Is Half-life Alyx the future of VR or a return to the past?

I only dug out this post, which I wrote in April 2020, in the height of the first lockdown, but never got around to publishing (things started getting very busy with the pivot to online teaching). I thought I should finally put it out

Like many of us who have access to VR headsets I have been spending some of the COVID-19 lockdown playing Half-life Alyx.

I remember the first half-life as a massive leap forward in terms of both immersive graphics and story telling and Half-life 2 as one of the first games to have truly compelling, realistic characters (Alyx herself).

I was certainly expecting a similar leap in terms of VR gaming. I wasn’t disappointed. In many ways it is the masterpiece that everyone is saying it is. The graphics are phenomenal. I have never seen a VR world that feels so real, so detailed and so compelling in terms of narrative. For the first time I felt like I was in the kind of dystopian science fiction world that I’ve been watching on screen all my life.

It is also very scary. Half-life was always a scary game, but VR really ratchets it up because you are now in there. In fact, the main reason I haven’t got further in the game than I have is that it often feels too stressful after a tiring day at the zoom-face.

The wrong apocalypse

Having said all that, I also feel that something isn’t quite right about Half-life Alyx at this moment in time, during this pandemic crisis.

I’ve said before that I’m not very comfortable with first person shooters in VR. VR as a medium is very close to reality. It is a great way of learning skills and patterns of behaviour that transfer over to real life. If we spend our time in VR shooting people, or even monsters, are we learning violence that transfer to the real world?

But that wasn’t my specific concern.

Half-life embodies a certain view of a crisis, an apocalypse, that is ubiquitous in our culture. A terrible event causes the collapse of our society into violent anarchy. It is down to a lone hero with a gun to kill the baddies and save the world.

Viewing this from the middle of a real world crisis, a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands, it just feels wrong. Our real crisis just isn’t like our imagined dystopias. Despite some politicians using wartime rhetoric, we aren’t fighting. There is no anarchy. It is not a time for lone heroes. It is a time for everyone to do there part and work together. For most of us that simply means staying at home. Our health care professionals are heroically risking their lives, but not by killing monsters. What they are doing is caring for others.

The other game

This brings me to the game that really seems to be dominating social media during the lockdown, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. My colleague Frederico Fasce has written a great article about why Animal Crossing has captured the mood during the pandemic.

Aesthetically, the two games couldn’t be more different. Half-life is gritty, sci-fi and “adult” whole Animal Crossing is cartoony, cute and playfully childish.

More importantly the gameplay is very different. Half-life is you fighting against the monsters, while Animal Crossing is very much about your relations with others in a community. The difference maybe isn’t as neat as that, Animal Cross features some cutthroat completion and the narrative of Half-life Alyx is about working with a group of fighters for the good of humanity, but I do think that the community focused feel of Animal Crossing captures the present moment of crisis a lot better.

Ghosts and Kittens

I’ve had similar thoughts rereading Mark Fisher’s book “Ghosts of My Life”

Mark Fisher By MACBA

Mark Fisher, like me, taught at Goldsmiths, University of London, before his tragic death in 2017. He was a music critic, philosopher and political theorist. I’ve always been profoundly impressed by his writings, particularly the political work and I’m very proud the he was part of the Goldsmiths Community. I’m also very sad that he is no longer with us and that I never got the chance to meet him in person, despite working so near his office for many years.

Despite my admiration for Mark, I’m not completely convinced by Ghosts of my Life.

The book centres on the idea of “Hauntology”, a term invented by Jaques Derrida but that Fisher made his own. I probably can’t do the concept justice, but I will try to explain. According to Fisher our culture has stopped moving forward and is now “haunted” by the ghosts of the past, constantly repeating styles and formats of the past.

This does make a lot of sense to me. Like Fisher, I’ve thought that one of the most surprising things about reaching middle age is that I don’t find anything to shock me in the new generation of pop music. In the early 90s, Jungle music was pretty shocking to me as a teenager let alone to a typical 44 year old. If you had played a record like Original Nuttah by Shy FX (to pick a random tune from my youth) to even the most cutting edge kids in the mid 80s it would have seemed incomprehensible. The same goes for the Sex Pistols in the 60s or Jimi Hendrix in the 50s.

In the late 20th century we were accustomed to the idea that pop music would be continually moving forward, each generation producing new styles that would be shocking and unrecognisable to previous generations (the same would go for “high art” from the first half of the 20th century). That seemed to stop around the start of the 20th century. There is nothing about contemporary pop that is shocking to my generation, beyond perhaps the fact that it doesn’t shock us.

Even though the idea of hauntology does chime with my experience I also have my doubts. Maybe I don’t want to be the middle aged man that goes on about how the young generation are as good as we were in “my day”. Maybe the young generation have moved forward but not in the way we old duffers expected or wanted them to.

Maybe pop music isn’t the big thing it was, certainly there are a lot of exciting things going on in video games, not to mention the whole new approaches to video introduced on YouTube and TikTok (oh, and also VR and AR)

Maybe moving forward is not the same as being shocking. Mark Fisher’s book is dominated by music with a very dark aesthetic: Joy Division, Tricky, Burial, not to mention a host of anonymous jungle artists. The same goes for film and literature with a lot of dark sci-fi and horror from bladerunner to H P Lovecraft. All things I loved in my youth and still love. It’s an aesthetic that is very close to the world of Half-life.

But it is a very serious, very grown up, very masculine and very straight aesthetic. Maybe that isn’t the future.

What seems new to me in the new generation is how cute and playful it is. The world has been taken over by kittens and unicorns whether in YouTube videos or games like Animal Crossing. It’s much more feminine, more queer, more childlike and playful.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t radical. Young people now are much more politically active and radical than my generation was. But a lot of that radicalism is about deconstructing masculine and straight identities and making space for female and queer ways of being.

Yes, the main character of Half-life Alyx is a woman, but otherwise it does very much fit with the lone male adventurer identity that my adolescent self would have loved, but doesn’t seem to fit with the world as it is now.

The future is cute?

As I have grown up I have been more attracted to a cute, childlike aesthetic, like that of Animal Crossing (or Rec Room in the VR world). That sounds paradoxical, but maybe it isn’t.

Maybe the dark aesthetic of half-life or bladerunner aren’t grown up they are adolescent.

The child like aesthetic is more of a part of being grown up because one of the most important things that made me into a grown up was having children, being a parent. I’m reminded of Alison Gopnik’s idea that babies are the meaning of life. Given our Darwinian origins, isn’t producing the next generation our most important goal? Doesn’t that mean that it is babies who give meaning to our life? And what could be cuter than babies?

Cuteness is very much about caring for others. A cute thing triggers our caring instinct because it is like a baby. And isn’t that what we need during this pandemic? Not heroic violence,but a deep, genuine caring for others.

This is part of a blog I have started to support learners on our Virtual Reality MOOC, if you want to learn more about VR, that is a good place to start. If you want to go into more depth, you might be interested in our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality at Goldsmiths’ University of London.

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A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

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Marco Gillies

Marco Gillies

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

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