In a world where Valve makes innovative titles that have set the industry standard of what is to be expected in the high caliber first person shooter experience, it comes as a great surprise that their first major protagonist, Gordon Freeman, remains silent. His face has been on the box art of every game in the Half Life series and is instantly recognized by many gamers as “that nerdy guy with the crowbar.” He has an established back story of being an MIT grad working in the field of teleportation who joins with his former professor Dr. Kleiner in working for the Black Mesa research facility. All of this is established about him, and yet when he is spoken to, he just quietly stares back. He doesn’t even make a noise when he gets clawed, shot, or bit. One of the first major characters to be introduced to Gordon Freeman in Half Life 2, Alyx Vance, jokingly comments that he is a “man of few words,” which is clearly an understatement.
Why doesn’t Gordon Freeman speak?
Though the purpose of my series is to look at the many different applications of silent protagonists in the medium of video games, Gordon Freeman’s silence is based upon–to put it plainly–the sense of self insertion. It’s one of those cases of a cigar just being a cigar. He doesn’t speak because he’s what gamers make of him. When I play as Gordon Freeman, I just assume he doesn’t talk because he is socially awkward. Granted, nerds have much more going for them these days so being timid usually comes from other reasons, but in a dystopian world of zombies and Orwellian taskmasters, choosing the right words can be a challenging affair. Ross Scott of the website Accursed Farms has another take on Freeman’s character. His show, Freeman’s Mind, features footage of the game dubbed over by Ross Scott as he characterizes Gordon Freeman and his thoughts. The series depicts Freeman as a cowardly and mentally unhinged individual. Freeman will perform one action and immediately berate himself for it or jump from non sequitur to non sequitur in the fight for his life.
So is this case, the most frequently cited form of silent protagonist, really effective? It works for Half Life because it’s just one of those understood things about the character. It would seem off if Valve ever felt like changing it. However, consider silent protagonist Isaac Clarke from Dead Space, an engineer in a future endangered by zombie-like monsters and a fanatic religious regime. It is difficult for gamers to empathize with Isaac as he searches for his missing wife aboard a perilous ship full of monsters. After discovering the truth of her fate, he continues to slay more monsters as though he hadn’t given up hope because he can’t voice his sorrow. When the Dead Space sequels were released, it was considered an improvement to his character that he could now voice his pain and show signs of his deteriorating mental state.
Freeman is set apart by nothing more than Valve’s charm. In this world where a zombifying head crab is named Hedy Lamar, where a Russian priest with a shotgun guides the player through a dangerous village, and where every action is watched by a man in a gray suit with immense power but a poor grasp of the English language, why not make a character like Freeman into whatever we choose? He could be a stone cold alien killer with a knack for mastering every weapon he finds. He could be socially awkward around women and his superiors. He could simply be born without a larynx. All that matters is he’s a blank slate ready to be experienced and crafted by the player again and again. His face and his name give us a unity in that which is Gordon Freeman.