From hereon in, the journey is about making the stronger Gordon realise his full potential. He gains genuine control over his environment after first being set upon by and then taming the Antlions, and the subsequent assault on Nova Prospekt is a perfect introduction to his progression to leadership. Following Nova Prospect, Gordon builds upon this new status by becoming a leader of men rather than of beasts in the “Follow Freeman” chapter, and the empowerment continues to increase right through to the final assualt on the Citadel, during which he secures the nigh-godlike powers of the super-charged Gravity Gun and is allowed to physically manifest the dominace he has earned in a brutally visceral fashion. If you can tell us that the payback of hurling those helpless Combine around didn’t make you feel like the most righteous badass on the planet, then we rather suspect you have no soul. Ditto if Alyx’ “Do your worst” didn’t put you in the mood for taking on an army. Hey Ebert, who says games can’t be art?
The journey through Half-Life 2 is as much a personal and developmental one as it is one of space and time. The techniques Valve use to bind the player’s identity with Gordon’s throughout each of these carefully executed stimuli, coupled with the changing reactions of NPCs to reflect the player’s developing sense of stature and ability (We could write this amount again just on the effects of Gordon’s relationship with Alyx, particularly in reference to Episodes 1 and 2) are what makes Half-Life 2 such an unequalled involving experience.
It’s a great shame that we don’t see more developers brave enough to make full use of the immersion techniques afforded by the silent protagonist. In an era in which flash-bang cinematics and ‘charismatic’ anti-heroes are the norm, we might enjoy watching the odd well directed cut-scene or hearing the occasional amusing one-liner, but ultimately we are being divorced from truly feeling involved in the game. Only Link from the Legend Of Zelda series really stands out as even approaching being as ‘inhabitable’ as Gordon, but even so, the effect is nowhere well as well-realised due to the lack of emotional stimulus with which to construct an in-game personality in the Zelda games. Maybe with the next one we’ll see Nintendo learning from the potential glimpsed at times in Twilight Princess and building further in that direction. Until then though, Gordon Freeman will remain the ultimate example of “Less is more” in character design.