Playing Nothing But Half-Life: Alyx In VR Made Me Hallucinate

Playing Nothing But Half-Life: Alyx In VR Made Me Hallucinate
Image: Valve

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?


  • I had similar back in the day with Perfect Dark Zero on the X360. Used to play the infection mode for hours at a time with bots and just music playing the background and for infection on that game the infected were actually skeletons (which was cool as).

    Anyway after doing that for so long I used to see the skeletons in my periphery and when I slept or closed my eyes.

  • VR is a very new technology and we never bothered to consider what physical effects it might have on the brain.

    It’s going to be a very interesting decade moving forward as the technology picks up.
    What happens if you play 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in VR? What kind of effect does that have on you and will it impact your ability to interact with your day to day life?

    • Saying “we never bothered” isn’t really true. There is research into the field, its just that brain research is slow and really complicated.

    • Plenty of those studies have been done and so far no conclusive negative effects have been found. Personally, I’ve been doing VR stuff for about 7 years now with the last 4 years having 10+ hours a week spent in VR. The only effect it’s had on my lifestyle is that I’m now more active.

    • I ran a motel for 7 years… Haven’t done anything of the sort for about 8 years now. Still to this day late at night I will occassionally think I can hear that reception phone ringing. The first few years after leaving the motel was worse, to the point of feeling inclined to actually get up to go answer a phone that wasn’t there.

      As such, I wager prolonged exposure to VR could absolutely ramp this sort of thing up to some serious extremes.

  • A ridiculous amount of what your brain tells you that you are feeling, seeing, hearing etc is based off of memory, so this does make sense – when you look around your house, somewhere really familiar, that’s where you’re most likely to ‘see things’ because your eyes and optical nerve don’t actually give you all of the information at any time, they fill in I think around 80% of the ‘scene’ with your memory.

    The best example of this is the good old lying down and watching clouds, and seeing what you can see in them – that’s the same thing happening.

    So long story short, if someone was playing WAY MORE VR than is advisable in any of the documentation I can completely imagine that these things can start to creep in to your everyday vision as your memory expects them to be there, especially the wireframe chaperone system. It sounds to me like the author has been playing in a completely reckless and unsafe way in terms of the amount of time they’ve spent in VR to meet the review deadline.

    Stick to the guidelines given by the hardware manufacturers and I reckon we’ll all be fine. I’ve played stacks of VR and never had this happen to me.

  • VR promised immersion and immersion it delivered!
    I get flashes of my chaperone every now and then out of my peripherals but I have found changing steams chaperone modes from Beginner to Intermediate every now and then to change up the pattern really helped.

    Almost 3000 hours in VR was bound to have some negative effects

    Good read, glad to hear Alyx is making lasting impressions

  • I got my first vr set a month or so ago and damn did I feel super weird for like the first week. It faded but so did a bit of the excitement of vr.

  • I was developing a VR system in the late 80s and early 90s, and most of us had similar, messed up reality after being immersed in even the crappy 90s VR that we were working on.
    There definitely isn’t enough research into the long term effects of being in VR for very extended periods of time, but our experience was that you definitely shouldn’t drive or do anything physically risky for a long time after a long VR session.

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