Editorials

The End of Gordon Freeman

Are silent protagonists such as Gordon Freeman still needed in games today and can games get along with or without dialogue from its main character?

Chris Barnes

Gordon Freeman

Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist working for the Black Mesa Research Facility and is the silent protagonist of Valve’s hit franchise Half Life. This scientist turned soldier is working on teleportation experiments that open an inter-dimensional rift letting in an unknown alien race. Along with Mario and Link, he is also one of the most notable mutes in video game history. Over the course of a game, the story is delivered by supporting characters who give directions to follow and background information about the world the player is in. The silent protagonist never says a word.

Over the years, I have played numerous games and enjoyed almost all of them. The ones that stand out the most for me are the games where the protagonist was clearly defined by their interaction with the world and other characters around them. These games have strong lead characters with defined personalities that make you remember them. To name a few examples, there’s Kratos from God of War, Isaac Clarke from the Dead Space series, Nick Scryer from Psi-Ops, and every Final Fantasy character. More recently, there’s also the protagonists of Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider, Booker DeWitt and Lara Croft. I also have to include my personal favorite video game character of this generation, Commander Shepard from Mass Effect.

All these lead protagonist had personality, drive and motivation. This was shown with their actions and words and left a lasting impression on me. I wanted to be Commander Shepard. He spoke his mind and was easily relatable to. Whether it’s Batman’s desire for justice in Batman: Arkham Asylum or Kratos’ single minded obsession for revenge against the Gods, video game characters need to express themselves for the player to relate to their plight. That said while I deeply love the Half Life franchise, I can’t help but wonder if the days of the silent protagonist are numbered.

Silence Isn’t Golden

Many developers have used silent protagonists in their games and will continue to do so. This can be due to several factors:

  • There is not enough time to develop cohesive dialogue for the main character.
  • Technological limitation of hardware and software.
  • Lack of funds needed to hire a voice actor.
  • The story is written for a narrator’s point of view as in the case of Bastion.
  • The developers wrote the game with a silent protagonist in mind.

Half Life 2 - Gordon & AlyxThe main goal of the silent protagonist is to place the player in the shoes of the hero. “You are Gordon Freeman.” The silent protagonist helps keep a game’s linear storytelling focused. The main character’s background is limited and a defined personality is not needed. They have no opinion and it is almost as if they are not even there. All the gameplay and dialogue are focused in one direction, toward the next goal or objective. How am I supposed to identify with Gordon Freeman when he doesn’t say a word? He doesn’t seem to do any science, he just shoots things. He doesn’t even respond to inquiry, he just shoots things. Saving your own species from an invading alien force is a highly motivating goal, but it would have been nice to hear that coming from Gordon once in a while.

Isaac Clarke from Dead Space franchise started off as the strong silent type. He let the supporting cast along with crew audio logs tell of the horrors that took place aboard the USG Ishimura. Ironically, everyone who did have dialogue in the game were subsequently killed by Necromorphs. In Bioshock, lead character Jack delivers the opening monologue on an airplane ride that crashes in the ocean near a bathysphere terminus. After the crash, Jack never says another word as he is led through the game by Atlas. And, just like Gordon Freeman, neither character has any personality. Both Isaac and Jack are clearly motivated to get the hell out of the danger they are in to someplace safe. This desire is never expressed verbally or through text. So how are players supposed to identify with a couple of mutes?

The same thing can be said for games like the Super Mario Bros. franchise and The Legend of Zelda. Both Mario and Link never say a word but have two of the most popular franchises in gaming history. Will these two gaming legends ever speak? Probably not. It all depends on the developer as more titles ditch the silent protagonist for lead characters that can respond to inquiry through text or spoken word.

We all remember Barry telling Jill, “You were almost a Jill sandwich” and Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue asking everyone he met, “Do you know of a place where sailors hang out?” Sometimes, Silence is Golden.

Bioshock Infinite - Booker DeWitt

Who Are You

Isaac eventually finds his voice in Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3 which some fans have said ruined the story. All it did was take the player out of the role of Isaac Clarke and give him his own personality. This helps as Isaac slowly slip in and out of different states of crazy. Giving the protagonist a voice creates a hero that players might not find likable. As an example, I personally found it easier to relate to Isaac as he dealt with his insanity versus Kratos’ extreme blood lust. The job of the vocal protagonist is to tell a story from their point of view. The player can go along for the ride like in Bioshock Infinite or become the hero in Mass Effect.

In the case of Bioshock Infinite, protagonist Booker DeWitt is sent to Columbia to rescue a young woman named Elizabeth. The game could have easily followed the same formula as the first two Bioshock games and made Booker a mute. Fortunately Irrational Games broke the mold and didn’t do that. Booker has a personality all his own and it shows in his interactions with Elizabeth. Their initial relationship is distant as he keeps her at arms length in order not to get to know her. His only goal is to get Elizabeth off of Columbia to settle his debts. Over the course of the game, his attitude toward Elizabeth changes as he becomes almost desperate to save her. This is a character with a clear drive and motivation as he expresses it throughout the game.

Mass Effect 3 - commander shepardMass Effect goes that extra mile to place the player in the role of Commander Shepard. They start by choosing the character’s gender, appearance, and background. All dialogue is directed toward the player and their choices shape the galaxy. Mass Effect has become my favorite video game franchise of this generation. I love the story, the gameplay, and its characters. I wish all games could give their characters’ dialogue like this. However, that would be too expensive and even unnecessary for certain games. This particular formula helped Bioware turn Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic into one of the most popular Star Wars games and fueled their drive to create an MMO with the same character archetypes and story dynamic.

Heavy Rain featured four important playable characters who have their own motivations for finding the Origami killer and saving a young boy from becoming the latest victim. Each character has their own personality and helps push a single story with four different points of view to one ultimate conclusion. Mess up and one of the characters will die. Quantic Dream created one of the most dramatically compelling stories for the PlayStation 3. This game had me hooked from the beginning to the end and shows just how important dialogue for the main protagonist can be. Having a vocal protagonist doesn’t make gameplay better but it does make for a better story telling experience.

One Or The Other

Both the silent and vocal protagonist are meant to bring the player into that role. “I am both Gordon Freeman and Commander Shepard.” The difference is in that Gordon isn’t interesting in the same way Shepard is. Truthfully, Gordon Freeman isn’t a bad character. Half Life is a great game and is fun to play. He can never fulfill the role of a Commander Shepard, and why should he? The silent protagonist isn’t meant to be outgoing or boisterous. They are meant to get the player from point A to point B with the player filling in all the important details. This approach may work for some, but not for others. Although I can’t imagine Gordon Freeman running through the Mass Effect universe and not responding to anything anyone says, it would be interesting to see Commander Shepard as the hero in Half Life.

In the end, it all depends on the storytelling. Games like Half Life have excellent writing and it’s still one of the best games around. If it wasn’t, fans wouldn’t be waiting for Half Life 3 or Half Life 2: Episode 3, or whatever Valve will eventually call it. Gordon Freeman is a hero for a different age. He is as antiquated as the technology that runs him. It’s not likely that Valve will ever give Freeman a voice but who knows. Maybe with Half Life 4 or if Valve decides to reboot the franchise; Gordon Freeman or whoever the protagonist is will finally get to speak their mind.

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  • http://virtualgamemuseum.webs.com/ “Louis”

    I asked that same question on Ep.110 of the podcast, personally I dislike silent protagonist because sometimes it lack personality and hopefully that one day, Link can talk, but I doubt that, even if it’s a Zelda game on the Wii U, heck I even enjoyed Metroid Other M because one is of Samus’ personality and the new Kid Icarus with Pitt constantly talking. I understand the reason for it, but for me just can’t connect to it. In this time of age, custom made avatars are the new standard as of connecting to a videogame character, like Saint Row, Mass Effect, or even DC Online. As Alex would say, “I can’t see myself as an Italian plumber” or” a pointy ear hero in green”.