“We owe a great deal to Dr. Freeman – even if trouble does tend to follow in his wake.”
– Dr. Kleiner

Gordon Freeman: Worst. Scientist. Ever.

The opening train ride of Half-Life may include several moments of quiet humor, but surely none of them have the slow payoff like Gordon’s Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from MIT and his “Level 3” clearance. He’s got a “big day ahead,” says the security guard who greets him at the lab entrance. Yes, he does, the player soon realizes: put on a fancy radiation suit and push a cart a few feet into the dangerous energy beam, then take lunch. Apparently Gordon just barely beat out a chimp with an English degree from Patrick Henry College for the job. But hey, those student loans won’t pay for themselves.

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To its credit, Valve’s writing staff appears to be fully aware of the humor inherent in Gordon’s highly low-tech exploits. In HL2, for example, Barney jokes about Gordon’s education while the player performs the difficult task of flipping a switch. But beneath this running gag, the Half-Life series (and its crazy little sister, Portal) betrays a kind of warm ambivalence toward scientific pursuits. As an unapologetic fan of the Enlightenment, I find there’s a lot to admire about their implicit statements on the subject.

The Scientific Narrative
Frankenstein’s monster kills the good doctor in the end, just as the golem eventually slips from its maker’s control in the old Jewish tales. The theme of progress gone awry has often been taken up by pulp fiction – a category happily inhabited by most game narratives. And certainly, Half-Life and its sequels fall broadly into this category. Following Gordon’s misguided attempt at manual labor and its disastrous consequences, the Earth is flooded with hostile alien creatures that eventually turn the world into the U.S.S.R., circa 1963. The price of blue jeans no doubt skyrockets.

Yet while past tales of mad science have simplistically implied that there are places man was not meant to go, Black Mesa’s experiment doesn’t seem to set its scientists aback. The staff that survives into Half-Life 2 – Drs. Kleiner, Vance, Magnusson and Mossman – continue their research, working to learn from the Combine invaders. One has to wonder how the average City 17 citizen feels about that – the same scientists that brought the whole thing on (even if they were prompted by the G-Man) are still playing around with teleportation and zero-point energy fields? Perhaps they figure things can’t get any worse, or maybe they just can’t find their pitchforks and torches. In any case, the game’s storyline doesn’t condemn science for its misuse by malevolent forces, which is kind of refreshing.

Portal, on the other hand, presents a fittingly warped view of the scientific process, embodied by its artificially intelligent main character. GLaDOS is more than just SHODAN with a better speech synth and a taste for pastry. Even after the destruction of her lab and the world outside, she keeps running her bizarre tests, to the point of cannibalizing the Aperture workforce for subjects. What hypothesis could giving her prisoners a portal gun and making them bounce around increasingly deadly environments possibly prove?

The answer, of course, is nothing. Where Black Mesa’s scientists keep striving for the betterment of the species, GLaDOS is the nightmare side of industrial science – pointless, commercialized and needlessly competitive for resources. It would be a mistake, surely, to read too much into the game’s absurdist narrative, but I can’t help but wonder about the subtext: it’s the same kind of corporate research that brought us the McDonald’s “shake.” Still I note, hopefully, that the portal gun itself is never seen as intrinsically evil. Even GLaDOS herself is a figure more tragic than sinister. The technology that creates her is no Frankenstein or Pandora’s box; it just doesn’t actually understand the principles of discovery and revelation that have driven scientific progress since the Renaissance.

Gun-shy
Half-Life‘s fans could have likely guessed at a lot of developments in the sequel – the presence of the G-Man, the return of the standard weaponry, Gordon’s voiceless interactions with other characters – but I don’t remember anyone ever predicting players would spend at least half their time flinging heavy objects around with the gravity gun, although it’s fitting that Gordon can push much larger carts in the second game.

It is, in fact, the bizarre nature of their weaponry that has also made both Half-Life 2 and Portal such odd examples of shooters, so much so that the latter barely seems to qualify. But while the gravity gun lets Gordon Freeman interact with his environment in a semi-realistic way, the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device is noteworthy in part for the way it turns the physics engine inward. Instead of being able to toss cars and barrels around like the Incredible Hulk, Portal asks the player to set up situations and let the physics do the work, even acting on his own body.

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“Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing goes out.” It’s not the most elegant summary of Newton’s First Law of Motion, but GLaDOS’ recitation does have the advantage of some great visual aids. A high school science teacher could probably do worse than Portal for teaching the basics. Whether players know it or not, by the time they’ve finished the game they’ve worked through all three laws of motion, seen demonstrations of both potential and kinetic energy, and learned to redirect both in new directions. The effects of prolonged exposure to the 1500-Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button, on the other hand, remain a mystery.

In the case of both the portal and gravity guns, Valve’s recent games have been all about turning virtual worlds into a playground for experimentation and interaction. Currently these interactions are still primitive, limited to moving large objects in obvious ways. But I have hope for what this says about the potential of the medium, not just as a fun simulator of explosions and crude construction but also as a teaching tool.

Unforeseen Consequences
For the last few years, the buzzword for game engine design has been physics, but most games didn’t use it for anything more than the most basic eye-candy. HL2 showed that the model itself could actually be fun and interesting as part of the gameplay. I like to imagine doing the same thing for other fields – chemistry, for example, which has never been one of my strong subjects but would almost certainly make for amazing puzzles a la MacGyver. To some degree, this progression is already taking place; what’s Spore but an expansive biology toy?

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, scientist Carl Sagan lamented the messages being presented by newspapers, books, radio and other media. Through constant repetition, he wondered, are we teaching the youth only about murder, cruelty, credulity and consumerism? “What kind of society could we create, if instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?” Sagan asked. I doubt very much that he would have seen videogames as the savior to these problems. But I think they have hidden potential. Perhaps Gordon Freeman never gets much personal use out of that expensive MIT education, preferring to send small and large objects hurtling into anything in his way. But if his virtual adventures can inspire more people to look into real-world science, maybe he’s not such a bad role model after all.

Thomas Wilburn went to China, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

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