Half-Life 2: Gordon Freeman

Spoilers: Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Episodes One & Two, Portal.

The cover of Half-Life 2. It states the name of the game at top, with the central focus being Gordon Freeman, a white male in his mid-twenties, wearing glasses, sporting a vandyke, and having short-cropped brown hair.

The cover of Half-Life 2. It states the name of the game at top, with the central focus being Gordon Freeman, a white male in his mid-twenties, wearing glasses, sporting a vandyke, and having short-cropped brown hair.

I’ve mentioned before that I often see playing games as a performance–not that I necessarily make up my own character from scratch, but inhabit the life of one while building his or her backstory. Between Portal and the Half-Life series, Valve seem to be experimenting with how a player interacts and responds to the character he inhabits. At least, this is how I would interpret having characters who say nothing–they want to give you a character as open as possible to your interpretation, so you can perceive your actions however you want. Is Gordon a nice guy? Is he shy? Does he have anger management issues?

It’s really hard to tell, and the game seems to want to acknowledge that in some sense in Half-Life 2 when Alyx states, “Man of few words, aren’t you?” This also highlights for me the difficulty in playing as Gordon Freeman and having the game make certain assumptions about me. On the one hand, it has a very open approach to my personal reactions; on the other, it presents Alyx as a love interest. Now, this is not to say I want to ‘act’ out Gordon as gay (I’ve been on the stage, and any time I was romantically involved, I was straight), rather to state that while I have plenty of agency in the world to bring down injustice, I have none to interact with my fellow humans. Which is where Half-Life 2 starts budging against immersion, and making me aware of my limitations.

Contrast this with Portal. There is a strong connection fans have had to the companion cube–an object for which we have a lot of responsibility. There is a constant interaction with said cube, and while its destruction comes without a choice, it comes at our hands. There seems little of that between Gordon and Alyx, which makes the moments when it does occur stand out (the hug I mentioned in the Alyx post, for instance). By interaction, I do not just mean touch, but the one-sided conversation is also distracting.

Half-Life thus far has been a game that excels at communication with the environment around you, as well as its feedback to you. While I do not think that the game needs to start implementing dialogue choices a la BioWare (in fact, that sounds like a tremendously bad idea, despite the fact that I’m a fan of them), having a character who is so blank is difficult in a world where there’s so much human interaction.

Which, seems to fit in well with what we do know about Freeman. Consider that in the first game it seems he is a fairly new employee at Black Mesa: twenty-seven years of age, with a doctorate in theoretical physics from MIT. His ability to interact with people whom he probably hasn’t known long during a life-threatening situation likely isn’t that strong, mimicking our own state of confusion as to what’s happening. In that game, we are told nothing concrete until its conclusion, which means we are left to surmise and assume. Then he’s frozen in a stasis for at least twenty years.

The amount of dissonance that exists for someone who enters a world he cannot really recognize is theoretically what we experience when we turn on a game. We are presented with a world that relies on our basic assumptions, but the finer details of the world, as well as the politics and culture of its people, are something for us to discover. As a player, we are allowed to engage with that material at our own pace by turning the game on and off, saving, and coming back to it. Which I feel is similar to what this world must now be to Gordon. His silence speaks more to his inability to express himself in anything but heroics.

Gordon is a tool: of the player, resistance, G-Man, and forces of which we have no idea yet. He isn’t wholly humanized, as I’ve argued in previous posts. It would be difficult for that to occur. At the same time, he has more history than Chell (as of right now, we’ll see when Portal 2 releases). Even from the start, we knew his age, his field of study, and various other, smaller bits about him. He is a character, and has a story. He is not a blank slate.

The difference is, while we can have emotional reactions, that silence is a key for us, as it also expresses frustration. To me, playing Gordon Freeman was a lesson in frustration at my inability to have any effect on my world but by force. In contrast, there are references to my building a new world with Alyx, the insinuation that children would be in our future. As yet that cannot be a reality, as I, Gordon, lack any way of communicating with Alyx beyond my actions on the world. Even when her father is being killed, I remain powerless. In the face of G-Man, I remain powerless.

Sean Beanland, in previous comments, stated that he finds it difficult to imagine Freeman remaining silent in the coming Episode. At this point, I believe if he were to do so, it would mean Gordon remains alienated from the world he inhabits. To be able to only interact with your world through its enemies and environment spells only half of a person’s worth. It is the equivalent of sending out a soldier to do nothing but be a hero, and never allowing him to reconcile himself to becoming someone whose life does not revolve around such. It speaks of someone who cannot live in the world he has saved, a world whose characters do have warmth and empathy, and are fleshed out, rather than being metaphors for ideologies. It speaks of an ultimately tragic ending, where we pity the person we’ve become.

Gordon Freeman in his HEV suit, carrying a crowbar in his right hand.

Gordon Freeman in his HEV suit, carrying a crowbar in his right hand.

Perhaps that is Gordon’s lot. I would hope otherwise, however.

Half-Life 2 Analysis:

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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6 Responses to Half-Life 2: Gordon Freeman

  1. J.P. Grant says:

    I tend to agree with Sean that Gordon’s continued silence is frustrating. Have you played Metro 2033? That game’s protagonist, Artyom, is silent during gameplay but narrates the loading screens. I suppose that’s an interesting twist, but I still found it irksome. If Artyom is “pathologically mute,” Gordon is even more so. Now, I have friends up the street at MIT, and they might be a little…odd…but one thing they’re assuredly not is silent. If Gordon’s only way of “speaking” in his world is by killing and destroying, that’s a pretty scary statement.

    That said, I think having Gordon speak in a new Half-Life game might be a mistake. Gordon has become an iconic character, and I doubt Valve wants to mess with him much. This thing about icons is that they’re untouchable; they are not subject to the same humanizing features we expect of other characters. It’s been a while since I’ve played the games, but I don’t recall whether Gordon grunts in pain when he’s injured, like Chell does. (I know the HEV suit nonchalantly informs him he’s getting morphine for the leg he’s just broken or whatever.) Even a cry of pain might be asking too much of Gordon the icon.

    One of the things Gordon’s silence makes me appreciate is how well Valve is able to use other characters to flesh him out. Sean already pointed out how great the interactions with Alyx are. For me, hearing the resistance fighters in HL2 laud Gordon as some kind of mythical hero whenever he stumbled upon them was kind of thrilling. It was a weird sort of meta-myth; it’s like Valve was acknowledging that Gordon was iconic both inside and outside the game world.

  2. Matt Warren says:

    Broadly speaking, I agree with most of your observations. For me, what makes the Half-Life series so engrossing and interesting is that the story just exists, it isn’t told. Compared to most story-heavy games, there is little in the way of dialogue. There also isn’t any narration – this is huge. By having a rich world, but not spoon feeding it to the player all the time, we get to draw our own conclusions.

    Imagine if Half-Life was a game with a 5 minute intro. Or that Gordon H. Freeman had a Wrath-of-Khan plastic space-marine chest and uttered cliche action movie crap. Or if the thing began with “The year is 2010 and the Combination Alien Squad blahed blahed blahed…” Personally, that stuff pulls me right out of the game. It’s why The Escapist’s Unskippable is among my favorite online weeklies.

    Anyway, great post. I’m adding your RSS into my hopper.

  3. Denis Farr says:

    Definitely agreed. I feel Valve is carving out a nice example of how games can “play, not tell.” Their ways of both characterizing their environments and characters are absolutely fantastic–which is again why I feel it leaves this very odd space for Gordon. The next piece I plan on writing about Half-Life 2 will be addressing his icon status, as I feel it’s hyped up so much and is somewhat disorienting to inhabit. Valve doesn’t pump Gordon up in any other way than through others’ characterizations, and when we view ourselves through the mirror of other people, we can get very distorted views of ourselves.

  4. Denis Farr says:

    As I replied to J.P. Grant above, I do think Valve is one of the few companies that understands “play, don’t tell” as a format to a very fine degree. As I alluded to the BioWare dialog system and how it would be horrible for this game–I don’t think the game should move to Gordon constantly speaking. Even his being wholly silent could be alleviated by the fact of him being able to more directly interact with the people around him–even the squad-based mechanics were completely meta-driven in how they responded to your button presses. It was me telling them where to go, not Gordon.

    Thankees. Glad to have you around.

  5. Pingback: Half-Life 2: Dr. Breen and G-Man | Vorpal Bunny Ranch

  6. Pingback: Bechdel Test: Half-Life 2 « Bechdel Gamer

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