In many ways, the Half Life: Alyx speedrun is just like any other. For about half an hour, players race through the game, combining ordinary precision play with glitches that allow them to skip major parts of levels. Though it may look familiar, the game’s virtual reality format makes the process completely different. Instead of moving with a mouse and keyboard or controller, players are physically reaching their arms and moving their heads. Some skips involve jumping, or falling to the floor.
Much of the run relies on clipping out of bounds, standing in voids outside or on top of the map, but the runners I spoke to somehow avoid disorientation or motion sickness. “I haven’t experienced any of that,” says bada_im, who currently holds the fifth fastest run in the game. He credits it to being used to playing virtual reality, as well as the intentionality of his movement in a well-practiced run.
Buffet Time, another runner who took the fourth position on the leaderboard from bada_im during the writing of this article, credits Valve for making Alyx so “comfortable and easy.” He says it’s a much different experience from playing a game like Boneworks, a physics-based VR game with its own speedrunning community. “I had trouble playing Boneworks for as long and had issues with getting motion sick but never really had that with Half-Life: Alyx,” he says.
The same goes for runner Sychke, who currently holds the world record in Boneworks and a sixth-place run in Half Life: Alyx. He only started speedrunning in the past few months, not long after getting into virtual reality gaming itself. Initially, he struggled with the format. “I beat [Boneworks] in eight hours over two days and I got very [nauseated] the night and day after,” he says. “But once I got over my nausea I was able to play VR games for hours on end and eventually played through Half-Life: Alyx in one sitting, minus a controller charge break. So when it comes to speedrunning and all of the disorienting glitches, they never really affected me because I seemed to have forced myself to not be motion sick.”
Finding the glitches in Alyx is a different process from non-VR games. “The nature of having fully motion tracked hands and head is something that is quite different and opens the game up for all sorts of new and interesting tricks,” says Buffet Time. But one thing never changes: you’re basically trying to get the game to “freak out” as both he and Sychke independently put it to me.
The biggest glitch in the run, Shift Zip or 0 Zip, basically involves spamming the teleportation feature that many VR games offer as the method of movement. “When done correctly, the game will…zip us through walls and objects all the way to 0,0,0 [the coordinates] in the current map,” says Buffet Time. In certain chapters, “where the origin of the map is right in or near a loading zone,” it skips much of the level, adds Sychke.
The run also takes advantage of certain mechanics intended to allow the game to be played seated. “Height Adjust refers to an accessibility feature in the game that allows for a pseudo Crouch and Jump action to be performed via a button press,” says Buffet Time. “This is a required accessibility feature to try and help VR be able to be played by as many people as possible. However, we can abuse this accessibility feature to our advantage to become very tall or get very low in game to the point we can be under the ground or above the ceiling.”
The trick involves a lot of physical movement, combining the accessibility features with positioning of the headset in order to confuse the game. First, you get the headset as high as possible – maybe by jumping or taking it off entirely and holding it over your head. Then you hit the crouch button, and crouch (or lay down) in real life, essentially tricking the game into believing you’ve gone much lower than physically possible. In this way it’s possible to clip through the floor, and the reverse is true for climbing onto maps’ ceilings.
There are many other small tricks employed by runners, with new ones being discovered “what feels like every hour” according to this guide for new runners that bada_im shared with me. It’s part of an effort to rally a community around Alyx, something that Sychke says has been lacking in VR speedrunning.
He says he chose to get involved “because of the lack of serious runners and games,” he’d seen previously. Though he credits Superhot VR for being an exception, he says he “thought it would be cool to be a part of the beginning of a new genre of speedrun.”
For bada_im, VR speedrunning offers a unique opportunity. “I am a bad player. Cuphead took me 29 hours, so it’s clear I’m bad at playing games. But I believed I could do something [better] in VR.” He has his eyes set on improving his position on the leaderboard, something he thinks he could only do thanks to the physicality of VR. “VR games are more like our real world and if you can move, you can do everything.”
Buffet Time says that the future of the Half Life: Alyx run is bright. He says it’s “unique” to have so many new speedrunners using Alyx as their first game, along with a mix of people who are new to speedrunning in VR or, conversely, who have only speedrun in VR. They’re currently working on some new rulesets which will allow more variety in play, including a glitchless category which will likely be much longer and require more precise play to make up for the lack of skips.
“The community isn’t the biggest but that’s to be expected from a VR game having a higher barrier of entry. But that being said there are already 23 runners on the board, and that is only going to grow.”