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The Time I Was a Madman in Half-Life 2

Ed Smith | 18 Apr 2013 17:00
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I love Half-Life 2. Of course I do, because I'm a rational human being. But despite all the explosive set-pieces, great artwork and nude mods, I'm constantly bothered by the fact that I'm playing as a lunatic.

While Gordon Freeman certainly has a cool suit and beard and all, he never speaks, not one word, and it's weird.

Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist and killer, is often held up as one of the best and most iconic game characters ever, ever. And although he certainly has a cool suit and beard and all, he never speaks, not one word, and it's weird.

Like, really weird. Throughout all three of the Half-Life games and episodes he never utters so much as a diphthong, doing all of his communicating via bullets and the strange way I shuffle him around a room sometimes just for laughs. And he comes across as mental. Just imagine the sheer terror Alyx or Eli or whomever must feel when they walk up to him and say "Hey, Gordon, how are things?" and all they get back is some 6'1" guy in a metal suit staring back at them in silence holding a crowbar. Imagine if that was one of your friends. He knocked on the door, came in and when you said "Want a drink?" he just looked at you without saying anything, and that was all he ever did. You'd have him sectioned.

And it's not like Freeman's the only weirdo out there. The silent, hulking soldiers of Call of Duty and Battlefield are no louder, meeting the blokey patter of their mates with strange, constant muteness. Take Roach or Blackburn or any of them. They just stare, they just gaze. They don't do or say anything. They're like Michael Caine's wife in Children of Men; they need help.

Now, I get what these characters are supposed to do. Games are an impassive medium, blah blah and in order to let players feel like they're really involved in the action, writers let them play as blank slates, husks that allow them to put themselves into the role. I get that, I do. But, you know, it's kinda rubbish.

For one, it doesn't assist with the story, it makes it a lot worse. With all these mute protagonists, we've created a canon of games without central characters. 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.

Dialogue is dynamic; it's between two or more people. When Alyx looked at me and started explaining how she was worried about her dad, or whatever, it always felt like Gordon should have been comforting her or encouraging her, or just saying something. But he doesn't. He just watches like a murderer.

And even though I know it's meant to be me filling that role, it's not like I actually can. I can't respond to Alyx. I can't press a button that lets me talk to her down a Bluetooth headset or something. Rather than inhabiting a character, making a story richer, I'm watching half a dialogue scene; I'm making the story weaker.

I do try to spare some of the embarrassment. Watching Gordon not talk often feels awkward like being at a 2nd grade Christmas play and seeing the stupid kid forget his line. So, I try to ease things up by chucking in a few responses here and there. It might sound absurd, but I actually find myself tapping or waggling the right analogue stick to make Gordon nod or shake his head. Maybe if someone says something particularly shocking I'll make him take a quick step backwards as if he's alarmed. I'm sure from a third-person perspective it would look bloody stupid, but compared to the otherwise unbearable silence, it's at least something.

But apart from that there's nothing I can do. And it's not just that this silent present is making the story worse, it's that I don't really want to play as myself in games. I don't want to imagine myself as Gordon Freeman.

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