As its name implies, Half-Life: Alyx sees you step into the virtual shoes of Alyx Vance, Gordon Freeman's fellow Resistance member from Half-Life 2. But in early playtests, several players still thought they were playing as Half-Life's silent protagonist, Valve have told me.
"We spent a bunch of time early on messing about with Alyx, trying to figure out what kind of language players responded well to, and where it was appropriate," Valve's Robin Walker said. "But over time, there were certain things where it became sort of obvious that we needed to do it. For example, early on when we'd ask players questions around what they were doing, the state of the world, their goal etc, it was interesting how, when Alyx was silent, everyone just assumed they were playing as Gordon Freeman."
To rectify this, Valve introduced a line of text right at the beginning of the test build that "literally says you are Alyx Vance" to help clear up any confusion, but the decision to go with a speaking protagonist this time round wasn't just because players needed to be told they weren't Gordon anymore.
"Another part was that we were never religious about, even in Half-Life 1 and 2, that the idea of a silent protagonist was the only way a game should be made," Walker continues. "It made sense for Half-Life 1 and 2 and what we were trying to do with narrative in those games, but in this case, it seemed more rational and logical as to why Alyx would talk than not talk. You're playing a character who does exist. When you started Half-Life 1, you didn't know who Gordon was or a sense of his personality or anything, so it was easier to align him with the player as much as possible. In this game, you know who Alyx is, she has a personality and so on, so it makes sense for her to talk."
Alyx's voice also played an important role in dispelling the game's tension, too, which was crucial to the story's emotional pacing, says Walker.
"There were also later points in the game when we thought it was important to be able to have conversations between Alyx and someone else because of other problems we were running into. We were very cognisant about trying to make a game that we wanted as many people to get through as possible, while still at the same time remaining true to Half-Life, which meant that we had to have some horror in it. We have a bunch of people on the team that don't do well with horror games, myself included, and we know that VR will multiply all that tenfold.
"So we were very cognisant of how do we help players get through this, and Alyx being able to talk with Russell [another Resistance member who acts as your main guide throughout the game] was an important tool for the pacing around that. Sometimes we need to be able to give you an emotional breather, but without having to get you up to open daylight somewhere or something, so one of the tools we used was being able to have Alyx and Russell have a conversation about what just happened and so on. Just to keep that emotional pacing we needed."
We'll be hearing more from Robin about the development of Half-Life: Alyx over the coming days, too, as we've got plenty more tales to share from the in-depth chat we had about a week before the game's launch. In the mean time, though, be sure to check out wot Graham thought of the game in his Half-Life: Alyx review, as well as my Half-Life: Alyx PC requirements guide to make sure you've got everything you need to get your PC VR ready.