The Success and Failure of Silence: Gordon Freeman in ‘Half-Life’ and ‘Half-Life 2’

How can a character without voice or choice connect with players on an emotional level?

In terms of silent protagonists few come bigger, or quieter, than Dr. Gordon Freeman of the Half-Life series. His beard, glasses, and crowbar cut an iconic figure which has left a definite imprint in video game culture, reaching the tops of popularity polls (“The 50 Greatest Video Game Characters”, Empire Online) (“Guiness Names Top 50 Video Game Characters of All Time”, by Jeff Marchiafava, Game Informer, 16, February 2011). The question of the usefullness of a silent protagonist has been raised before (see “Does Silence Speak in the Loudest Voice?: Misconceptions about Silent Protagonists in Video Games”, by Kevin Dickinson, PopMatters, 7 February 2012) and in the topic’s long history it’s an appropriate and important question to examine. Unlike the more general discussions of previous writers, the silence in both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, provide the context for this article, as well as an interesting contrast of storytelling styles, and the places in which a silent protagonist can excel — and fail.

His body, in game, is represented solely by his hands and arms. But for the Half-Life loading screen and one blurry photograph in Half-Life 2, it would be safe to say that most players would have no firm idea of what he looks like if it were not for the promotional art put out by Valve. That this character also has no voice places a massive uphill climb to imbue Dr .Gordon Freeman with any character at all. This essay tracks that impressive and subtle character arc in relation to the failings of the character in Half-Life 2.

Gordon’s Physical Presence and Character Establishment

Gordon’s physical presence in game, his ability to provoke a reaction from all objects and Non-Player-Characters (NPCs), are of critical importance in the Half-Life ‘s opening chapter, “Anomalous Materials”. The walk to work in which Freeman interacts with Black Mesa staff builds a sense of Gordon in the environment and a broader world. Without a physical presence, Gordon becomes merely a floating camera with a gun, a mute protagonist (Ask A Dork: Silent Protagonists” by Arthur Trent, Nerds on the Rocks 25 April 2012).

As the game progresses and the crisis of Black Mesa deepens and expands, the rushed orders and exposition from guards or scientists are less like straightforward mission updates and checkpoints and more like natural reactions from a group of people grappling with their extraordinary situation. Gordon’s lack of vocalisation in this context, or even written dialogue, à la Link, creates a man of action in the mind of the player, rather than undermining any potential character building, or simply suggesting a blank slate for the player’s imagination.

The seemingly minor details of Half-Life‘s opening, the greetings during the morning walk to work, for example, help to develop a sense of roleplaying which is not achieved through the use of cut-scenes or dialogue delivered directly by the player character. It allows space for the player’s thoughts to become Gordon’s thoughts (Dickinson, Does Silence Speak…). The repeated use of the character’s name reinforces a sense of personhood, and the friendly or gruff interactions with Black Mesa staff create a sense of placement in the world. The impressiveness of Valve’s creative touch here stands in comparison with the heavy text based biographies which are set up and reviewed at the beginning of many modern RPGs, or the great emphasis placed on player-character creation (See: Mass Effect, 2007 & Skyrim 2012).

It also stands in contrast with the approach taken in Half-Life 2, where the virtually anonymous player-character is thrown into a group of strangers and generally hostile Civil Protection NPCs. After disembarking the train and entering City 17’s checkpoint control, Gordon and the player are greeted with the masked, bullying visage of the Combine Civil Protection and the mentally and emotionally broken civilian inhabitants. When Civil Protection beat and order Gordon around, it’s equally the player who is beaten and ordered, engendering an unspoken hostility to Civil Protection and a bonding sense of victimhood with the civilians of City 17. Unlike Half-Life these are not people familiar with Gordon, he is simply a part of the conquered humanity, another face in the crowd. The reactions which he provokes from the NPCs build the world, whereas in Half-Life they built Gordon.

Alyx Vance

The sudden introduction of Barney Calhoun and Dr. Kleiner, is the moment that the solidity of Gordon’s presence in the game-world is asserted for the first time. This character interaction occurs in a secluded room, one on one, but still remains less immersive than the wave of salutations from the Black Mesa staff. Upon Dr. Kleiner’s introduction, the weight of the conversation flows to the other characters and it’s not until the up close, face to face, arrival of Alyx Vance in the narrative that a true connection is made between Gordon, the player and the world.

The difference in approaches signifies the beginning of the divergence in story telling style between original and sequel. In the original Gordon is an individual in the midst of a crowd of largely friendly, but nameless, changeable faces. A certain isolation is lent to the player in this environment, an isolation which helps to support the subtle positioning of Gordon as an undervalued, and possibly unused, asset of the Black Mesa company. Gordon is another one of the faces. It also allows the hero’s journey to begin, as Gordon, the unique and established name that he is, is clearly special to the narrative.

The few moments of dialogue, which refer to Gordon in Half-Life, provide subtle hints as to the nature of Gordon’s character. The simple back and forth between two scientists just outside the test chamber in Half-Life’s “Anomalous Materials” is perhaps the most important example:

Einstein: “Now now, if you’ll follow standard insertion procedures everything will be fine.”

Slick: “I don’t know how you can say that although I will admit that the possibility of a resonance cascade scenario is incredibly unlikely.”

Einstein: “Gordon doesn’t need to hear all this, he’s a highly trained professional.”

(Half-Life, Chapter: “Anomalous Materials”, Valve, 1998)

Here Gordon is not simply denied information regarding the work he is about to undertake, not to mention the potential risks to his life and health, but he is also denied a position of equality with the scientists he works with. The dismissive attitude to Gordon’s own need or desire for knowledge, in a hierarchy in which knowledge is power, and the withholding of information from Gordon immediately places him in a position of weakness, and those around him in a position of strength.

The work which he is asked to undertake is menial, a pushing of a button and the pushing of a trolley. In a facility that has automation and basic robotics to provide clean up services the use of a scientist with several degrees as a manual labourer adds only further weight to Gordon’s lower position in the world of Half-Life. Combined with his informal relationships with Barney and the general Black Mesa security staff support the idea that Gordon’s position in Black Mesa is far lower than his Level 3 clearance suggests. (Upon exiting the train in the opening a guard allows Gordon through the security doors and says “Hey, catch me later I’ll buy you a beer.”)

While Gordon is pushed into the centre of attention in the opening to “Red Letter Day” in Half-Life 2, as the conversation unfolds between Dr. Kleiner, Barney and Alyx, Gordon’s destiny is slowly being removed from his hands again. It’s Alyx who rescues Gordon in the hallway ambush of the previous chapter, and it is she who details the next move, in which Gordon is not consulted:

Barney: “We can’t keep him here long Doc. He’ll jeopardise everything we’ve worked for”

Alyx: “He’s coming with me.”

Dr. Kleiner

Despite NPCs acknowledging Gordon with an occasional look mid-conversation, Gordon’s silence in these protracted conversations begins to become noticeable, even odd. The greater emphasis on the world of Half-Life 2, with its developed supporting character roster, familial and plot-based drama, means that much of the time given over to conversations is spent in fleshing out everything except Gordon. What is learned about Gordon from the two opening chapters of Half-Life 2 is that he is important (the focus of the supporting casts attention) and a troublemaker (as stated by Barney and Alyx). The weight of the world and supporting characters sweeps Gordon aside and into the background.

Dr. Freeman’s Agency and Story Development

In “Questionable Ethics”, Gordon meets another scientist (Einstein model), who mentions that Gordon is now being tracked by the entire military and scientific presence in the Black Mesa facility. Where once he was ignored he is now the centre of the scientific community’s attention. From the beginning of “Anomalous Materials” to this point in the game, the position of Gordon has moved from being largely unrespected (scientists refer to him as Gordon, or Freeman, but never use his earned title of Doctor) to being acknowledged as “a fellow scientist” and thus is fully informed of a plan of action. The dialogue is quick, and principally a speedy information dump on the broader mission objective change from one of reaching the surface for help, to reaching the Lambda Complex and helping. Hidden as the development is in the mission details, it’s clear that Gordon’s standing in life has changed in a well executed, symbiotic gameplay-narrative drive.

Compared to the halfway point of Half-Life 2 this seems to be an even more dramatic change. From “Red Letter Day” onward, Gordon’s position is clearly of an equal standing to where he was in the middle of the original story: He is tracked by a combination of various occupying Combine forces and the Black Mesa resistance. The arrival at Black Mesa East, in the chapter of the same name, provides a similar break in the action as the one above; to alter the goals of the player.

Barney Calhoun

A substantial part of the pause deals with Alyx, her father and Dr. Mossman’s relationships, with information regarding Ravenholm and the Gravity gun, but little is related to the growth or development of Gordon as a character. The world is continuously being fleshed out and detailed with new pieces of information, but Gordon, after his escape mission, is largely forgotten about in the narrative. Once the Combine attack Black Mesa East the position of Gordon slips from being the primary character, with his own story, to being a bit player in a world, and a reactionary character largely lacking the agency which once made him the man of action in Half-Life. It is Alyx’s mission, not Gordon’s, to save her father from Nova Prospekt making that substantial segment of the game entirely her own story, with Gordon as sidekick.

Once this segment of the game has reached a conclusion, the player finds that the world and its story, now the primary one of the Half-Life series, has moved on without them and a revolution is taking place. “Anti-Citizen One”, in its name and the reactions from NPCs during the chapter, clearly tries to paint Gordon as the leader of this new revolution, but it’s difficult to reconcile this with the warfare that is presented to the player. The revolution has been going on for several days, and it’s not unusual to come across several groups of organised citizens throughout, or to see far off scenes of fighting on the rooftops, all independent of Gordon.

It’s worth noting that by the time the climax arrives, when Dr. Breen attempts to solicit complicity from the captured protagonists he turns to Eli Vance to quell the revolution: “Eli refuses to say the words that would save them all” (Half-Life 2 Chapter: “Dark Energy”, Valve, 2004). In this new story, in this expanded world, it is words which clearly hold the greatest power. For all the suggestion to the contrary, the reality is that Gordon is merely a small piece of a much larger whole, “a puppet” (”Shut Up and Save the World: The Silent Protagonist” by Andrew Vanden Bossche, 3 March 2008). This is not Black Mesa, and Gordon, silent as ever, cannot be the hero of this story. Without voice, it can often feel like the player is just being jerked around through the whole game like a puppet without any real power over what’s going on.

The Climax: Success and Failure

It’s the ‘Lambda Core’ chapter where a scientist (Luther model) greets Gordon with the next set of directions and an important milestone piece of dialogue. The most important line, “I can see you already know a great deal more than any one man is supposed to”, is a recognition of Gordon’s knowledge, and thus his strength, over the scientific community remaining in Black Mesa. He is now permitted access to restricted areas of the complex, not because permission is necessary, but because his knowledge is so far beyond what boundaries were laid down by the Black Mesa hierarchy that the act of restraining him is pointless. If knowledge is power, Gordon is now near mythological in his standing. HE now has the faith of the Science Team behind him when he steps through the portal to Xen to halt the resonance cascade and the invasion of Black Mesa.

“Dark Energy”, the climax toHalf-Life 2, brings Gordon face-to-face with the villainous Dr. Breen. This is the first time Gordon or the player has met the overlord of City 17, and all the drama from this meeting is generated by the inter-character conflict between Dr. Breen, Eli Vance, Alyx, and Judith Mossman. The player and Gordon fill the role of G-Man in Half-Life: watching the drama unfold before them. The escape in this chapter, affected by Dr. Mossman, stands in contrast to the escape from ‘Apprehension’ in Half-Life.

Whereas Half-Life presents a Gordon who frees himself from certain death, Half-Life 2 presents a Gordon whose escape is owed to another character. This may seem like a positive interaction, and it does certainly provide Dr. Mossman with an important character beat, but it’s another instance in which Gordon is not the master of his own destiny that he once was. He is not the man the arc at the end of Half-Life presented him as becoming. Indeed much of Half-Life 2 is a backwards step for Gordon, and nothing better represents this than the final encounter with G-Man.

In the final moments, Gordon Freeman is given a chance to live up to his name and act as a free man; G-Man offers Gordon a choice, and though this cannot be responded to through words, the simple offering of choice is all the more powerful for all the orders which have been given before. Gordon has risen from a point of less-than-drone to a man with knowledge and the will to act. In the last moments of the game the train comes off the rails, both literally and figuratively, and Gordon’s arc is complete. There’s a choice to make and true agency is allowed on the part of the character and the player. Gordon becomes the master of his own destiny, unbound from the hierarchy of Black Mesa.

In Half-Life, G-Man presents Gordon with a choice. Indeed, this is the first NPC who wishes to hear what Gordon wants to do. It’s a moment of freedom and an acknowledgement of Gordon’s newfound strength and character. Gordon, a “decisive man”, is offered a job which can be taken or refused. If taken, the end game text then states Gordon is “Awaiting Assignment”, which he awakes for at the beginning of Half-Life 2. The ending of Half-Life 2 affords no such rewards. As happens several times during the course of the game, the choice and the decision is taken away from the player. Gordon is clearly no longer the “decisive man”.

Gordon is the underdog. This fact engenders an emotional connection between player and character, even though he never speaks a word. At no point in Half-Life or the subsequent expansions and sequels is any development made on the topic of Gordon’s political beliefs, his home life, his religious feelings or even the basics of his personality. Is Freeman a short-tempered man? What are his life ambitions, his dreams? In the end the detailing doesn’t matter; not to the player, Gordon, the developers or even the game itself. Gordon’s relatable story is given the deftest of touches and allowed only in the subtext of a limited amount of dialogue spoken to him. Half-Life needs nothing more to work.

Half-Life 2, however, requires more to work, and the slack which a silent lead character creates in the workload, leads to the heavy use of supporting cast to carry the story and world building forward. This refocusing leaves Gordon less of a character and more of an avatar.

From the beginning of Half-Life 2 Gordon is described as being a troublemaker, and clearly he’s the focus of a great amount of attention (even to the point of being so famous as to be recognised by average citizens of City 17). By the end little, if anything, has changed. Gordon has no arc during Half-Life 2, and really this has much to do with the greater story as it does with the silence which helped the character have such broad, and longlasting, appeal.

Gordon’s silence ultimately kills his meaningful ability to be a true part of Half-Life 2, to be an agent and allow the player any agency in the story. How can a character without voice or choice connect with players on an emotional level? How does Alyx find herself so clearly attracted to Gordon, beyond a superficial physical level? Gordon begins Half-Life 2 amongst the civilian population of City 17, and that is where he remains. He is no longer the hero. He is now one of the crowd.

In the absence of Gordon, Alyx steps into the limelight. Half-Life, as a series, has ceased to be about Gordon Freeman, despite Valve’s believe to the contrary. It’s the story of Alyx Vance, Dr. Judith Mossman, of Eli Vance and Barney Calhoun. It’s the story of the downfall of the Combine, of the occupation and liberation of City 17.

The ever silent Doctor Gordon Freeman, Research Assistant for Black Mesa, no longer has a role in that story.