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.
I’m not Gordon Freeman. I don’t know anything about science, I’m rubbish with guns and I haven’t got a robot dog. When the game insists I am him it just feels incongruous. I’m a chubby kid from Derbyshire who can’t do maths. Give me an assault rifle and I’ll end up shooting it into the ground until I lift off like Yosemite Sam.
Isn’t escapism about taking your mind out of something, not putting it in?
I know it’s supposed to be escapism. You’re supposed to forget about your chubbiness, your crapness at maths, the fact you shoot like a cartoon character. But, I don’t know, isn’t escapism about taking your mind out of something, not putting it in? And what exactly am I escaping into? The silent CoD soldiers are there for me to lose myself in but when I think of escapism, I think of a warm holiday with a book and a big thing of beer – I don’t think of me, in a war.
I suppose it comes down to me getting games wrong to some extent. My background’s mainly in film so I tend to judge games’ value as passive rather than impassive media. I like being told a story, basically; I like being fed something.
I think this is what it boils down to, actually. Whenever I’m given one of these silent nutters to perform, I can’t help but feel like I’m constantly doing the role a disservice. I like having dialogue there because it keeps the artist’s vision somewhat intact. I like being told, I like being shown. I like artists to effectuate and do their thing and to sit and watch it.
I don’t want to help write the game. As I said, I’m not an author, I don’t write fiction. I don’t trust myself to be able to honor someone else’s ideas. It’s the reason why, when I open A Farewell to Arms I don’t scribble out the first page and put my own opening in. I’m quite happy with “In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” I think Hemingway did alright there. I wouldn’t dream of crossing it out and putting, I dunno, “There was a war and it was baaaaaad.” I have respect for the literature.
But actually, it’s not even that players don’t necessarily have respect for the literature: I don’t think the writers do, either. There seems to be a kind of low self-esteem inherent in these silent protagonists, whereby, game writers don’t trust themselves enough to be able to have a story that can stand by itself. They don’t want to take a top down approach; they don’t want to express themselves too much because they’re not certain anyone cares enough to listen.
That, of course, comes from years of videogame writing being secondary, or, in a lot of cases, simply not present. I think these mute madmen come from the historical notion that story, writing and creative intent is something you can opt into if you like in videogames, as opposed to in cinema or books where you pay deference to the creators by watching or reading. I think that’s it. I think game writers create mute heroes out of anxiety, so they know players will have something to fall back on if they don’t like the story.
Well I say fuck that noise. I say we should all be more like Gordon Freeman and just shut up and listen to what we’re being told. It might be “doing games wrong,” it might be ignoring the interactivity that makes them games in the first place, but when I’m indulging myself in fiction it’s because I want to hear what someone else has to say.
If game writers believe having a mute hero there improves their work, then great, I’ll go along with that, I’ll throw myself in. But if it’s because of some frightened sycophancy to the player – some timid attitude than in games the player is always right, the player is most important – then, no, sod that. You, the person or people that sat down and made the videogame, you’re the artists. I want to hear what you have to say.