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Half-Life: Alyx gets in-game developer commentary in free update

The spectacular Half-Life: Alyx has received a free update that adds optional developer commentary throughout the game, and we spoke with Valve’s Jason Mitchell about it.

When Half-Life: Alyx launched back in March 2020, the team had planned to also include in-game developer commentary with it, as is often included with Valve games. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in Valve’s plans and the team was forced to delay the commentary substantially. Months later, while working from home, Half-Life: Alyx is finally getting its developer commentary as a free update to the game. We spoke to Valve’s Jason Mitchell about it.

Half-Life: Alyx in-game developer commentary launched as a free update on November 12, 2020. Following the update, when starting a new game, players can choose to toggle a developer commentary playthrough. Doing so will add 147 points of interest to the game in which the player can listen to developer insight on design, art, mechanics, rendering, and various other aspects of Half-Life: Alyx’s development, making for over three hours’ worth of commentary. As it is mostly in-depth behind-the-scenes commentary, Valve suggests that players finish a normal playthrough of the game before diving into a developer commentary run, as spoilers will definitely be present throughout.

Shacknews had a chance to ask a few questions about the launch of the developer commentary in Half-Life: Alyx, for which Valve developer Jason Mitchell obliged. When asked how much the delays affected commentary, Mitchell suggested that was both a good and bad thing. Bad because the team is working from home now and couldn’t be in professional settings to record (though he mentions the difference in quality isn’t too staggering) and good because the team had time away from the project to have a better retrospective look at their work on the game.

In the past, we have been able to complete our commentary along with the game and ship it at the same time. Due to the pandemic lockdown, we had to delay the commentary work. In the end, this may have benefitted the quality of the commentary material, as we all had some distance from the project and weren’t in the thick of finishing it up. In the past, we’ve tended to lean heavily on the writers to generate the commentary scripts based on notes from the rest of the team, with team members quickly jumping into a recording booth as they hustle to finish up the game. This time around, we got a lot more input from all disciplines, and people were able to record their voiceovers at their own pace. Of course, this was on their own equipment, in their own closets or blanket forts (and one boat in New Zealand) in most cases, but we don’t think you’ll be able to tell for the most part.

Throughout a Half-Life: Alyx developer commentary playthrough, players will be entreated to a wealth of design, art, sound, and further develop points of interest spread throughout the game for over 3 hours of behind-the-scenes insight. Throughout a Half-Life: Alyx developer commentary playthrough, players will be entreated to a wealth of design, art, sound, and further develop points of interest spread throughout the game for over 3 hours of behind-the-scenes insight.

The points of interest, though many in number are also apparently paced well throughout the game. According to Mitchell, the gaming and VR mediums make for a unique opportunity when considering how to implement developer commentary, considering how players can engage and interact with the game as the commentary plays out.

Sharing our design insights in this format has some nice properties that are superior to a traditional video or conference presentation because it is inherently interactive. With in-game commentary, we can describe an interactive system that is present right there in the game. So, for example, we might be describing something like the way that the Xen organisms respond to the player’s hands or the way that foliage reacts to grenade explosions and players can go ahead interact with those systems immediately and confirm the behavior we were describing in the voiceover. In some cases, we even turn on visualizations along with the description, so that players can better visualize things like our NPC foot placement algorithm or the correction forces applied to an object in flight toward the player’s gravity gloves. There are a number of examples like that throughout the game.

It’s bound to be an enlightening experience to say the least, which is something Mitchell and much of the senior staff at Valve take pride in.

“We have newer co-workers who tell us that they were inspired by the commentary in our past products and that it was part of the reason they took the career path they did,” Mitchell concluded. “This is extremely gratifying to hear and, aside from making us feel old, is exactly the outcome we would hope for.”

With many Valve employees working from home, and at least one famously halfway around the world in New Zealand, it was a tougher task than ever to put Half-Life: Alyx's developer commentary together, but the distance from release may have helped it too. With many Valve employees working from home, and Gabe Newell famously halfway around the world in New Zealand, it was a tougher task than ever to put Half-Life: Alyx’s developer commentary together, but the distance from release may have benefited insight on it too.

Again, Half-Life: Alyx’s developer commentary is available in-game as part of a free update, so if you want to take a deeper dive into how the game was made, maybe it’s time to start a new playthrough. You just might learn a thing or two about why this game was so well-reviewed here at Shacknews and why it’s easily sitting at the top of our list of best VR games of 2020.

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