In truth, the Half-Life series has always had two main characters: Gordon Freeman and his crowbar. The nondescript piece of curved metal is one of the best-known pieces of iconography in all of gaming. And yet, in Half-Life: Alyx, you cannot use a crowbar as a weapon or puzzle-solving tool. Not even once.
Valve did not go into Half-Life: Alyx’s development intending to snub the little nail remover that could. In fact, Valve designer and programmer Robin Walker told Kotaku that the team “lost, like, a year and a half of our lives trying to get a crowbar in VR.” They tried multiple different kinds of crowbars, including a mechanical one.
“It certainly unlocked a lot of gameplay we liked,” Walker said over the phone. “There were puzzles where you had to slip it between bars and hook something and pull it over to you. It could function as an extra remote hand, which was cool. But it had lots of problems.”
Specifically, a perfect storm of physics, gameplay, and narrative issues stranded the legendary implement on the sidelines. The physics issues stemmed not from how the crowbar would impact players’ experiences when they were using it but from all the trouble it would get up to when they weren’t.
“The lack of force feedback meant that players would often hold their crowbar out of their sight, because that’s what you do when you’re holding a real crowbar—you wouldn’t look at it all the time,” said Walker. “But then they’d hook it on stuff. They’d be walking along, and then they’d hook it on a door. So for us, it was like ‘What do we do now?’ We tried various things like the end of the crowbar turns it physics off, or stops colliding [with objects] when it’s off screen. In real life, you would feel your arm getting tugged as you hooked the curve of the crowbar on something, but we have no feedback like that in VR. We could buzz your hand with haptics, but we found that’s never foolproof. Some players just don’t notice it enough.”
Another knock against the crowbar was what it signalled to the player about combat. Half-Life: Alyx is primarily a ranged combat game, but when players were able to grip a humble metal stick that’s been used to decimate multiple alien species, they naturally assumed that it was time to roll up their sleeves and throw down with their fists.
“Everyone thought it was a melee weapon,” said Walker. “We did a bunch of experimentation around melee, and we could just never get it to the level we liked.” He acknowledged that other VR games have gone all-in on melee combat and come out with semi-believable solutions, but in Half-Life: Alyx’s case, it just didn’t feel right. “The player really had to kind of come along for the ride more than we were happy with… we don’t like it if there’s a real way you can do it that seems natural to you, but that the game really doesn’t want you to do.”
The biggest problem of all, though, also ended up being the most obvious in hindsight: If you hand a Half-Life player a crowbar, they are, in their minds, Gordon Freeman. It’s not even a question.
“It didn’t matter how much we told them, like, literally at the start of the game, that they aren’t Gordon,” said Walker. “We would finish playtests and ask players, ‘So tell us what’s happened so far. Tell us everything you learned about the state of the world and what the story’s about.’ And the players would think they’re Gordon.”
Valve didn’t want Alyx to feel like Gordon 2.0, either. They wanted her to maintain her own unique identity as both a character and an extension of the player’s abilities. Eventually, Valve realised there were other, more direct ways of expressing that—ones that even had roots in earlier games in the series.
“Alyx has her multi-tool and pistol in Half-Life 2, and I think they spoke more to her character as a hacker and tinkerer, which were some of the types of gameplay we were trying to do in the game as well,” artist Tristan Reidford told Kotaku over the phone. “Whereas a crowbar is just a blunt instrument. It never felt right fictionally.”
Then again, Gordon Freeman is a scientist who graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, so the crowbar thing isn’t exactly a natural fit, from a narrative standpoint. Walker couldn’t help chuckling about it.
“I love the fact that Gordon’s a scientist, and all he ever does is hit things with a crowbar,” he said. “Alyx is too smart for that.”