Keep Freeman Quiet
A response to this article can be found here.
Perhaps no other video game character is as iconic as Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of Valve’s Half-Life series. This undoubtedly has a great deal to do with the popularity of the series, which has repeatedly set industry benchmarks for A.I, engine scaling, plot, and level design. It also probably has a lot to do with who Freeman is. Unlike the vast majority of action-game heroes, Gordon is no rough-talking, burly, freight-engine of a man. Instead, he is an every-man nerd, a scientist who has yet to make a name for himself and instead appears to be cutting his chops as a manual laborer for advanced physics experiments. He has no war-wounds. Instead of a cigar jutting from his face, a pair of generic black glasses adorn him. Because of this, he is a much closer reflection of the kind of person who is going to be controlling him through his inter-dimensional adventures. He is what most every gamer has fantasized about, at one point or another – an average Joe, apparently unremarkable, who suddenly finds himself in a terrifying and baffling situation. And rather than cower like the other scientists, he rises to the task, becoming a living legend.
Yet he has never spoken a word. Dialog has never been a weak point of the Half-Life series, which had excellent voice acting even back in the Quake-powered days of the original, but Gordon Freeman has remained stubbornly tight-lipped about his experiences. He has remained invisible, as well; throughout all of the Half-Life series, never once has the game-play shifted away from his perspective, and never once has a rendered cinematic cut in to glorify his exploits. Despite his iconic image, it is one that is rarely reinforced in the game itself.
This silence has been a source of controversy at least since Half-Life 2, and perhaps earlier. Some gamers have found it hard to believe that the scientist-turned-slaughterhouse could keep his quiet during so much turmoil. Never once has an Oh-**** escaped his lips, not even when a swarm of ant-lions come boiling from the ground. His refusal to speak has also forced Valve to use some interesting tricks when other characters interact with him. They often appear knowing, make jokes that Freeman is a man of few words, or speak generically. These tricks work more often than not, but they can lead to strange and awkward sequences, such as those where Eli makes hints about setting up Gordon and Alyx.
Even so, my opinion on Freeman’s silence is this – it is absolutely brilliant.
Developing the main character in a first-person has always been an odd dance. After all, as a first-person game, the perspective of the main character is ostensibly the perspective of the player. The main character is the player’s window into the world, and since the main character is controlled by the player, it can be reasonably assumed that the main character doesn’t exist without the player. Most games greet this problem with one of two answers. One is to move the story forward through third-person cinematics and scripted sequences. This approach can be seen as recently as Crysis Warhead, and while it allows for the creation of a very identifiable character, it tends to significantly disrupt the flow of game-play, creating a experience which feels more like an inter-weaving of a movie and a game than a seamless whole. Alternatively, many games have taken to keeping the player in a first-person perspective throughout, but taking control over the character’s actions during critical points of the story and interjecting spoken lines which are triggered automatically. This provides seamless game-play, but it creates the feeling that the player is only partially in control, that there is really two minds behind the same set of eyes.
Valve’s approach avoids these pitfalls. The conflict between movie and game is never an issue, since the entire series is devoid of cinematics. And by keeping Freeman quiet, Valve also creates one of the most personal first-person games in existence. Rarely does the player ever find their control lost, and when they do, it is because Freeman also is physically restrained. As a result, the player becomes Freeman; everything that he does occurs because of the player.
Sure, the silence initially feels odd. But I never found it a problem, largely because in the absence of Freeman providing speech for me, I provided the speech for him. This doesn’t mean I was talking at my monitor or TV (for the most part…) but these imagined responses defiantly exist whenever I play a Half-Life game. Freeman doesn’t need to say anything when a head-crab pops out of some dark space, trying to make savage love to his cranium. I’m already there. He doesn’t need to tell Barney to watch out. I’m already doing it for him. There is no separation between the player and the character the player inhabits. Freeman becomes an every-man not just because of his image, but also because whenever we play the game, he is precisely what we make of him. Those of us who tend to leap and scream when things come from dark corners find that our Freeman does the same, while those of us who prefer to remain smooth and confident find our Freemans are similarly stern. One of the most hilarious examples of this I read during a forum debate about Freeman’s silence was from a player who said he made Freeman run around in circles and curse at Eli or Alyx whenever the other characters asked him to do something dangerous. The image still makes me grin, but there is truth in jest.
While the title of this article is “Keep Freeman Quiet,” I’m also making a more general appeal here, as I hope that we will see more games take this approach in the future. I doubt that Valve is suddenly going to change their approach in what may be the last Episode of the Half-Life series, but I don’t recall any other game that has tried to replicate Valve’s success. More often than not, games are instead trying to play off the fact that while games allow the player to control the game to a degree, they are ultimately linear experiences that force the player to make assumptions. Bioshock is a good example of this, as is the older Shadow of the Colossus. But I think Freeman represents another direction we can take in games, one which may allow an experience which, while linear, allows the player to create their own in-game personality and make their own judgements about in-game events. It will be interesting to see Valve continues this tradition once the Half-Life series ends. In the meantime, Freeman will remain one of my favorite characters. After all, he is exactly who I want him to be.