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Gordon Freeman: Strongest personality in gaming

18th Jan, 2008

[Warning: Like our Portal article from December, this piece features some pretty heady discourse, and also benefits from a visit from Mr. Narrative Theory. If that stuff makes you run screaming, then feel free to run screaming. Also, if you haven't completed Half-Life 2, leave now. This contains some inhuman spoilers.]

Half-Life 2 is widely and rightly regarded as a modern classic. In terms of both gameplay and artistry there have been few, if any, games in the FPS genre which have had as serious an impact on gamers and gaming. The gameplay innovations it brought us in terms of the Gravity Gun and the detailed reactive physics of the overall game world are still being used heavily as selling points by games today (See Crysis, for example. Throwing heavy things around is not new), and its story is more epic and affecting than the vast majority of movies.



These alone though, are not the reason H-L2 fans are so passionate about the games. Ask any serious fan of the series what makes it so special, and inevitably you’ll be given a discourse on just how real the game feels. There’s a level of involvement with the game world and its characters that goes beyond the effects of convincing graphics and interesting storyline. It’s a level of in-game immersion that we rarely ever see (or rather feel), and it’s one which leads many players to a genuine sense of ‘being there’ and having actual relationships with the game’s characters. All of that is down to one factor. In Gordon Freeman, Valve have very skillfully created the best-realised and most believable protagonist in gaming.

Many in the gaming community enjoy the running joke that Gordon has no personality at all due to his lack of dialogue, but to make such a judgement is to do a disservice to both the game and the level of insight and design ability at Valve, not to mention the talent of its writers. In fact, Gordon Freeman is the most psychologically rounded, nuanced, and realistically multi-layered character currently in existence in the videogame format, and here, we’re going to deconstruct exactly why that is. Trust us, he’s a lot more interesting than you might think. 

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26 comments

  • mrmorozov987 - July 14, 2010 8:01 p.m.

    I was reading the first few comments and seeing how well written they were, then I got to "half-life sucks, garrys mod rocks." *sigh*
  • allicorn - October 6, 2008 2:02 a.m.

    Fun read, but really - piffle! :-) Lack of characterization does not equate to strong characterization. Gordon's complete dearth of presence in the game may well assist the player to immerse themselves in the game world in the ways you point out but it does nothing to help the player to invest in the game's story or the protagonist himself. The lack of any characterization - at best - is a subtle reminder that you're just controlling floating gun-sight through the gameworld, rather than a character. While some of the NPCs in the game are wonderfully realised (and Valve are justly applauded for it), Gordon himself could just as easily be replaced by a soulless floating robot drone with a shotgun and the sense of connection with the story would be unchanged. You could wax just as lyrical about the sagaic plot and disincarnate protagonist of Mazogs on the ZX81. Doing so would not infer any presence of character in that protagonist either. In a game with a truly present and realised protagonist (eg: Jack Walters - Dark Corners of the Earth, JC - Deus Ex, and so on) the player can *inhabit* the character. Playing the character like an actor might, hearing their voice, seeing their face, understanding their virtual experiences through their own eyes - thats where protagonist characterization has an impact on the player. Nonetheless, good article! Makes ya think ;-)
  • tatterdemaliot - October 4, 2008 1:47 a.m.

    This was a shockingly well thought-out article. I was thinking that this site was more for the easy jokes and lists than it was for actual analysis of the medium. I don't mean to insult, I spend plenty of time here, but I would expect an article like this from Escapist Magazine or Gamers With Jobs more than here. I think I would also disagree with the 'strongest personality' side of this argument, but the idea that Gordon Freeman is one of the strongest characters within gaming purely because he is tailored for this art form is a really interesting point. I think this medium needs more in depth analysis of how it works and how it differs from other mediums, and this article does a great job of that. Thanks a ton for the interesting read.
  • MacGyver1138 - October 3, 2008 8:22 p.m.

    I have to agree with hot_heart. While I love the way that the player is immersed in the Half-Life world, I have never thought that Gordon had a strong personality. While I understand that the developers intend for the player to transpose their own personality onto the character, it is difficult for that to happen completely. I think the problem comes from the linear path you are required to take, as all of the interaction you have with the environment and other characters will be the same for everyone. That kept me from feeling like the personality of Gordon was unique from anyone else playing the games. Also, the disembodied approach to everything is jarring. It doesn't feel immersive to me to me to look down and see no feet, or to carry objects without seeing hands, or to look in a mirror and see no reflection. While I know these things make it sound like I don't like HL2, that is not the case, I thought that both Half-Life games, as well as the episodic content were excellent, I just never felt as if Gordon had any more personality than most other game characters. To be honest, I think my favorite game character personality is Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. I really felt as if I could choose his/her personality very near what I wanted, and it added a lot to that game for me, even on multiple play-throughs. And CaptainStupid, take it easy, man! These articles are usually written in a lighthearted way, and I think that a slightly informal writing style makes it easier for GR's writers to connect with readers. I'm the first person to be bugged by typos and poor English, but I don't think we are expecting Shakespeare when we read a videogame (video game?) article.
  • hot_heart - October 3, 2008 6:23 p.m.

    I really don't agree with the basis of this article. If it was about how immersive the game is then it would stand, but the idea of 'strongest personality' is a bit off the mark. A good story is driven by its characters. So a strong central personality will move things forward. HL2 is still the same story start to finish and along the way you have to follow a set path. Everything that happens in the story is forced on you and not initiated by your actions. I'm not saying something like God of War is better example because Kratos has a simple goal (kill Ares, and anyone who stands in his way) and goes about achieving it but giving a player immersion without a sense of freedom does not create a great personal bond. Now I don't think all games should be like this (obviously besides the genres that it wouldn't work in) but developers can certainly learn from examples such as this. If you're going for a great experience for the player it can help draw them in but forcing all situations on this stand-in for you will never mesh. Quite frankly, someone like JC from Deus Ex would make a 'stronger personality' simply because of the fact that you are given a choice in how to approach given situations.
  • rafa_slash - September 22, 2008 4:23 a.m.

    why are we talking about grammar here? we should be talking about Gordon Freeman!!
  • EricBratcher - August 29, 2008 7:10 p.m.

    We write "videogames" as one word in accordance with both our own unique style guide (compiled by several writers and journalists, as well as one linguist) and The International Game Journalists Association's Videogame Style Guide, published in 2007. But you're free to spell it however you like - our studies have shown that most human brains accept both spellings.
  • TheWebSwinger - October 11, 2008 8:47 a.m.

    I disagree. I think the game is immersive as all hell, and an AMAZING experience, but the fact that Gordon can't react with amazement, rage, etc. and still stays silent, separates the player from the character.
  • Smeggs - October 8, 2008 1:45 a.m.

    "Gordon himself could just as easily be replaced by a soulless floating robot drone with a shotgun and the sense of connection with the story would be unchanged." I dunno, finding that you're fighting as "Joe Average Bill Nye Man" makes the game much more interesting than finding you just control a robot. Knowing the character was just a machine makes the game less interesting considering that it would all just be programming (given that's what Gordon is). But the fact that Valve actually went ahead to create a character that had at least a bit more intelligence and attitude than a cardboard box, like many characters of today, and the fact that they can do it without ever needing to show the character to you or needing him to be heard is very masterful. And besides, as long as you have fun playing the game (Which I'm sure most of the gaming community does)what does it matter how the main character is represented? Just look at the Resident Evil Games, they've always had cringe inducing dialogue and the characters seemed to have about as much of a soul and brain as a brick wall. But those games (At least most of them) were still fun to play. RE4 even got some awards, didn't it?
  • Smeggs - October 8, 2008 1:36 a.m.

    Nice article, this basically puts together everything I felt in HL2 (And yes, that super grav gun made me feel like a badass soilier of god). Also, Captain, why can't you just read the damn articles and leave it at that? Instead of criticizing, just don't bother to read it in the first place.
  • Treners - October 4, 2008 9:07 p.m.

    Good article, but... my brain hurts. I agree with Amnesiac, Gordon only has a strong personality if YOU have a strong personality.
  • Amnesiac - October 4, 2008 4:07 a.m.

    To say Gordon Freeman is the strongest personality in gaming is kind of misleading. Saying that he has a "strong personality" because he can have whatever personality you can project on him is a bit of a contradiction, he really has no defined personality of his own. Saying that his blank slate "personality" is ideal for the videogame (yes, one word) medium is a valid point, though.
  • lava_lamp - October 3, 2008 9:48 p.m.

    half-life sucks, garrys mod rocks
  • CaptainStupid - September 10, 2008 7:55 p.m.

    I reviewed my last comment, and now it looks wordy. I'm going crazy! In summary: 1. "In their early days, videogames were a crude and unsubtle medium." (Weak!) 2. "Early video games were crude and blunt." (Strong!) P.S. They're still crude and blunt. (I win!)
  • CaptainStupid - September 10, 2008 7:34 p.m.

    "Videogames" is correct style? Okay... "headachepills." It seems like this style evolved from a collective desire to avoid pressing the space bar. Using a singular description (medium) for a plural subject (video games) is awkward. By the way, what is a medium? You can't touch, smell or taste it. Weigh it on a scale, and the result is zero. The word is like fog, and adds neither clarity nor meaning to the sentence. Just say, "Early video games were crude and unsublte." Except that last word is awkward, too. Replace it with "blunt," and the statement grows balls, while "unsubtle" is merely the opposite of... more fog. My point is trivial compared to life-and-death events like war or famine, but I've become disillusioned with games journalism. I'm a curious and enthusiastic gamer, but sloppy, cliched and bloated writing is an aggravating obstacle I encounter every time I read about games.
  • purpleshirt - August 31, 2008 8:15 p.m.

    I hate to point out my potential ignorance but I thought you could not make medium plural
  • GamesRadarMikelReparaz - August 29, 2008 7:24 p.m.

    "Video games were crude and unsubtle media?" I don't know, Captain - I think I have to side with David here. I think you'll find that minor grammar rules like this are actually quite malleable, as - for example - the Associated Press and Chicago style manuals seem to differ on just about everything. To put it another way, I think Chaucer said it best when he wrote, "Hadden for love the bataille hem betwene, That in that selve grove, sote and grene, Ther as he hadde his amorous desires, His complaint, and for love his hote fires," and was hailed for centuries afterward as a true master of the English language.
  • GamesRadarTylerWilde - August 29, 2008 6:48 p.m.

    Thanks for being yourself, CaptainStupid.
  • CaptainStupid - August 29, 2008 6:33 p.m.

    In this article, David Houghton writes, "In their early days, videogames [sic -- "video games" should be spelled as two words] were a crude and unsubtle medium..." Besides the lousy, unprofessional grammar ("video games" are plural, while "medium" is singular, and redundant), this sentence brings up the obvious question, "As opposed to now?" "Crude and unsubtle" is a good description of 95 percent of games on store shelves today.
  • thefinalmax - January 4, 2009 7:03 a.m.

    I will agree that the character of Gordon Freeman is ridiculously immersive, to the point where (aside from box art) he is not seen - no surface is reflective enough to see more than just a non-descript human form, and one cannot see his legs when looking down. However, he is not a strong personality (as it has been said many times above). Gordon is merely a vessel through which Valve tells their story, allowing the player to experience this firsthand. Blah, blah, blah, regurgitate the article. Gordon cannot stand alone, and unlike Metal Gear Anything, HL2 could never be a movie. Now that I've said ideas previously stated... "Visceral" is the wrong way to describe the rag-doll overload that is the supercharged Gravity Gun segments of the game. It is not deep, it dismembers no one (or the PS3 Orange Box got hosed really bad). Sure, while it removes the smart gameplay from the previous chapters in the game (one gun, and it kills everything), and the feeling can be revenge, but these latter two definitions are most likely not what the writer meant. I believe that brutal would work work alone, or possibly adding bombastic, god-like, or even rag-doll-tastic (not a real word). I'm just fed up with the use of Visceral. It's a great way to say gory, it even sounds cool, but it's not always appropriate.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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