Half-Life 2

11 Mar

Silent Protagonists and Controlled Storytelling

I know I’m a bit behind the curve, but I just played Half-Life 2 and I loved it to death. Aside from great shooter game play, it also feature a well-told story. One of the stories most interesting features is its use of the silent protagonist. Silent protagonists have two main purposes: to allow immersion in the story and to allow the player to project themselves onto the silent character. Gordon Freeman is very successful at one of these but fails terribly at the other.

When the main character doesn’t talk, this normally allows people to see the character as themselves. A game where both purposes of the silent protagonist work great is Portal. Aside from the fact that the player can see Chell, there is little to distinguish her from the player. Though Glados talks at her, Glados’ treatment of Chell seems based on her current actions not on who Chell is as a person. When I played Portal, I never thought about what Chell was thinking or what kind of person she was. I was able to see myself as her and was therefore thoroughly immersed in my Aperture science experience.

Gordon Freeman is also a silent protagonist but he is not a blank slate. He is a distinct character with a past, character traits and relationships apart from the player. Some may argue that by not talking, Gordon loses all chance to define himself. This ignores Valve’s clever story telling techniques. One of the main ways Gordon’s character is defined is by the interactions with his friends from his life previous to the Black Mesa incident. Barney, Eli and Kleiner each reveal a little about him. They talk about his job, his education and their personal experiences with him. These tidbits are one of the main ways Gordon is fleshed out.

Another way Gordon’s character is revealed to the player is when there should be a choice the player can make but none is offered. A good example of his happens after he escapes Ravenholm. Through much of the game, Gordon is running for his life with little chance to catch his breath let alone decided where he is trying to go. This makes the general lack of choice available in the game make sense because the getting away is more important then where he is getting away to. Things should be different when he finally gets out of Ravenholm. Gordon in theory is free to go where ever he pleases having finally gotten out of both City 17 and the zombie-filled ghost town. Instead of choosing where to continue his flight from the Combine though, Alyx tells him that Eli Vance has been taken to Nova Prospekt. Gordon then charges off to save his friend, heading in to more danger instead of continuing his escape. By not allowing the player to choose whether they will save Eli or not, the game is having Gordon himself make a choice. It doesn’t matter if the player doesn’t want to save Eli, Gordon does so that is where you go.

Though some of the above evidence may not have you convinced, there is one aspect of Half-Life 2 which I feel beyond a doubt reveals some of the distinct character traits that Gordon Freeman possesses. This aspect is the game play itself. To complete the game, the player solves physics puzzles grounded in reality and fights through waves of combine soldiers, headcrab zombies and antlions. I personally died quite a bit particularly at points where the two challenges of the game were present at the same time. In the canon plot of Half-Life 2 though, Gordon doesn’t ever die which is why (aside from it being a horribly punishing way to design a game) each death results in you getting to try again. Gordon, unlike (most) players, clears every challenge in the game in one go. To be able to successfully do that, a person would have to be smart and a good shot. Gordon’s intelligence and skill with a gun is revealed through the game play of Half-Life 2.

Though Gordon is a distinct character which makes him different then many other silent protagonists, he still succeeds at being immersive. This is done through Half-Life 2’s controlled storytelling. The Half-Life 2 story is nothing if not a carefully controlled experience. If Valve wants to make sure you look at something cool, they have a combine solider shoot at you so you’ll be looking the right way as it passes by. This amount of control over the story even goes down to the emotional level. When you help citizens fight in City 17 is a good example of this. Ever group of citizens you meet is excited to meet you. They all treat you as if you are their savior, even referring to you as “the one free man” and other messianic terms. Invariably though as you work your way across City 17, these citizens die. My own reaction was to feel guilty and uncomfortable. In fact, I frequently through of myself as the worst Gordon Freeman ever. The citizens had though of me as some kind of hero and I had let them down. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that everyone who plays has some citizens die on them and that this is another part of the controlled experience. Unlike many FPS main characters, Gordon is a theoretical physicist first and an ass-kicker second. He was not born or even trained for this experience. He is flying by the seat of his pants. Yes, he does kick a lot of ass but he is just human and he can’t save everyone. Gordon feels guilty when the citizens die and uncomfortable with their praise of him and so the player is made to feel similarly. Carefully controlled emotions tie the player to the Half-Life 2 story causing immersion.

This emotional control is also present in the players experiences with Alyx. Alyx is suppose to be a character you like. Valve spent a lot to time play testing to make she she was helpful and never annoying. There are two reasons for this: 1. if she was annoying, it would have a negative effect on the game as whole and 2. Valve wants you to feel what Gordon is feeling. A romantic relationship between Alyx and Gordon is carefully formed over the course of the game and it’s following episodes. It is obvious on her side that she is falling for him but how does this play out from Gordon’s side? The player’s own emotional attachment to her. I know when I played Half-life 2, I was surprised to realize that I loved Alyx. Even though she could take a lot of damage, I found myself purposely standing in front of her to block her from being hit by bullets. I’d apologize when she’d get afraid in the dark and smile stupidly back at her she she said something funny. While I’m sure my reaction was a bit on the extreme side, coming to care for Alyx is a part of the carefully controlled Half-Life 2 experience. Feeling what Gordon would be feeling is the main cause of immersion in the game and Valve controls this without ever controlling your immediate actions.

Half-Life 2 is one of the best reviewed games of all time and I can see why. The game play is some of the best I have ever experienced and not just for a FPS. It is challenging but not punishing and it changes the mode of play often enough not to get stale. The topper for this awesome cake for me is the excellent way the story is told and the characters are fleshed out. By telling Gordon’s tale through a completely unhindered first person view, they made their storytelling process difficult. Despite and perhaps even because of these challenges though, Half-Life 2 stands out as a marvel of video game storytelling.

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