When you think of Half-Life, you probably think of orange, an ambiguous silent protagonist, and the clean white underground facility under siege from aliens. It has a distinct aesthetic like any other game – the signifiers that sell it immediately. But they shouldn’t shackle what it can be. Gordon Freeman isn’t Half-Life and he never was.
Right after the release of Valve’s debut title in the ‘90s, it launched three expansions from Gearbox. None were helmed by Gordon Freeman. We aren’t talking Doom Eternal DLCs which continue the Doomslayer’s skipping through the blood-stained daisies of hell. We’re talking about a deeper dive into the same world that Gordon Freeman drudged through while crowbarring headcrabs and grappling with barnacles.
Barney Calhoun wasn’t introduced in the second game, he was introduced in his own spin-off called Blue Shift, and Opposing Force brought forward another person of interest to the elusive G-Man, Shephard. Meanwhile, Decay answered the question of what happened to the other two HEV suits that were nicked at the start of Half-Life. Right from day one, the series has embraced the characters beyond Gordon because Valve is focused on its world, not its protagonist.
Just look at how it came back after a thirteen-year hiatus – it wasn’t with Half-Life 3. Valve continued the story of Half-Life without Gordon and, in doing so, proved that Gordon isn’t Half-Life. Series get stale when they become all about one person and that counts for double with a silent protagonist. We might be attached to his signifiers – the crowbar, orange suit, square head, bland glasses, and the gags that come from his lack of speaking, but he isn’t really a character. He’s a blank slate. We know about his reputation and what he means to people but not who he is. He’s a scientist that was late to work and ended up fending off an alien invasion. But, ultimately, he’s a stand-in for you.
Alyx took it a step further than the original expansions. Barney and Shephard were Gordon equivalents because they were also silent, their personalities built in the exact same way; Shephard was the military grunt drenched in a green colour palette with a wrench and night-vision goggles, while Barney was a security guard coated in blue.
That’s how we remember and recognize them. Alyx actually had a personality with voice acting, dialogue, and character interactions. Her defining elements weren’t as blatant, letting her performance shine and bring her to life, rather than building her up with arbitrary ideas. It made her more compelling to journey with, the trek less lonesome, the world more interactive, and it took us away from Gordon to see a whole new side of this world, one that’s more personal and intimate.
Sometimes, games like Half-Life or Doom are best suited to letting us be the character, letting us see through their eyes. Sometimes, though, a bit of personality goes a long way. When Half-Life 3 drops, we’ll probably just be Gordon again but, and even saying this feels weird, if Half-Life 4 ever comes out, maybe it'll be time to drop Gordon for somebody else.
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