Late Saturday night, I removed my Valve Index VR headset. I’d done it. I had finished Half-Life: Alyx. As I blinked, a faint outline clouded my vision; I quickly realised it was the headset’s blue wireframe barrier, which flashes when you move too close to a wall. “That’s weird,” I said.
It was about to get a whole lot weirder.
At the time I didn’t think much of it. If you’ve ever played a rhythm game that requires staring intently at cascading patterns of icons for extended periods of time—say, Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band—you’ve almost certainly wrapped up a play session, blinked, and seen colourful afterimages on the backs of your eyelids. After a few hours they disappear, and you can comfortably stop being haunted by the ghosts of failed guitar solos past.
But VR is a different animal, and I’d just spent substantial portions of four consecutive days in the same continuous, story-driven game—something I’d never before done with VR. Half-Life: Alyx was also more intensely stressful than anything I’d previously played in VR. God only knows how many times my eyes traced the wibbly-wobbly arc of a headcrab’s leap, laser-focused in fear that its improbable acrobatic feat would terminate on my face. If nothing else, my play space was so small that the wireframe warning wall was always visible in the background. No wonder it got burned into my vision.
Still, I didn’t think much of it. I put down my headset, turned off my controllers, and went to bed.
When I woke the next morning I immediately noticed things felt a little off. Those blue wireframes were still there. They divided my vision into quadrants every time I blinked or moved my head too quickly. Still, I mostly chalked it up to morning grogginess.
I only began to realise just how much of a mark Half-Life: Alyx had left on my brain during a brief, social distance-respecting sprint through the grocery store. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that it felt like I was still in VR. A hazy sensation of unreality persisted even as I interacted (at a distance) with actual people and places. Every time I turned I braced myself for the brief, screen-blanking blink that accompanies turning yourself via the analogue stick in Half-Life: Alyx. I got way, way too close to shelves and counters, expecting to clip through their outer edges—not, you know, run into them and sustain a series of gnarly bruises like a human being who’s more than just a floating pair of outstretched hands.
Strangest of all, any time I looked at my phone, my eyes replicated VR’s distinctive illusion of three-dimensional space. Apparently my eyes had come to believe that any screen was a VR headset display. Looking at a small grocery list I’d prepared, I realised it had depth to it. The words seemed to be popping off the screen from within a rectangle-shaped hole.
These novel phenomena persisted for all of Sunday. I figured, however, that another night of sleep would bring me some sort of reprieve, hopefully clearing up the VR marathon’s lingering effects. The next day, that did come to pass, but not before one last excessively bizarre hallucination.
I laid down to go to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. Eventually, I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness for a little bit. On this pitch-black canvas my eyes painted a series of undulating, tendril-like objects that shimmered like television static. I didn’t like that one bit, so I closed my eyes again.
My hallucinations hit a fever pitch: What seemed to be tens of Half-Life: Alyx enemies on top of each other in a writhing mass. Headcrabs leaping, headcrab zombies lurching, Xen flora glistening. All were drenched in a deep red, making each individual movement almost indistinguishable from the greater whole. And before you ask: No, this was not a dream. The first time it happened, I opened my eyes, stood up, and walked around because, uh, what the fuck??? When I laid back down and closed my eyes again, the hallucination persisted.
A few minutes into experiencing the strangest show to which this bedroom ceiling had ever played host, my curiosity overwhelmed my fear. I moved my head around with my eyes closed to see if it would replicate the effect of moving your head in VR. It did. My vision moved around the scene. It was at this point that I wondered: Had I ever actually left VR? Was I, in fact, trapped in the virtual realm? Had a VR headcrab taken over my brain? Were these the final visions of a human consciousness imprisoned inside a headcrab zombie?
Fortunately for me, I was exhausted from playing Half-Life: Alyx for days and then writing about it for many, many hours, so sleep won out in the end. The next morning, I woke up and found that the wireframe effect had almost entirely dissipated, and my low-key 3D superpowers were nowhere to be found. The symptoms of my VR malady had abated. I was free.
Or at least, I’m pretty sure I’m back to normal. I guess there’s no way to really know, huh? On that note, if this article is, to you, just a series of headcrab zombie moaning noises, can you please do the right thing and come put me out of my misery? Or at least take a crack at helping me re-learn English?