The Time I Was a Madman in Half-Life 2

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The Time I Was a Madman in Half-Life 2

A controversial view of silent protagonists.

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Sometimes when I play Half Life when some character talks to Gordon I talk back to the game, as if I was Gordon talking. It isn't the same as having a interesting character with a good voice actor and well written dialogue, but it's better than a silent character in my opinion.

While I don't disagree with your opinion, I felt that Gordon had some type of implied personality. I probably just made it up for myself through my playthrough, but I got a sense that he was a man who didn't waste words...at all. Ever. He had more of a physical presence that an aural one. A point and a nod was enough to convey what squad members were expected to do. A look in your direction let you know how he was feeling. A bash in the head with a crowbar meant he didn't like you. Everything Gordon did was in earnest and you got a sense that the NPCs respected him for that. I just imagined all of the conversations included Gordon responding with a facial expression or a shrug. Something along those lines. I never thoughthim standing stock still like a psychopath.

Unless you're counting both episodes as one game, there were FOUR Half-Life games starring Gordon Freeman:
Half-Life
Half-Life 2
Half-Life 2 Episode 1
Half-Life 2 Episode 2

Then there were also Opposing Force and Blue Shift with Shephard and Barney - but at least in the case of the latter we know that he speaks in his own game (in at least three places, scientists clearly answer a question YOU must have asked) and in HL2 and Ep1, he is talking.
And Chell from Portal is confirmed to be able to speak - she just doesn't want to during gameplay.

Also, last time I checked, in Call of Duty, both Masons were pretty chatty fellows even when you played them... It were usually just the Infinite Ward guys, that kind of forgot how to speak when you played them.

Just a few things I wanted to note.

Maybe Gordon Freeman really is mute, or suffers some form of autism, that would actually kinda make sense. I can't think of anything in the series that would disqualify that theory. Stop being insensitive to Gordon's condition goddamnit!

Anyway, it's easy to see how someone from a background in film or some other medium where dialogue is more central would feel weird about characters like Gordon, Chell, Link, Samus (shut up, it doesn't count), and but you're applying traditional real world logic to a video game. You just have to accept that video games don't always work like real life, and suspend your disbelief far enough to allow that or stop playing.

Giving a character dialogue has inherent limitations, either you have no control over what they say in which case it breaks the immersive feel of you being the character, or you have to choose from a very limited set of dialogue options which is still imperfect and breaks the flow of cutscenes. I personally prefer my protagonists silent. Besides, actions speak louder than words.

The hell you talking Blackburn from BF3 not talking? He talks ALL THE TIME. Cutscenes. Gameplay. QTEs.

And Freeman is just a deep thinker.

What's better? A mute character that doesn't respond, or one that does but utters completely stupid rubbish?

I agree with this man so much. I'm sick of silent protagonists.

Personally, I always thought of Gordon Freeman as being literally mute. As in, some sort of birth defect makes it impossible for him to actually talk to anyone.
Of course, this could just be that before Half-Life, the only shooters I'd played were Deus Ex, Thief and Perfect Dark, none of which had silent protagonists. He was literally the first silent protagonist I'd ever encountered, so I didn't know it was a thing. You may have guessed that I didn't play Half-Life until long after it was released.

Paragon Fury:
The hell you talking Blackburn from BF3 not talking? He talks ALL THE TIME. Cutscenes. Gameplay. QTEs.

And Freeman is just a deep thinker.

Yay I don't feel alone in knowing/liking Freemans mind. Terrible shame Machinma won't respond to his contract to upload the next few episodes :c

But why'd I come here.. Oh right. It does feel kinda strange that Freeman doesn't talk, I just had a habit of putting my own dialogue in cause I'm weird. I do think there's difference between blank slate / psychopathic murderer that just stares down.

I thoroughly enjoy my time as Gordon Freeman.

The games are absolutely linear, so I am more than happy to sit back and enjoy the events and stories unfolding before me. You are locked into a Neutral Good alignment. At any given point you know you are probably going to be the one to take on the danger and do the right thing. You hopefully are going to save the girl/world.

While Gordon may not intereact as fully with the world as others, I do not believe his silence takes anything away from the awesome drama Valve has created.

ritchards:
What's better? A mute character that doesn't respond, or one that does but utters completely stupid rubbish?

I definitely would choose silence over idiocy.

I don't mind Gordon Freeman being silent, but maybe it is time to move away from the silent protagonist thing. I actually thought Booker DeWitts' responses to things made Bioshock Infinite more interesting.

Here's my theory on Gordon Freeman by the way. He was a new guy at Black Mesa, barely more than grunt in the eyes of the scientists who had been there for years. Whenever he was about to give his input or explain what was going on, he gets shrugged off with the scientist he's trying to talk to basically saying "go throw that switch and get this door open newbie".

Then the G-Man puts him in stasis - for like 15 YEARS. Gordon isn't even frozen there, he's just silently aware of the passing of time. His body is frozen but his mind is still wandering around in that interdimensional darkness.

So by the time he makes it to City 17, he is an absolute and total nutter. The right man for that particular wrong place.

Bindal:
but at least in the case of the latter we know that he speaks in his own game (in at least three places, scientists clearly answer a question YOU must have asked)

I sort of assumed that while Freeman isn't chatty, he at least does say something every once in a while. Or nods/waves his hands around or otherwise interacts. Makes sense, otherwise the other people would have been creeped out, I guess. They do react in other ways to your actions, after all.

Ah another ME centric thread!
As Gordon Freeman I will enlighten you all in why I never speak.
The truth is I was wearing a helmet the whole time and I couldnt speak through it.
Now here comes the "Well I dont see a helmet." argument. Well you see in 1999 Valve was thinking of a MGS/Halflife spin off but it never got off the ground. The only evidence of this is that Otocon installed active camo into my helmet!
Here's some lost dialog from the scene with the rocket launch in episode 2.

I think people should really get over this silent character thing. It is not like other developers are swooning over the concept. If anything protagonists have been more foul-mouthed and obnoxious than ever. Play something else if silence bothers you that much. Some of us prefer silent types you know!

Throughout all three of the Half-Life games and episodes

Um, did I miss something? Something rather big?

CardinalPiggles:

Throughout all three of the Half-Life games and episodes

Um, did I miss something? Something rather big?

You mean something that doesn't exist? XD

I think this article shows more why silent characters work, than the opposite. The very fact that the player feels invited in answering as freeman, nodding, acting like a maniac, or whatever, HELPS the player get into the skin of the character. When the character says anything, either by inflection or choice of words that does not correspond with the players experience, it creates a distance between the player and the character.

The silence of freeman may keep you from fully getting close to him, but it also keeps you from fully getting distanced to him. And that makes it easier as freemen to get to know other characters and those are the ones that are written to grow on you. Again the fact that the writer cares for alyx shows that this has worked and worked well.

ALSO! Thanks for that freeman's mind youtube thing. Very cool.

If you've never read it, I can recommend the half life and death of gordon frohman. http://www.screencuisine.net/hlcomic/

Here's a counterpoint; Why fleshed out protagonists aren't always good(may contain spoilers).

Forcing main characters to have a voice, to express opinions and stances on issues might distance the player from the game.
My prime example being Bioshock: Infinite
Booker Dewitt, a depressed gambler that sold his infant daughter to cover his debt, who murdered native americans and became an alcoholic with a suicide wish, who by the way was also a Pinkterton who beat the shit out of workers when they went on strike.
How the FUCK am I, or anyone, supposed to relate to that?!

How could I possibly don that mantle?

Further on, when you enter a flying city with robot horses, robot men, magic drinks that grant you superpowers and you face off against armies of men, Booker doesn't give a shit.
He is unsympathetic, egotistical, violent and a man of vices. It doesn't make him a bad character, but it makes him thoroughly unrelatable.
I'd love to read about him in a story, but to play him distances me from the game and I'd much rather play a silent character or one with dialogue choices at least.

Give me Gordon Freeman over Booker Dewitt, any day.

Addendum:
I prefer not to play scripted characters in games, because I want to shape the experience to my enjoyment when I play.
If I have to fit someone elses shoes, it becomes a job of sorts.
It's different from a book or a movie where you might think a character is doing something wrong or doing something stupid.
In a game, if you're forced to do something you don't agree with, it becomes infuriating.

CardinalPiggles:

Throughout all three of the Half-Life games and episodes

Um, did I miss something? Something rather big?

I think the writer missed something. Something rather big. Something called the first Half-Life game. He should probably play it sometime.

thatsthespirit:
Now, I'm not an author, I don't write books (more on why later) but I'm pretty certain that a key lesson in Fiction 101 is "have a character." And games don't, they have a gun. You play as a pair of shoes.

One of my favorite sight gags in Wreck-It Ralph was having the "player" in Hero's Duty be a robot with a screen (think the doors from Monsters, Inc. but shaped like a monitor and with a solid glass pane across it) for a head. It's the sort of gag that wouldn't have worked quite as well in a world where FPS protagonists were largely known for being chatty.

I think choosing a silent protagonist should depend on exactly whose eyes you want the story to be told through. If you have a set player-character like Nathan Drake, then the story is going to be "Uncharted--as interpreted by Nathan Drake." Or perhaps more accurately, "Uncharted--as interpreted by a fly on the wall observing Nathan Drake dealing with all this shit." In the Half-Life games and Portal, the story is told by the world around you. There are all sorts of stories in the environments and the NPCs in the HL games, and a good portion of Portal's story is told through the environments and the general state of Aperture. These elements that the player is supposed to slowly soak in would be undermined if they were constantly being filtered through the player-character's stream of consciousness. Or at the very least, they would be significantly changed.

So silent protagonists work for HL and Portal because the story is intended to be viewed through the player's eyes. It's not about the player learning about how Chell feels about Aperture, or how Gordon feels about the G-Man, or any of their emotional journeys. It's about the player experiencing the world and taking their own emotional journey.

Having played Bioshock Infinite (along with everybody's dog and mum) I think that silent protagonists is a thing of the past, something held onto out of laziness and budget restrictions rather than wanting the player to "fill the shoes". Not that I think Half Life 3 will benefit from giving Gordon Freeman a voice, unless he says something at the very end, in a very 'oh snap' moment or something.

Smilomaniac:
Here's a counterpoint; Why fleshed out protagonists aren't always good(may contain spoilers).

Forcing main characters to have a voice, to express opinions and stances on issues might distance the player from the game.
My prime example being Bioshock: Infinite
Booker Dewitt, a depressed gambler that sold his infant daughter to cover his debt, who murdered native americans and became an alcoholic with a suicide wish, who by the way was also a Pinkterton who beat the shit out of workers when they went on strike.
How the FUCK am I, or anyone, supposed to relate to that?!

How could I possibly don that mantle?

Further on, when you enter a flying city with robot horses, robot men, magic drinks that grant you superpowers and you face off against armies of men, Booker doesn't give a shit.
He is unsympathetic, egotistical, violent and a man of vices. It doesn't make him a bad character, but it makes him thoroughly unrelatable.
I'd love to read about him in a story, but to play him distances me from the game and I'd much rather play a silent character or one with dialogue choices at least.

Give me Gordon Freeman over Booker Dewitt, any day.

Addendum:
I prefer not to play scripted characters in games, because I want to shape the experience to my enjoyment when I play.
If I have to fit someone elses shoes, it becomes a job of sorts.
It's different from a book or a movie where you might think a character is doing something wrong or doing something stupid.
In a game, if you're forced to do something you don't agree with, it becomes infuriating.

As the writer said at the beginning of the article, I'm sure a lot of us aren't physicists who know how to operate guns. How am I supposed to relate to a mute physicist?

I don't think a lot of people would be able to be an absolute mirror of Booker Dewitt, I'm sure not, but personally I can empathize and fathom why he would or would have done such things (he reacted very appropriately when his HANDS WERE BURNING OFF!). I can't empathize with Gordon Freeman because he is a arm and a gun... occasionally cans and bottles that I throw at at the Combine.

image

I completely agree with Ed Smith, it's far more immersive to have an actual talking protagonist even if that guy is completely unrelatable and a complete moron than a mute who getting into situations that would drive most people gibberingly insane and yet never even gives the occasional snide comment.

Really though, my favorite kind of protagonist is the silent protagonist's close cousin the multiple choice dialog protagonist, since if the writer gives enough options that make sense I can probably find something pretty close to what I would have probably said in whatever situation the protagonist finds themselves in, which is much more immersive even if the dialog choices don't amount to much of anything in the end. My favorite version of multiple choice protagonists is the ones like Commander Shepard, ones that not only have choices in their dialog but also have actual voice acting for that dialog, though probably due to the expense that doesn't happen often.

Ed Smith's previous articles struck me as a bit odd with his train of thought, but this one is somewhat reflective of the gaming culture's attitude towards silent protagonists. think more and more people are starting to want a bit more from their characters. at least I know I do, but I did just replay the Mass Effect series (all characters story dialogue) and of course Bioshock Infinite lol

MrHide-Patten:

As the writer said at the beginning of the article, I'm sure a lot of us aren't physicists who know how to operate guns. How am I supposed to relate to a mute physicist?

How's a geek or nerd supposed to relate to a guy who works in a lab who gets thrust into a situation with aliens, soldiers and "zombies"? A hell of a lot more, is my guess, since it caters to idle fantasies where you get thrust into an exhilarating adventure and escape your dreary life.
Like others said, they just substitute Gordon with themselves. Since you don't use your Phd or experience with theoretical physics throughout the game, there's no requirement for you to become a lab-geek, specifically.
The premise is that it's an ordinary guy who's thrust into an unknown situation and most should be able to relate to that.

It's not perfect, by any stretch, but I would say it's better.

MrHide-Patten:

I don't think a lot of people would be able to be an absolute mirror of Booker Dewitt, I'm sure not, but personally I can empathize and fathom why he would or would have done such things (he reacted very appropriately when his HANDS WERE BURNING OFF!). I can't empathize with Gordon Freeman because he is a arm and a gun... occasionally cans and bottles that I throw at at the Combine.

I can empathize with Booker, sure, I get that a hard life will make you do stupid shit, it's not tough to figure out.
I've had bad stuff happen to me, and I've done stupid shit in return, but the key difference between me and Booker is that I manage to take a step back and look at things and don't let my past ruin my present or future in most situations.
The thing is, that you're him and if you don't agree with his thoughts and actions, then there's a barrier.

So while I can understand him, I don't want to sympathize with him, because he honestly seems like a thoroughly unlikeable person(from the beginning). Like I wrote, I'd love to read about this character, because there'd be a lot to investigate and experience throughout his journey.
But I don't want to play him, because at the moment where you get off the boat, it's you, not Booker, that should call the shots.

I think this is where our preferences simply differ, since I can certainly see why playing a mute character would distance others from the game.

All in all, I prefer a game that gives you choice. While Gordon never got any choice, the lack of a personality and a voice allowed me to use my own.
In a game like Mass Effect, you keep looking at Shepard during dialogue and feel appropriately distanced, but still get to make choices according to your wishes, so despite the fact that you never talked from a first person perspective and it wasn't your voice(and in my case even gender), I still felt more like Shepard at the end, that it was my journey, my story and my world, than I ever did with Booker Dewitt.

FWIW, I agree entirely with the author of the piece and salute his balls in laying into one of the biggest, most over-hyped franchises and characters to do it. Half Life and it's sequels are good games, but the narratives are a mess, in large part because Freeman isn't participating as anything other than a sort of deus ex machina himself.

I'm not saying silent protagonists aren't viable. My favouritest game ever is System Shock 2, which has an entirely silent protagonist. But SS2 doesn't have the character ever interact with other humans. And SS2 does have RPG style levelling up of skills - a decision mechanic which ties a player to their character. I couldn't pick up my friend's save game and play his character the way I play my character. My character plays my way. My character's interactions with the world are framed entirely by my choices.

But the best, most immersive first-person game I've ever played is Thief: The Dark Project. Garrett isn't silent. And far from taking the player out of the world, Garrett's wry observations and monologues about the world around him drag the player into that world via his head and his eyes. Thief 1's story-telling is among the finest in the history of videogaming.

I don't know how this has become a 'featured article', it's not even well written or a good idea to base an article off of.

It's just one person thinking up random things and putting pen to paper, there's no fundamental backing to Ed Smith's claims rather than just 'this is my opinion'. An opinion a lot of people probably oppose.

Oppose isn't the right word. Ummm, it's contradictory. No one things of Gordon Freeman as a madman who stares like the darkness of eternal night... or something. He's just silent, from back in a time when games were all silent. Half life and it's sequels are OLD GAMES. We have dialogue now. But even if we didn't, everything would still be the same because silent protagonist's aren't a bad thing. They're immersible.

So no this article probably wasn't worth reading, but then it did make for some stimulating thoughts on my end, so that's something atleast.

I was curious what you had to say, up until you hit the, "He never speaks" thing. I've heard this before, so many times, it's sad. And guess what? I still don't care that he doesn't speak. In many ways, I've found, over the years, the silent protagonist is better than one that speaks, especially one that speaks that's incredibly annoying/that I don't like. This is especially true of RPGs where a out loud speaking protagonist seems to mean creating my own character is near impossible, and from what developers have said over the years it only seems like it limits choice, rather than expanding it.

It's a good thing you're not saying silent protagonists aren't viable, but it's a bad thing that you've brought this nonsense up yet again because it's idiotic. Thief: The Dark Project was a claustrophobic (thanks to the, "because the environments have to be small for the graphics to be good!" era of development) and pale thing compared to Thief or Thief the Metal Age. This isn't just nostalgia talking, I still play the first two games - the fact that I can revisits them without losing what I originally found in them is exceptional. Thief: The Dark Project, after my first play through - I never wanted to play again. It wasn't terrible, but unlike its earlier entries it didn't grab me enough to bring me back for more.

If the most immersive first-person game you've ever played is Thief: The Dark Project you need to play far more first person games. This doesn't seem like an article, it seems like a, "Hey a lot of people don't like those silent protagonists right? I'll jump on that bandwagon!"

Smilomaniac:

MrHide-Patten:

As the writer said at the beginning of the article, I'm sure a lot of us aren't physicists who know how to operate guns. How am I supposed to relate to a mute physicist?

How's a geek or nerd supposed to relate to a guy who works in a lab who gets thrust into a situation with aliens, soldiers and "zombies"? A hell of a lot more, is my guess, since it caters to idle fantasies where you get thrust into an exhilarating adventure and escape your dreary life.
Like others said, they just substitute Gordon with themselves. Since you don't use your Phd or experience with theoretical physics throughout the game, there's no requirement for you to become a lab-geek, specifically.
The premise is that it's an ordinary guy who's thrust into an unknown situation and most should be able to relate to that.

It's not perfect, by any stretch, but I would say it's better.

MrHide-Patten:

I don't think a lot of people would be able to be an absolute mirror of Booker Dewitt, I'm sure not, but personally I can empathize and fathom why he would or would have done such things (he reacted very appropriately when his HANDS WERE BURNING OFF!). I can't empathize with Gordon Freeman because he is a arm and a gun... occasionally cans and bottles that I throw at at the Combine.

I can empathize with Booker, sure, I get that a hard life will make you do stupid shit, it's not tough to figure out.
I've had bad stuff happen to me, and I've done stupid shit in return, but the key difference between me and Booker is that I manage to take a step back and look at things and don't let my past ruin my present or future in most situations.
The thing is, that you're him and if you don't agree with his thoughts and actions, then there's a barrier.

So while I can understand him, I don't want to sympathize with him, because he honestly seems like a thoroughly unlikeable person(from the beginning). Like I wrote, I'd love to read about this character, because there'd be a lot to investigate and experience throughout his journey.
But I don't want to play him, because at the moment where you get off the boat, it's you, not Booker, that should call the shots.

I think this is where our preferences simply differ, since I can certainly see why playing a mute character would distance others from the game.

All in all, I prefer a game that gives you choice. While Gordon never got any choice, the lack of a personality and a voice allowed me to use my own.
In a game like Mass Effect, you keep looking at Shepard during dialogue and feel appropriately distanced, but still get to make choices according to your wishes, so despite the fact that you never talked from a first person perspective and it wasn't your voice(and in my case even gender), I still felt more like Shepard at the end, that it was my journey, my story and my world, than I ever did with Booker Dewitt.

The problem with the Gordon Freeman and Booker Dewitt comparison is that ultimately, you make as much choice as Gordon Freeman as you do as Booker (perhaps a little bit less). Essentially both character's are killing people by their hundreds with a female companion.

I can't honestly say I disliked Booker or found him unlikable, but then it was a possibility, now I'm not saying they should just give Gordon Freeman a voice for the sake of trends but Gordon Freeman cant be likeable, cant be unlikeable, he's a cipher, a non entity.

With Booker you get to take initivative through him, he conveys information to you (the one pulling the strings) and you can act upon it. But with Gordon and other silent Protagonists their actions are entirely reactionary, they are being told what to do and what their objective is. This is especially obvious through the transition from Dead Space 1 and 2, in the second Isaac was given a voice and was turned into a character.

A great character cannot react to everything, they have to have initivative. So in that sense, Gordon Freeman isn't a character, he's a figure you slap on the box and what the other character's call you.

MrHide-Patten:

The problem with the Gordon Freeman and Booker Dewitt comparison is that ultimately, you make as much choice as Gordon Freeman as you do as Booker (perhaps a little bit less). Essentially both character's are killing people by their hundreds with a female companion.

I can't honestly say I disliked Booker or found him unlikable, but then it was a possibility, now I'm not saying they should just give Gordon Freeman a voice for the sake of trends but Gordon Freeman cant be likeable, cant be unlikeable, he's a cipher, a non entity.

With Booker you get to take initivative through him, he conveys information to you (the one pulling the strings) and you can act upon it. But with Gordon and other silent Protagonists their actions are entirely reactionary, they are being told what to do and what their objective is. This is especially obvious through the transition from Dead Space 1 and 2, in the second Isaac was given a voice and was turned into a character.

A great character cannot react to everything, they have to have initivative. So in that sense, Gordon Freeman isn't a character, he's a figure you slap on the box and what the other character's call you.

Chalk it up to difference of opinion then, I can see what you mean, but I don't feel that way :)
I'm glad some enjoy playing fleshed out characters though.

grumpymooselion:
It's a good thing you're not saying silent protagonists aren't viable, but it's a bad thing that you've brought this nonsense up yet again because it's idiotic. Thief: The Dark Project was a claustrophobic (thanks to the, "because the environments have to be small for the graphics to be good!" era of development) and pale thing compared to Thief or Thief the Metal Age. This isn't just nostalgia talking, I still play the first two games - the fact that I can revisits them without losing what I originally found in them is exceptional. Thief: The Dark Project, after my first play through - I never wanted to play again. It wasn't terrible, but unlike its earlier entries it didn't grab me enough to bring me back for more.

I think you're confusing Thief: The Dark Project (which is the first game in the series) with Thief: Deadly Shadows, which was the third game in the series.

And I'm not really sure what point you're making on silent protagonists with respect to the early Thief games - Garrett isn't a silent protagonist at all in the first two games, although I'm struggling to remember any in-game dialogue involving him, most of his lines being monologues triggers by certain events or reaching certain points.

RE: Op:

Because a character that's a weird mute sociopath and nobody notices is bad.

A character giving a tearful monologue about their lost daughter while humping a houseplant in the corner to make coins come out of it is worse.

On the flipside, take Bioshock Infinite as a counter example. Booker never shuts the fuck up. He talks aloud at everything he sees, even when no one is around or no one is listening at all. That takes me right out of the game because no human being sees a chair in the middle of the ocean in a light house with no one in it and says "GUESS THEY WANT ME TO SIT IN THEIR FANCY CHAIR!" to the emptiness of the ocean.

I have to say, the way you talk about not wanting to put yourself into the characters, how you'd rather be told the story than be part of it.

Are you sure you actually like videogames?

I get what you're saying here, but maybe you'd enjoy spending that time reading or watching movies more?

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