Spoilers: Half-Life 2, Episodes One & Two.
For me, a large part of the appeal in Half-Life 2 was how it humanized its world. Playing the first one was a lesson in navigating a very mechanical world–there were followers, but the graphics along with the general non-distinguishable NPCs left the world populated with automatons. Instead of fleshing out Gordon Freeman, the sequel instead fleshes out the world both mechanically, which many have praised, and by speaking about larger issues in its world through its characters. You can tell a lot from the world in its level design, for instance, and while it provides an atmosphere and gives you a sense of the micro-conflicts you’re facing, the macro-conflicts still feel better expressed through the characters, who are more distinguishable and nuanced.
Enter Alyx and Eli Vance. Going directly from the first game to its sequel, I was struck by the fact that there was some manner of connection between Eli and Gordon that wasn’t apparent previously. The first game, to be quite honest, surprised me when it featured not just old white male scientists, but also showed black male character models in the same labcoats. That Eli is black is therefore less a shock, but that he is the face of the resistance in this world has some interesting connotations.
First, to address Eli: he is a man who could easily be described as warm and charismatic. An implied graduate of Harvard, he was also part of what is depicted as one of the top-notch science teams of the world at Black Mesa, and continues that work with the resistance against the Combine. He is responsible for both Freeman’s gravity gun and the mechanical friend whom Alyx has in Dog. In short, while he is shown to be a man with a disability, he is also shown as resourceful and necessary to the plot.
Eli is also the father to the most important character to the series (outside of the protagonist–more on that later), Alyx Vance. What we know of Alyx’s mother is that her name is Azian, she is Asian (yeah…), and that she died during the Resonance Cascade at Black Mesa. This makes Alyx a racially mixed woman, which is displayed in game (one can never be too sure…). Your first encounter with her is indicative of her character as a whole–running from the Combine soldiers, without weapon, you are suddenly trapped. As you black out from their beatings, you hear sounds of fighting, and find Alyx has come to your rescue, dispatching the soldiers. Her first impression is that of both saving the supposed savior, and doing so through combat.
Alyx continues to be present during the base game of Half-Life 2 as well as its two episodes thus far. She is scientifically minded, a mechanic, a hacker, and a useful companion to have for her skill with guns. Following her father, she is a resistance member, and likewise as warm and friendly as he. While there are moments when it is indicated that she and Gordon have a romantic relationship in the making, she acts embarrassed by it (the suggestions are often made by her father and imply an embarrassed father-daughter relationship concerning such).
In an action-oriented game, Alyx follows suit by being best defined by her actions. Which means she is every bit as capable as Gordon, often by his side, and also handling security systems he cannot. Therefore, considering Gordon’s mute and vapid nature (more on that later), she is the lynch pin for most of the emotional expression in the game; Merle Dandridge (who, it should be noted, is of a similar racial mix), the actress who voices Alyx, does an exemplary job of such. While she is shown to embrace Freeman after unearthing him from the rubble in Episode One, for instance, it is her voice work that carries the relief and emotional weight of that moment–the on-camera action being somewhat awkwardly displayed in first-person perspective.
Considering she is often by Freeman’s side during both the subsequent episodes, and is essential to the ending portion of the base game, it is she who is better left to voice the tension of the events occurring, alongside the per-usual noteworthy work on audio and pacing for which Valve is famed. She is the voice Gordon cannot be–as Gordon is presumed to be the player, it is therefore left to us to interpret the events. Again, while Valve is generally good about providing audio and visual cues to this effect, the addition of Dandridge’s acting adds a human voice to the mix, which is sorely needed when we are to believe humanity is at stake.
This was something I felt was missing from the first game. While there were characters who would follow you, their impact and cookie cutter models left no real impact, and deadened getting close to any of them in particular. This was also not aided by the very computerized-sounding voices they had (note: this is in retrospect–had I played the games at their release, I might feel differently, but it is hard to make such assumptions).
What is also of note is that the first game takes place in the year 200-, while its sequel is two decades later, depicted as 202- in various Wikis and such online. Considering these events, and considering this fictionalized world is parallel to our own, the racial tensions that make up what would inform Eli’s own life make further sense for his actions before the second game begins.
Namely, in regard to the Vortigaunts. During the actions of the first game, our knowledge of Vortigaunts is sparse–they were merely an alien species to kill in the Black Mesa facility. It is later hinted at in the sequel that they were slaves of the Nihilanth, the end boss of Half-Life. Notable here is the fact that the first time you can see one in the second game, zie (I’m using a gender-neutral pronoun because we have yet to establish the Vortigaunts’ true anatomy or culture, therefore gendered pronouns seem a folly) is sweeping, in a uniform outside of the train station that ferries you back to the world. In many ways, it looks like indentured servitude, a motif that is repeated as you see them around the Combine.
However, in the second game they are given a voice through a language we understand, and communicate accordingly. What one hears amounts to much praise for Eli Vance, which is attributable to his efforts as the first human to make peaceable contact with them. It is due to a similar desire of freedom from the Combine, who took control of the world after the events of Half-Life, that they are partners. They both would understand the yoke of oppression.
Could this have occurred were Eli Vance to be a white male? While it certainly could have, the poignancy of both the time frame of the story (not some far-off utopian future where we can pretend racial harmony is achieved), as well as the depiction of the Combine as oppressors (for the most part, male and faceless, with the one exception being Dr. Breen), makes the reading of this as a story about a mutual understanding more compelling–grounded in both sci-fi and our own real-life parallels as expressed in oppression and discrimination. Therefore, I was also glad to see resistance fighters who were male and female, white and black.
Eli’s death is a catalyst in the series, and would not be so if he was not such a central figure. This event serves as a cliff-hanger that informs why so many fans are clamoring for Episode Three. Without him, the resistance must continue, and its most likely candidate, in my opinion, is Alyx, who has the personality, charm, and ability to do so. She knows these people better than Gordon, she knows the world better than he (mirrored by the player’s own confusion at being thrust into a world he doesn’t recognize). Most people Gordon encounters outside of the scientists are strangers, and yet he is exalted to a legendary and heroic figure. He is not wholly humanized in that world, our own humanity informing his reactions; in contrast, Alyx already surpasses Gordon in such. Freeman makes for a good action hero, whom we control, but his lack of character means he’d be a poor choice for Valve to thrust leadership in subsequent episodes–particularly when they have showcased Alyx’s own capabilities.
Half-Life 2 Analysis: