPs felt neglected and hopeless about the prospect of a new Valve game or a revival of the old style. They have assumed that, based on Valve’s tight-lipped approach and interests beyond software development, there was nothing in development “for the fans”. The Final Hours Of Half-Life: Alyx does a great job of showing just how misguided this assumption has been.
In the last decade, the public image of Valve is of a company that has stepped away from the style of game development that it was known for and became something of a service provider. Its Steam platform is still the de facto marketplace for PC games – despite some competition from the Epic Games Store, EA’s Origin and more – but the company’s ambitions have not been squashed in light of the platform’s incredible success.
Valve has two esports giants in Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The studio has dabbled in everything from peripherals and streaming technology to pre-built PCs over the past 10 years. It has even started making and shipping its own virtual reality headset, the Valve Index. The company has had a finger in every major trend in gaming over the past decade, but what’s special about virtual reality, in particular, is that it finally gave Valve a reason to return to the series that made the company a household name: Half-Life.
Half-Life: Alyx didn’t ship alongside the Index, but that was originally the plan. Instead, the headset launched in June 2019, with the game that ultimately proved its potential arriving in March 2020. In The Final Hours, Keighley mentions Super Mario 64 a lot, comparing Nintendo’s revolutionary 1995 3D platformer to Alyx, which is now virtual reality’s killer app – here’s why I think that comparison is particularly insightful.
Not a lot of games companies can say that they’re in control of the entire development pipeline, but Nintendo and Valve share this unique achievement. Like Valve, Nintendo makes its own hardware, software and distribution platform, and often develops technology with upcoming hardware or industry sea changes in mind, which fosters an experimental spirit. Breath Of The Wild was one of few games to launch with the Nintendo Switch, but it’s safe to say its groundbreaking creativity was an existential proof for the console when players got their hands on it back in 2017.
Having played Alyx, it wows you with the potential of its medium in a similarly convincing fashion. Half-Life: Alyx gave rise to plenty of epiphanies, the main one being that there is an incredible amount of nuance and potential tied to virtual reality, way more than I (and many other consumers) may have first thought. Now that we know what an AAA developer can pull off in virtual reality, hopefully Alyx will pull other creatives into the space to tap its potential.
It’s all well and good to create games that take advantage of the latest hardware, but it’s those that alert you to the potential of the future that have ultimately stood the test of time in my eyes. If the developers are laying down the track as they go, they often have the opportunity to unravel the future of any given medium.
As evidenced by the litany of cancelled projects under its belt over the past decade, Valve understands the dangers of complacency better than many studios. The impression I got from The Final Hours is that virtual reality finally provided the uncharted territory Valve needed to create something definitive, after years of trying to teach an old dog new tricks.
Virtual reality is still in its infancy, and the space has so far been saturated by gimmicks and experiences, with only a handful of games such as Tetris Effect and Astro Bot coaxing out the full potential of the format. Half-Life: Alyx has changed the landscape irreversibly because its developers had a holistic understanding of the hardware they were building it for, and developed the game with the explicit intention of maturing virtual reality.
Sony makes the PlayStation 4 and owns a number of external “first-party” developers – but the same people who came up with the architecture of the console might not be in the room making choices about the design of The Last Of Us Part II or Death Stranding. Both of those games are incredible in their own right, but it’s interesting how easy it is to pigeonhole them within the growing gaggle of third-person, narrative-focused action games (usually involving a father figure) that have become the hallmark of the PS4 era. All of these games have unbelievable creative merit, but the knock-on effect of their subsequent success is a clear formula to follow.
Valve could have made hay while the sun shines, developing countless Half-Life episodes in the wake of Episode 2’s 2007 release and sold millions upon millions of copies. But what The Final Hours tells me is that while it had some incredible, money-printing ideas – a procedurally generated Half-Life 3, an open-world Left 4 Dead, a Dark Souls-esque Dota game – the technology to realise its lofty ambitions didn’t exist yet, so Valve decided not to commit until it did.
That difficult decision is perhaps the most valuable insight from the last 10 years at Valve, one that has me extremely excited for the studio’s future now that it has opened pandora’s box once more.