MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When "Half-Life" was released more than 20 years ago, it took immersive storytelling to a new level in video games. Now there's a new entry into this beloved franchise. This time, it's a story told in virtual reality at a time when digital spaces are as important as they've ever been. Vincent Acovino reports.
VINCENT ACOVINO, BYLINE: The first "Half-Life" began not with a bang, but with a tram ride.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa Transit System.
ADI ROBERTSON: It's a shooter where you're a theoretical physicist, and it's your first day at work at this strange high-security facility.
ACOVINO: Adi Robertson is a senior reporter at The Verge. "Half-Life" never broke its first-person perspective, which she says brought players deeper into the adventure.
ROBERTSON: "Half-Life" was one that told you this long narrative story in this very cinematic way.
ACOVINO: But for all that storytelling prowess, "Half-Life" came to an abrupt and unfinished end on only the second episode of a planned trilogy. Fans have been waiting 13 years for a follow-up.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Alyx. Alyx.
OZIOMA AKAGHA: (As Alyx) I'm here. So what's the plan?
ACOVINO: Enter "Half-Life: Alyx," one of the first big-name titles for virtual reality gaming.
JEREMY SELAN: It's not like looking at a television screen where you say, oh, there's a picture of another world.
ACOVINO: Jeremy Selan designs hardware at Valve, the studio that makes the game.
SELAN: VR done well truly makes you feel like you're somewhere else.
ACOVINO: The opening moments of the new "Half-Life" are just as quietly radical as that tram ride was over 20 years ago. The player is standing atop a balcony, overlooking a familiar cityscape. Beside them is a workbench filled with cans that can be crushed in your hands, cups that can be thrown to the ground and shattered, a radio that can be fiddled with. Robin Walker, a designer at Valve, says that in "Alyx," even reloading your weapon is hands-on.
ROBIN WALKER: Traditionally in games, you might just press your R key, and we play a fancy animation showing your character reloading.
ACOVINO: Now it's a physical act. You have to reach back behind your head and into your virtual backpack and then do the rest of the work yourself. Walker says that this kind of gameplay might open the door for first-time players.
WALKER: We always used to joke that, you know, our parents couldn't play through "Half-Life" 1 or "Half-Life 2," but they can play "Half-Life: Alyx" just fine.
ACOVINO: For a long time, many thought virtual reality was the future of gaming, but consumers aren't fully buying in yet. Headsets and controllers range in price, but the company behind "Half-Life" has their own option that costs nearly a thousand dollars. Making matters more complicated, the coronavirus pandemic is restricting manufacturing operations in China, which is limiting headset supply.
Stephanie Llamas, who is head of games at SuperData Research, says that at $250 million of revenue a year, the VR gaming market is still in its infancy.
STEPHANIE LLAMAS: It is just a drop in the bucket. The general games market is about a hundred billion dollars.
ACOVINO: And Charlie Fink, who writes about VR at Forbes, says that he doesn't think the hype around "Half-Life: Alyx" alone can radically change the industry's outlook.
CHARLIE FINK: I think what's going to spur mass market adoption is the fact that people can't go to conferences in real life anymore.
ACOVINO: He says that the current coronavirus crisis could put considerable momentum behind meeting in digital spaces.
FINK: It's so clear now what the value would be if we were separated again.
ACOVINO: And for "Half-Life" fans stuck indoors, a new story in a digital world couldn't have come at a better time.
Vincent Acovino, NPR News.
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