Who Am I? (Half-Life 2 edition)
I recently played through Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (finished it this afternoon, in fact), and thus have had the chance to be the bespectacled wonder that is Gordon Freeman for a few hours. Freeman is probably one of the most famous avatars there is, at least in gaming circles. He’s particularly well-known because Valve used the strategy of having him being completely silent throughout play.
A silent avatar isn’t in itself all that amazing, but in the Half-Life series, it’s combined with a whole bunch of “cut-scenes” in which you retain control as Gordon and in which, under normal circumstances, Gordon would presumably be saying things of relevance to the situation. It’s such an iconic role that they make jokes about it in the game, jesting about Gordon being the “strong, silent type”, essentially.
To me this is a pretty obvious tension in terms of having a character. Gordon’s heavily involved in the narrative of the world – he’s the instrument of change, after all. People constantly talk to him, want to know what to do, fall in love with him, and so on, but he never responds. You can nod vigorously with the first-person camera as much as you like, they don’t get the message. Thus, you can never really “act” like Gordon Freeman particularly except to the extent you stand around and listen to people and then, more importantly, kill the bad guys.
I’d assumed everyone felt this way – that Gordon was a kind of ghost, not really present. That Gordon is, really, just a camera. But then I was talking to some students about evocative avatars and Gordon came up. So, for some people at least, there’s role-play to be had in Half-Life. The argument the students had was Gordon’s presentation as a kind of “everyman” (sort of… he’s a theoretical physicist from MIT) – thus, we can feel more at home in his HEV suit, thinking we could do the same sorts of things he does.
I’ll mostly stick to my guns and say that Gordon’s a husk – he’s hands to hold a gun and eyes to see a world and, less importantly, ears to hear a narrative. I’d stick to them even more firmly, but I was impressed by a trailer for a fan-made Half-Life movie that’s done the internet rounds recently – that let me feel that Gordon was “real” to a larger extent than I usually do.