Half-Life: Alyx may not be fun if you’re scared of needles

Valve did many things right when designing how the player interacts with the virtual world of Half-Life: Alyx, but my favorite part is still the health syringes you find scattered around the environment. I’m not exactly that scared of needles, though.

The glowing healing syringes are a very satisfying way to regain health after being shot by a Combine soldier or attacked by a flying headcrab. You use your gravity gloves to pull the syringe toward you, grab it out of the air, hit a button to extend the needle to prepare it, and then … well, you inject yourself with it. Anywhere on your body. You just jam that needle in, get some health back, and then drop the spent syringe after it’s been used.

“One of the things about VR that I love is that it’s a much more performative experience,” Valve’s Robin Walker told me when I brought up my love of the health syringes. “You can put so much more of yourself into the way you do everything. You do so many of the same things you’ve done in previous Half-Life games, but you do every one of them differently. In almost all cases, you do them in a way that allows for more player expression.”

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I got into the habit of injecting myself in the thigh but, despite VR hardware only tracking your hands and head, you can inject yourself anywhere on your body. The controller’s sensors feel the hardware hitting something solid, assume it’s you, and you get healed. It’s a simple trick, although the designers and programmers who got it to work so well may be grinding their teeth hearing me describe it as such, but it also does such a good job of grounding you into the reality that you’re there, in that world, and your body itself is part of the experience.

“I still remember the play-tester who used all these health pens by injecting them straight into his eye,” Walker began — and had to cut off the thought because at that point, dear reader, I may have yelled out in instant, uncontrollable fear and disgust.

“What was our reaction, too!” Walker said, laughing.

“Everyone uses the health pens differently, and I don’t think everyone is imagining the same thing in their head exactly, but it doesn’t really matter,” he explained. “It all just works. We just made sure that wherever you decided to jam it, it would work.”

The concept of the health pens, and the ability to jam them in anywhere, wasn’t always in the game. Walker explained how many of these ideas slowly take shape as the team watches other people test the game.

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“That sort of thing doesn’t spring full-formed into the product, in any way,” he said. “It accretes over time as you see a player try to use something in a way we haven’t, and then we go back ask if there’s any reason that should fail. No? Then let’s go back and make that work, too.”

The health pens take a little bit to get used to, since learning to look for them, priming them before use by exposing the needle and them jamming them in requires a bit of muscle memory at first. I found myself concentrating on the whole process for the first few hours of the game, but it quickly became second nature, and by the end of the game I felt like I was in an old war film, stitching up gunshot wounds myself while still in battle. It was those mini-stories, those emergent moments of panic, that helped the team know that the interaction was working.

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“It’s fun to do it while you’re concentrating on it, but three hours from now you’re going to be in a big fight, hiding behind something as grenades are going by, and you’re going to grab a health pen, grab it and jam it in your arm, but you won’t be thinking about it at that moment,” Walker said. “You’ll be looking around and orienting to your next target. Players in their head form this sort of action movie narrative to what they’re doing, and it’s very cool.”

Of course, this may not be fun if you have any kind of needle phobia, and holy gosh is that going to make the regular healing stations fun, but you can always just jab the controller into whatever’s nearby if you don’t want to even pantomime an injection. It’s all up to you, and that’s what makes it such a neat addition to the game.

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