Picture the scene: you’re wading into a room full of unaware Combine soldiers in Half-Life: Alyx, Valve’s latest VR title. You have the crowbar raised above your head, ready to swing down into alien skull. You walk through the door and you’re yanked backwards by the crowbar’s hook which just caught on the door frame.
For a while Valve experimented with giving players access to perhaps the most iconic Half-Life weapon in Alyx, but it created a bunch of problems. Among them was players getting stuck on doors.
“If I had to think about the things we put significant time into that didn’t make it into the product, there’s only really one I can think of, and that’s the crowbar,” designer and programmer Robin Walker told me during a recent interview.
“We spent a bunch of time experimenting with a usable crowbar in the game, and never got it to the point we were very happy with it.”
According to Walker, many of the crowbar’s problems were solvable, and it did introduce some interesting interactivity – like being able to manipulate things from afar with the hook, for example. But there were too many issues.
“We built a map full of little puzzles that you could do just using the crowbar, and that felt really cool,” Walker explained. “And similar to how the hands ended up being able to do a lot of things you used to be able to do, but just to a much greater fidelity, there’s a lot more creative use of it than you’d had in the past, and that was exciting. But there were a whole bunch of problems.
“The hook itself was really problematic. Without any real feedback, it was very easy to have it off-screen and hook it on something and not know, so players would end up hooking it on a door frame as they went through the door, and then start walking away, and we’re like, ‘Now, what do we do? What’s the point?’.”
Valve experimented with having the hook disable, so it didn’t have physics, whenever it was off-screen, but that came with some issues of its own.
“So, there were a whole bunch of things we didn’t like around that,” he continued. “And then it also encouraged players to do melee combat, and we spent a bunch of time on melee combat, and just never found something we liked. I think that people who have built their whole games around melee combat have done a great job. We couldn’t do that.”
Melee combat has never been a big part of Half-Life and Valve felt like its time was better spent making sure everything else was as polished as possible. There was also another big issue with the crowbar: people forgot who they were.
“Then we hit what I think was really the catalyst for deciding to jettison it, which was that whenever we talked afterwards, as we always do post-playtest to tell us things like, ‘So, what’s gone on? What are you trying to do right now? What is the plot of the game?’ All of them would think they were Gordon as soon as they had the crowbar,” Walker explained.
“We would start the game with a text scroll, similar to what you’ve got right now, where it’s like, ‘Alyx Vance,’ and everything, and people would, as soon as they get the crowbar, playtesters were telling us, ‘The crowbar is Gordon’s.’ It’s not Alyx’s, and we should stop trying to fight that. So, in the end, we just jettisoned it.”
Read our Half-Life: Alyx review for our impressions.