Half-Life has always been a bit of a horror game. While over-the-top sci-fi action dominated the first game, Half-Life 2 took a more somber turn in its exploration of a tyrannized Earth, post-alien invasion. It introduced creepier, more threatening enemies, bigger, scarier mysteries, and even tried to give players nightmares with its iconic Ravenholm chapter. Now a new Half-Life game is here in the form of Half-Life: Alyx, and as our review mentions, Alyx certainly has fun “tapping into a horror element that Half-Life had only previously toyed with.” As you’d expect, VR only accentuates those horror elements more. But according to Valve level designer Dario Casali and programmer Kerry Davis, Half-Life: Alyx could have been even scarier.
“It started scarier, for sure,” Casali told GameSpot. “I was very respectful in not trying to push it too far, because I didn’t want to lose a certain segment of people who might not have been able to continue.”
Casali recounted a story of one anonymous team member who can’t stand to be in the same room as a headcrab: “He’d just pull off the headset and say, ‘I’m not going anywhere in there!'”
Headcrabs–Half-Life’s most iconic enemies–are a common threat in Half-Life: Alyx (and yes, they can and will jump on your face in VR), but a few of the series’ familiar enemies were too “shocking” in VR to make the cut.
“Almost immediately we cut the fast headcrab and the fast zombie from Half-Life 2,” Casali said. “The shock of having that guy come around the corner and latch onto you before you’d even know what was going on was just too much.”
Reducing the potential for more unpleasant scares became a level design choice as well.
“Trying to avoid jump scares,” Davis pointed out, “Because jump scares are terrible in VR.”
As it turns out, designing towards a more accessible experience for less experienced players can also help to tone down some of the more unpleasant “horror” elements that they wanted to avoid. That means not overwhelming players with unfamiliar or threatening gameplay too quickly.
“We try to give you a really gradual introduction to the mechanics,” Davis explained.
Pacing plays a big role in this, according to Casali: “We deliberately played with the pacing of introduction of elements that could feel overwhelming or anxiety-ridden, like being approached by an enemy for the first time and shooting a gun and reloading for the first time. You get the gun and you get the ammo before you have any kind of threat to you whatsoever.
“We really did recognize that we didn’t want to overwhelm people from the very beginning.”
Casali also cited the four difficulty levels as a good way for players to adjust what they’re comfortable with.
“The easy mode is for people who, maybe they do feel a little intimidated or threatened by characters who are like, six feet tall,” said Casali, “And they play on that setting that will make it hopefully a more enjoyable experience for them.”
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