19-year-old Alyx Vance doesn't know it at the start, but her "ordinary" day of surveilling the Combine forces occupying Earth ends up being another important development in the Half-Life series. Here, we'll explain what we can and piece together theories about the story, backstory, lore, and ending of Half-Life: Alyx.
The following guide contains spoilers for the plot of Half-Life: Alyx. You've been warned!
On this page:
- Half-Life: Alyx Explained
- When does this prequel take place?
- What is Alyx's role in the Resistance?
- What are Eli and Russell looking for in City 17?
- How did the Citadel end up in City 17?
- What happened to the rest of the world?
- Why is Nova Prospekt so dangerous?
- How does the Vortigaunt oracle see the future?
- What is City 17's Quarantine Zone?
- Why are the Combine imprisoning Vortigaunts?
- Who is the Combine collaborator?
- What is going on with the building inside the Vault?
- Who is the real prisoner inside the Vault?
- What about those Unforeseen Consequences?
- How does this impact the events of Half-Life 2 and the Episodes?
- Here's what Half-Life Alyx's ending is really all about
Half-Life: Alyx Explained
For the most part, we'll walk through the events of Half-Life: Alyx in chronological order here, peppering in context from earlier games and hopping around the Half-Life timeline where necessary. If any prominent theories or new information from the game come to light, we'll do our best to update this guide accordingly.
When does this prequel take place?
The simple answer, as Half-Life: Alyx says in its intro, is five years before the death of Eli Vance at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two. The more complicated answer needs to account for all the time that's passed between the Black Mesa Incident and the moment Alyx Vance opens her eyes in City 17, staring right at the enormous Citadel that's rapidly being constructed by the Combine.
Not long after the events of the original Half-Life, the Combine open a portal to our dimension and assault the planet. The invasion is short and decisive, and comes to be known as the Seven Hour War. Dr. Wallace Breen, the administrator of Black Mesa at the time of the incident, negotiates humanity's terms of surrender to the Combine and becomes the empire's chief human representative on Earth.
Half-Life: Alyx takes place quite a while after that. We know Alyx was too young to remember life before the incident and was not old enough to fight during the Seven Hour War. Her robot companion, Dog, was created by her father using Combine tech when she was young. Now, Alyx is old enough to help the Resistance out, but she's also not risking her life... yet.
What is Alyx's role in the Resistance?
At the start of Half-Life: Alyx, our lead character is doing reconnaissance on the construction of the Combine Citadel. This seems like not-so-dangerous work: taking notes on construction and troop deployment, with special attention paid to the locations of Combine mini reactors.
It's unclear just how developed the human Resistance in City 17 is at this point in time. Alyx, Eli, and their other scientist friend Russell are all extremely capable and know a lot about Combine technology, but it seems the network they've established is far from the point it's at during the start of Half-Life 2. The Combine also don't seem to know about their presence. Valve's official website says Alyx and Eli were relocated to City 17, but in the process their identities don't appear to have been compromised.
What are Eli and Russell looking for in City 17?
Eli tells Alyx that they've managed to steal one of the Combine's mini reactors meant to aid with the Citadel's construction—a boon, surely, to the Resistance's power needs and understanding of Combine tech. In the process, they stumble upon pictures of a Combine structure they hadn't seen before and don't immediately recognize the purpose of.
How did the Citadel end up in City 17?
On a whiteboard in Alyx's reconnaissance den, you can read about how a giant spike was teleported into place to form the Citadel's core (this was also confirmed by Valve in a pre-release Reddit AMA). That was in April, and in the months since then the Combine have been adding to the tower. As of November 29—hard to say when that is in relationship to the game's start—it looks like the Citadel's dark energy reactor, seen up-close in Half-Life 2: Episode One, was fired up for the first time.
What happened to the rest of the world?
Early on in Half-Life: Alyx, you can find a globe with a giant red X across North America. That's why so many humans from different parts of the world (including Alyx and Eli) now live in the Eastern European locale of City 17—either other parts of the world are no longer livable, or the Combine won't allow humans to stay there. Given that the Combine even had to quarantine a large chunk of City 17 due to the concentration of unruly Xen wildlife and fungi, it seems clear that the world is a far less hospitable place than it once was.
Why is Nova Prospekt so dangerous?
Fans know that in Half-Life 2, Eli is ultimately captured and sent to Nova Prospekt, an old prison that the Combine have gutted out and turned into their own high-tech gulag. At that time, Dr. Breen is convinced that Eli is more useful to the Combine alive than dead. Nova Prospekt, then, is just a secure place to keep Eli in holding.
Half-Life: Alyx opens with Eli being captured, and Russell warning Alyx that the Combine at Nova Prospekt will find a way of figuring out what her father knows one way or another before killing him. In Half-Life 2: Episode Two, it's implied that Combine Advisors can literally suck the information out of people's brains, but it's unclear whether Russell or Eli know anything of the Advisors' existence by the time of Half-Life: Alyx. When Russell says Eli's "off to have his brain sucked out," he might be speculating or just speaking colloquially. Either way, the Resistance knows that people don't come back from Nova Prospekt. There's no reason for Russell to believe it'd be any different for Eli.
How does the Vortigaunt oracle see the future?
In the second chapter, Alyx meets an escaped Vortigaunt who's been experimented on by the Combine. The Vortigaunt tells her that other Vortigaunts are being held in prison pods by the Combine and that Alyx will save them. When Alyx mentions that her father's been captured, the Vortigaunt seems confused—Eli "is or will be" dead, and Alyx can't prevent his death on her own.
Vortigaunts with a shared connection to the "Vortessence" seem to sense time differently and can pool their energy to take action on other planes of existence—at the start of Half-Life 2: Episode One, Vortigaunts save Alyx from the exploding Citadel and stop the G-Man from taking Gordon back into his void. The first Vortigaunt we meet in Half-Life: Alyx is no longer connected to the Vortessence as a result of the Combine experiments. Without that link, perceiving the world and time in particular is, we can assume, quite difficult. As a result, the Vortigaunt oracle sort of knows what's in store for Alyx, but sort of doesn't.
What is City 17's Quarantine Zone?
In Half-Life 2, though City 17 is riddled with barnacles and Headcrab zombies (thanks in part to the Combine intentionally weaponizing the latter), we never see signs of Xen fungi and other mutating growths taking hold. In contrast, you're never far from a dangerous, spore-filled building in the Quarantine Zone. As proven by Jeff, a Combine cleaner-turned-unkillable zombie, the Combine have a real reason to be wary of this stuff. Still, it's convenient for the Combine to have a large swath of City 17 cordoned off where it can hide the floating Vault.
Why are the Combine imprisoning Vortigaunts?
On top of their time-bending perception, the Vortigaunts can channel energy into killing bolts or use it to power up electrical equipment. Early on, it seems like the Combine are just using the Vortigaunts as living batteries, which tracks with what we know about how the Combine treats other creatures. In the Combine's biomechanical computers, you can see rats and wriggling goop reconstituted into processing units. Perhaps, then, the Vortigaunts are just a simple means to an end.
Toward the end of Half-Life: Alyx, when we discover who the Combine have imprisoned in the Vault, it retroactively becomes clear that there's a reason why Combine needed to harness the power of the Vortigaunts rather than use a dark energy reactor or similar high-tech power source. There's only one other Half-Life character who shares the Vortigaunts' ability to mess with time.
Who is the Combine collaborator?
As she gets closer to the Vault, Alyx accidentally discovers the hideout of a human woman who's working for the Combine. Alyx eavesdrops on a conversation between the woman and a Combine Advisor. The latter communicates telepathically, so we only hear the woman's part of the conversation. She urges the Advisor to move "the box" in the Vault containing the prisoner, warning that its occupant survived Black Mesa and could wreak havoc on the Combine if Alyx were to release him. Naturally, Eli and Russell believe the woman is talking about Gordon Freeman.
In my initial playthrough, I thought this character might be Dr. Judith Mossman, the Combine's agent in the Resistance from Half-Life 2 who later turns on Dr. Breen to free Eli, Alyx, and Gordon. Mossman was voiced by Michelle Forbes (Star Trek: The Next Generation) in Half-Life 2 and the Episodes—but the Combine collaborator in Half-Life: Alyx, credited only as "scientist," is voiced by Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Deadwood).
I had the opportunity to ask one of Half-Life: Alyx's writers, Erik Wolpaw, about this mysterious character. "[She's] a character that we don't want to talk too much about," says Wolpaw. It's not clear whether Mossman ever knew about the G-Man, but given the late-game reveal of who's actually in the Vault, it seems clear that this scientist working with the Combine knows a lot about what actually went down at Black Mesa—perhaps just as much as Eli Vance does.
"We have plans for her," Wolpaw adds.
What is going on with the building inside the Vault?
Once Alyx "successfully" brings the Vault crashing down and makes her way inside, she's stripped of her weapons and wakes up in a City 17 apartment complex. This is where the Combine apprehended their prisoner. Rather than just take him alive, the Combine scooped up the entire building. As Alyx makes her way through the building, things quickly get weird in a way that doesn't track with the nature of the Combine or Xen. Perhaps this was all a trap intended to disorient Combine troops, or maybe this is just how the building was when it was scooped up by the Vault. Either way, it implies that the prisoner was up to something very strange when he was captured—stranger than anything Gordon Freeman's known for.
Who is the real prisoner inside the Vault?
After she breaks open the cell, standing there in front of Alyx is the G-Man, who she's never met before. With a smirk, he opens an entry to the same otherworldly plane he transported Gordon Freeman to (and, yes, Opposing Force's Adrian Shepard) all those years ago at Black Mesa. The G-Man commends Alyx on her efforts and offers her the chance to "nudge" the state of the world in the Resistance's favor. The G-Man's so-called employers authorize him to take action like this "from time to time." Alyx asks for taking the Combine off Earth—too large a nudge, she's told. Then the G-Man presents an opportunity: Alyx can prevent the death of her father by killing the Advisor. She does it.
What about those Unforeseen Consequences?
The cost for her actions, Alyx discovers, is her freedom. G-Man says that Gordon Freeman has been "unwilling or unable" to fulfill the tasks laid out by his employers, and that they've struggled to find a replacement... "until now." With that, Alyx is trapped in the G-Man's void; a new hire to replace Gordon Freeman.
This may connect directly to events in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, beginning with a scene where the G-Man tells Freeman that he saved Alyx from Black Mesa. "I am not one to squander my investments, and I remain confident she was worth far more than the initial appraisal," he says. Then, with Alyx in what seems like a hypnotic trance, the G-Man tells her to deliver a message to her father: "prepare for unforeseen consequences."
Shortly after Alyx and Gordon meet up with Eli at White Forest base, Alyx unwittingly delivers the message, which nearly makes Eli faint. With Alyx out of the room, Eli then confesses to Gordon that the G-Man—their "mutual friend"— was the one who delivered the Xen crystal sample that led to the Black Mesa Incident. "Prepare for unforeseen consequences" were his parting words to Eli back then.
Right before Eli's death, he tells Gordon that he thinks the G-Man's message has to do with the Borealis, a long-lost Aperture Science research vessel. Rumors say it was used to test some powerful teleportation tech. Fearing another cataclysmic event like Black Mesa, Eli tells Gordon that the Borealis must be destroyed.
After Half-Life: Alyx's credits, Gordon Freeman wakes up at White Forest. Eli's standing there in front of him next to a dead Advisor, and Alyx is missing. "She's gone," he says. "Son of a bitch and his 'unforeseen consequences,' I knew it. When I get my hands on him, I'm gonna… I'm gonna kill him." Eli appears to have grasped a different meaning behind the G-Man's message—it was about Alyx.
How does this impact the events of Half-Life 2 and the Episodes?
Eli Vance's death has been prevented thanks to an intervention from G-Man. It seems that the G-Man, frustrated by the Vortigaunts' interference in Half-Life 2: Episode One, has taken Alyx Vance in exchange for Gordon Freeman. In place of the cliffhanger Episode Two ended with years ago, there's a new one. It's unclear whether or not the Alyx Vance now in the G-Man's custody is her 19-year-old self or the 24-year-old Alyx from Episode Two, but either way, it seems that she vanished from the latter point in time.
No matter how you interpret the ambiguous events of Half-Life: Alyx, a few things are quite clear. With Eli alive and his knowledge uncompromised, the Resistance is still in a position to aggressively pursue the Combine to the arctic, but it's missing a key fighter in Alyx. A line in the sand has also been drawn: The G-Man is no ally.
Here's what Half-Life Alyx's ending is really all about
Maybe Alyx's capture is what G-Man's warning was about all along, or maybe this was an unplanned win for the G-Man and reversing Eli's death was just a means to securing his release and Alyx. At this point in time it doesn't matter what the explanation is: Alyx is gone, and Eli isn't.
If Valve makes another Half-Life game set after Episode Two, the G-Man will likely go from a menacing figure to its leading antagonist. This is a turn the series seemed to have been building up to before its nearly 13-year hiatus—former series writer Marc Laidlaw's "Epistle 3" story treatment ends with Alyx in the G-Man's control as well—and when it comes to reviving Half-Life, this could be a fruitful move. Eli's death was crushing not only because he was a beloved character, but because he was the only character who openly admitted to knowing something about the G-Man. Breen, seemingly dead, implied he did too, and now we also have the mysterious scientist working for the Combine in play. In a follow-up to Half-Life: Alyx, Valve could actually start to unravel who or what the G-Man is.
According to Mike Shapiro, the G-Man's voice actor, there are answers behind the enigma. "I know a lot about G-Man that I'm not at liberty to say, and that I haven't had a chance to convey," Shapiro tells USgamer. "There's a considerable amount of information about him, and some of it is directly from the creators of the character, the writers, and some of it is an actor's discovery over the course of portraying [him]."Want to craft your own theory on what Half-Life: Alyx's ending means for the series and its future? Our spoiler-filled chat with Erik Wolpaw and designer Chris Remo might help. For more on Half-Life: Alyx, be sure to check out our guide to the best easter eggs and callbacks.