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Monday, May 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Game On: Virtual reality finally has its ‘killer app’

UPDATED: Wed., April 15, 2020

An in-game screenshot of “Half-Life: Alyx.” (Valve Corp.)
An in-game screenshot of “Half-Life: Alyx.” (Valve Corp.)

Is virtual reality the future of gaming? If you had asked me even a month ago, I would’ve told you “no.” It’s impossible to deny that traversing a virtual three-dimensional space with physical limb gestures is a compelling concept – there just hadn’t been a single game to really pull it off.

There have been shooting galleries like “Superhot,” experimental games like “VRChat” and mediocre adaptations of existing games. All of them feel more like glorified tech demos than the true “killer app” to put VR on the map as a serious platform.

That all changed on March 23 when Bellevue-based Valve Corp. released “Half-Life: Alyx.” Those familiar with the series will know that “Half-Life” has somehow managed to change the face of gaming with each release. Set in a dystopian, science-fiction world, the original “Half-Life” released in 1998 won more than 50 game of the year awards for its scripted sequences.

Playing an entire game front-to-back with all of the plot development unfolding seamlessly in front of the player, without pulling away to cut scenes, was revolutionary at the time, and 2004’s “Half-Life 2” introduced environmental- and physics-based interactions many games struggle to replicate today.

Sixteen years later, “Half-Life: Alyx” has defied the odds and changed the gaming industry again. Watching gameplay has turned a VR skeptic like myself into someone who hopes to afford a headset someday soon – consumer-brand VR headsets are anywhere from $400 to $1,000, and that’s not including the cost of a high-end gaming computer.

The challenge any new technology faces is accessibility. Being an early adopter of any tech isn’t cheap, so the concept takes time to catch on. In 2004, buying a 40-inch, flat-screen, high-definition TV would have been more than $3,000. In 2020, you can get one for less than $500.

Game developers are managing expectations about the emerging tech. According to Gabe Newell, co-founder and president of Valve, “How ‘Half-Life: Alyx’ does is incredibly important. The VR market obviously is constrained in terms of numbers.” VR developers are more focused on the consensus of fans, reviewers and other developers than sales numbers.

Newell promised the success of the newest game would determine what the company does for the next 18 months, and with a 93/100 Metacritic score based on 57 critic reviews, it’s safe to say Valve’s future ambitions will continue in the direction of VR. Newell believes when VR gains traction, it will be “an extinction-level event for every entertainment form not thinking about it.”

It’s too soon to say, but those lofty words might be misplaced. VR is immersive and overwhelming, and sometimes people just want simple, quick entertainment. In 2006, the Nintendo Wii’s straightforward motion controls made gaming accessible and more active, but fast forward to 2020, and the medium is still dominated primarily by games where players press buttons and lounge around as they please.

Even today, the gaming market has a whole spectrum of options: intense games for the competitive type, simple on-the-go mobile games to pass the time and everything in between. I suspect a decade from now, VR will occupy a sizable, respectable niche without replacing its peers. I’m looking forward to it.

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