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Keep Alyx armless

(Image credit: Valve)

There's nothing more immersion-breaking in VR than weird elbows jittering around in my peripheral vision because someone thought it was important to fill the space between my shoulder and the plastic controller that isn't my hand with something vaguely resembling, but certainly not moving like an arm. 

My colleague Chris Livingston believes that Alyx, of the recently announced Half-Life: Alyx, needs arms. He believes that Valve is capable of not only delivering a top-tier, next level VR experience (I agree), but that in order to truly hit that mark, it must also attach virtual arms to Alyx's disembodied hands. Absurd! Why stop at arms, Chris? Why not legs? Toes? Pish!

VR is young. We're still waving around tennis balls so infrared cameras know where our hands are. My fingers are buttons and haptic pads, not gloves that map one-to-one movements. My virtual head is a hot, sweaty, heavy headset that I can't wear for longer than an hour without pressing my glasses permanently into my skin. VR still requires plenty of willful suspension of disbelief. Bad arms looking stupid and bad don't make it easy. 

Above: Wow, sure love it when my big robot arms take up the bulk of my severely limited field of view. 

If I’m constantly looking at two big slabs of meat flailing around like skin streamers hanging from my very nice-looking virtual hands, I’m not going to be immersed. I'm going to be disimmersed. Disgusted. 

Do you ever look at your arm while you’re using your hands? When you pick up a coffee cup for a nice swig of that good morning brew, do you closely monitor your arm to closely track the movement of your body's weird levers to ensure the crane-hand is in the perfect position to clamp the mug and, like some kind of industrial construction equipment powered by blood, make little checks and assurances that everyone on the body machine is communicating, working together? 

The only time I look at my arm while I’m doing anything that requires precise manual dexterity is to look at my cool arm tattoo of a whale skull I got at 20 years old.

No! These are practiced movements. We don't notice the arm. We just do the thing without a second thought. Drinking coffee is a faith-based act, not an opportunity for arm voyeurism. Our arms are invisible to us in the real world until we need them, our brains focusing on the parts and objects in use. We rarely need to focus on our arms anyway. In VR we almost never do.

The only time I look at my arm while I’m doing anything that requires precise manual dexterity is to look at my cool arm tattoo of a whale skull I got at 20 years old when my friend got dumped by her boyfriend and said let’s go get tattoos and I said OK without really thinking about it. And when I had to come up with an idea I thought about the book Moby Dick and I thought about the whale Moby Dick and I thought about what the skull of the whale of Moby Dick might look like and put that on my arm, and that’s the only time I look at my arm: to see that and remember my personal, specific lore. Or to be like, you should go to the gym, man. 

Unless there's some all-important character building or story beat as part of Half-Life: Alyx that can only be communicated via an arm-based medium like a very cool Moby Dick tattoo, then I don't see why we need them there at all. My brain will fill in the blanks by keeping them blank, just as it does when I do anything with my hands or eyes that isn't wholly dependent on what my biceps and forearms and elbows are getting up to right now. 

Above: What's more magical than casting spells in Skyrim VR? Realizing you don't give a damn about your forearms. 

But let's say I'm pro-arm. Let's imagine that fucked up reality. The technology isn't there yet anyway. VR is about immersion, yes, but it’s not ever going to approach realism, or at least not until you can perfectly emulate my specific arm movements as I see them—or 'unsee' them you might say since the point is to stay immersed and avoid any unnatural distractions that break the illusion. Current arm VR tech is just bad puppetry that someone's doing in the corners of my sweaty head goggle vision. Besides, puppets are only good if they're Muppets and if they're not me.

Rather than focus energy and technology on modeling how an elbow wiggles around when I’m not looking at it in a natural manner that's invisible to me anyway, devs should wait until augmented reality hits the mainstream, if it ever does, and just superimpose my elbow or perfectly track my elbows movements and model them in game. Until my actual arms can enter the virtual realm, virtual arms will remain a virtual dream for the seriously deluded. 

It's just the state of VR in 2019. The man doing the YMCA dance in LA Noire VR is somehow used as a closing statement in Chris's piece, a piece that's arguing for better immersion in a baby medium. Listen, I love the video, but if that's what Livingston wants for VR, then Livingston wants VR to be bad. That detective's wacky, bone-crunching, anatomically impossible dance is why Alyx doesn't have arms. Because to have arms would ruin the first Half-Life game in over 15 years, and you don't want that, do you Chris? Do you?

James is PC Gamer’s bad boy, staying up late to cover Fortnite while cooking up radical ideas for the weekly livestream. He can still kickflip and swears a lot. You’ll find him somewhere in the west growing mushrooms and playing Dark Souls.