Year Walk and the power of tablet gaming

Year Walk

“In the old days man tried to catch a glimpse of the future in the strangest of ways.” — opening titles, Year Walk

Year Walk (2013) is a surreal and spooky tale set in 19th century Sweden, centred around the ancient practice of “year walking”. Similar to the vision quest rituals that were common in some Native American cultures, year walking – we are told – typically takes place on New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve and requires a period of sensory deprivation before finally, at midnight, leaving the house and heading for church. On the way, the year walker would encounter all manner of dangerous creatures – but if they reached the church alive, they would be given a glimpse of the future.

An unusual premise for a game, then, but Year Walk’s dreamy mysticism is perfectly suited to its chosen medium: tablet gaming. Through immersion, atmosphere and a novel meta-game device, it’s difficult to imagine the game experience being anywhere near as powerful on PC or console – little can compare to the impact of physically holding an atmospheric game in your hands as you play. When a seemingly benevolent figure suddenly transforms and charges directly at your first-person view – held mere inches from your face – it is very hard not to flinch.

From this moment on, with the game’s intentions set out more clearly, the player proceeds with some trepidation. Year Walk plays on this superbly, holding back the “cheap” shocks so that the player is never quite sure when they happen next, if at all – a classic horror movie technique. To the same end, it mixes the surreal (an almost-Lynchian besuited horse in a brook) with the grotesque (the ghosts of four babies). This juxtaposition – the horse and the dead children are part of the same puzzle – is compounded by the game’s art style, which mixes a storybook style with a stark, near-monochrome colour palette. Combined with a flickering point of view, Year Walk frequently evokes silent horror films, particularly German Expressionist-era movies like Nosferatu, Vampyr and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Angular trees in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk's forest

Angular trees and architecture in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk‘s forest

This is, of course, not to say that horror games are ideally suited exclusively to the iPad – although anyone who has played Telltale’s excellent The Walking Dead series will testify to its effectiveness when experienced up-close. But Year Walk makes comparatively innovative use of the medium in its puzzle mechanics, often surprising the player with solutions that extend beyond The Walking Dead’s “tap here” or “swipe this”. When trying to locate one of the ghostly children, the player encounters a pool of blood dripping upwards and off the top of the screen. The natural assumption is that there is something off-screen that the player needs to find, probably by moving backwards a level (Year Walk allows the player to move left and right freely, but only forwards and backwards at certain points on that axis, usually a path or item of interest). In fact, the solution is to turn the iPad upside-down so that the blood is dripping the “right” way.

Naturally, this is not something a player can do on their PC or console. Nor can they step their fingers across a TV screen in a dragging motion (keeping at least one finger in contact with the screen at all times) to reach a bit of previously unrevealed terrain, or “carry” a burning flame with one finger while navigating the landscape with the other. That this rarely – if at all – distances the player from the experience owes much to Year Walk’s dreamlike atmosphere. There are no menus, no hints, not even a title screen with the developer’s logo on: even when played over multiple sittings, the player is kept firmly in the experience of their own vision quest.

In addition to the game itself, players can also download the Year Walk Companion, ostensibly a free e-book containing information on year walking and some of the mystical figures that you encounter in the game. The Companion is not a guide in the traditional sense of the word: it does not contain any hints as to how to solve the game’s puzzles, it is purely background information on the fantastical folklore behind what the player experiences.

Pages from the Year Walk Companion

The tablet medium is at its absolute strongest here: we are, today, very accustomed to reading books and articles on mobile devices. While developers Simogo have clearly taken the decision to keep the Companion apart from the game (insofar as they are two separate apps, and one is not accessible from the other), it’s only when the player experiences both that the full depth of Year Walk is revealed. The fact that the Companion is separate actually enhances this: the player’s role changes from walker/dreamer to researcher/detective, trying to piece together the strange events of the game from the slightly-oblique fairytales in the e-book.

Again, this serves to juxtapose the bizarre with the macabre. The odd, almost comical-looking horse in the stream is actually the Brook Horse Bäckahästen, who would lure children to ride on its back… before leaping into water and drowning them. References are made to “angel makers”, who were paid by mothers to take care of their babies… when the mother left, the infant would be killed. Infanticide, we are told, was “a fairly common crime” in 19th century Sweden. Suddenly, the player comes to understand a little more about the presence of the four cute-looking ghost babies they encounter in the game, and that what may have started out as a mystical journey to “glimpse the future” is in fact something rather more menacing.

The Brook Horse

The Brook Horse

This, however, is only the surface: upon completing the game players are given a code which unlocks a whole new section of the Companion. Once more taking its cues from the e-reader format, what follows is a diarised account of a researcher looking into a very specific instance of the year walking ritual: the year walk that the player has just completed. As the diarist begins to lose his grip on reality in true Lovecraftian style, clues are given as to a mysterious box that players encountered in Year Walk – but never unlocked.

The Companion thus gives the player a reason to dive back into the game for a second (and third) playthrough – to “walk again” as the game offers as you draw to its tragic, enigmatic conclusion. It’s a remarkably powerful moment to realise that a free, supporting app – easily dismissed initially as little more than a bonus feature – is actually the meta-game key to unlocking all-new layers and adding emotional weight to the experience. It is refreshing and heartening to know that tablet gaming, as well as catering to the casual market, can be the home for such a narrative as Year Walk and the innovative techniques used to tell it.

There is also something to be said about the length of Year Walk, which I completed in a couple of hours (theoretically the game can be whistled through in around 30 mins if you know all the solutions or are an exceptional puzzle-solver). While there are plenty of time-sink mobile games out there, a film-like length feels somehow “right” for narrative-focussed mobile games like Year Walk and The Walking Dead (which is split into episodes that take roughly three hours to complete). That Year Walk has such story depth – dealing with destiny, death, folklore and murder – is testament to the effectiveness of the Companion app, and what lies within.


The meaning of death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown – what happens when we die in a game?

In XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), you are the commander of the eponymous Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, formed of the NATO-style Council of Nations. Your task, through careful resource management and turn-based combat, is to defend the Earth from alien invaders. If you botch a mission, panic rises in the country that you failed. If that country’s “panic level” reaches critical mass, they withdraw from the Council which means a loss of funding. Less funding makes it harder to upgrade weapons and armour, and replace the soldiers you’ve lost. It’s very easy to find yourself in a downward spiral from which there is no recovery: if eight countries pull out of the Council, XCOM is shut down, humanity defeated and the game over.

Say you were playing Call of Duty, or Resident Evil, or The Walking Dead, and you’re confronted with a quick-time event – press X to not die – and you freeze up and miss X. And you die.

Click mouse to not die.

In both these examples, what happens next? Typically the game reloads from a previous save state – usually a checkpoint – and you have another go. This time, you know what’s coming, you hit X in time, and the game progresses. Or, in the case of XCOM, you manually choose a savegame to load, and hope you do better this time. Maybe you have three or four different backup savegames on the go, to cover yourself in the event of in-game catastrophe.

I chose XCOM as a specific example here not because I can’t stop playing it (1) but because it is noticeable for one of its difficulty sub-settings, known as Ironman mode. Playing XCOM on Ironman, there are no backup savegames – the game saves automatically after every action, overwriting itself. Brainlessly moved one of your soldiers into an enemy ambush? Forgot that the burning car you’re cowering behind will blow up at the end of the turn? Tough – you’re stuck with your actions. Ironman XCOM plays out like science fiction chess: once you’ve taken your hand off the piece, there’s no going back. And when those eight countries leave the Council, there is no reloading of an old save. You have to start the game all over again. Your role as commander is finished – you failed. Better luck next time.

This is quite a unique mechanic in today’s games – arguably, games of this century. Even though death is a big part of gaming, what does it really mean to “die”? Consider a specific example: early on in The Walking Dead: Episode 1, your character Lee Everett is attacked by a zombie. As it crawls towards him, you have perhaps 10 seconds to do three things: find and pick up a shotgun, then a shell, and finally aim and shoot the zombie. It’s the first of many tense moments in the game, but very straightforward (2). Yet it is, of course, entirely possible to fail to complete these three actions, and the zombie will reach Lee and he will die.

And then? Assuming you don’t turn the game off in rage/fear, it will reload from a previous checkpoint – mere seconds before the above incident – and you play it out again. Only this time, the game doesn’t have the element of surprise. You know what’s about to happen, where the items are, and (probably) what to do. So you grab the shotgun, load the shell, shoot the zombie and the game goes on.

Imagine the same thing happening during a film – the viewer doesn’t understand a plot point so they rewind a few seconds and watch it back. But the experience is now broken: the viewer has come out of the world of the film and back into their living room. It is curious that this is not true with games – the mechanic of die and try again is a totally accepted one, even in games that are as narratively-focussed as The Walking Dead, described by IGN in their review as “a deeply personal and emotional experience”. Yet in a game so exquisitely focussed on death – one that trades on the emotional impact of losing people with whom you had bonded – it never jars that your own character, Lee, can be resurrected at a moment’s notice.

One of The Walking Dead's more serene moments

Lee and Clementine, The Walking Dead

Does this “checkpoint mechanic” remove all challenge from a game? One could playfully suggest that little or no skill is required to beat a game like The Walking Dead. Like a rat in a maze, given enough time the player will work out what they’re doing wrong and reach the end. But perhaps that is missing the point for this example, which is more of an interactive movie (not quite a “choose your own adventure”, as the key points of the story are unaffected by the player’s in-game choices) and is to be enjoyed rather more passively than most other games.

Could the same suggestion be made of a game like Call of Duty? Yes, to an extent, albeit only on lower difficulties. Some dexterity is required to perform actions like moving, aiming and firing in order to reach that next checkpoint, and on Veteran level Call of Duty is unforgiving. Other games like Dark Souls (2011), and Ninja Gaiden (2004) have virtually traded off the fact that they pose significant challenges (where failure means death), whereas Battletoads (1991) gained notoriety for the ridiculous reflexes required in order to survive certain sequences.

Death and difficulty, then, are intrinsically linked. Nonetheless, there remains the paradox that as unforgiving as a game can be, the norm is that the today’s players get a second chance. Indeed, they get infinite chances: as many as they can stomach before cracking it or cracking up. In Ninja Gaiden – which ruthlessly separates the hardcore player from the casual – a struggling player could, with appropriately ninja-levels of patience and dedication, master the requisite skills to complete the game. Death is merely the temporary punishment for failing to be “good enough” to win.

There is a certain macho prestige to these hardcore games, which is also the case with XCOM’s Ironman mode. Even the name “Ironman” conjures up courageous imagery: take your pick from superhero Tony Stark or the Ironman triathlon. Ironman mode, along with Dark Souls et al, is clearly not for wimps. These games hark back to a time when games existed chiefly in arcades and were routinely difficult. Back then, of course, death was the arcade game’s business model: if a player coasted straight through with their first credit then they wouldn’t be inserting a second, third… hundredth one (3). Unquestionably, skill was required to rack up the top scores in the arcade.

This progress/total failure balance in XCOM throws up several unique sensations while playing. In the first instance, Ironman mode is not a relaxing experience given how aware the player is that they will be punished for their mistakes. Secondly, it is surprising – almost disturbing – how much you begin to care about the soldiers you command. Even on “normal” mode, you develop a bond with your troops as they progress from green rookie to powerful colonel. Each soldier begins with nothing more than a name and a nationality, but as they become more experienced they are assigned into one of four classes (sniper, heavy, assault, support) and may even earn nicknames that add yet another touch of personality. XCOM does an excellent job of making you care about randomly-generated characters that have no personality outside of what you invent in your head.

The upshot of this is that the player will actively seek to protect their “favourite” soldiers, and will wince when they die (which is an inevitable part of the game). Remember, if your troops die, it is probably your fault: you moved them into danger, you left them exposed, you took a chance on a 45% shot rather than move them back to safety. The longer a soldier survives, the better they are and the more attached the player will be.

This is only exacerbated in Ironman mode. The finality of a soldier’s death is at the forefront of your mind every time you prepare for a mission. Assaulting an alien base – should I leave my ace sniper at home for this one? You try and kid yourself that it makes more tactical sense to go with close-combat specialists for an interior battlefield, but in reality you don’t want to lose your sniper. Or at least, not that sniper. Take that other guy instead. Regardless of who you take, at the end of every successful mission you will let out a breath that you didn’t realise you’d been holding.

XCOM-Enemy-Unknown-11 (1)

Is Ironman mode’s perma-death “a good thing”, or is it simply a tonic to those who feel gaming has become too casual and yearn for the halcyon days where the best were separated from the dead? Consider BioShock’s controversial Vita-Chambers, where the player is regenerated upon “death”, providing a story-based explanation for checkpointed gameplay. However, any damage the player has inflicted upon enemies – before expiring – remains inflicted. This means that the player can steadily chip away at the ferocious Big Daddies, “dying” repeatedly and arriving back on the scene to continue the job. While the Vita-Chamber mechanic neatly circumvents the issue raised earlier about breaking the fourth wall by making a player re-enact the same events, it also removes any real menace from a game built on its sinister atmosphere.

The Vita-Chambers prompted such debate among gamers that BioShock’s makers eventually released a patch offering players the option to turn them off altogether. This is admirable, but somewhat obscures the fundamental reason that Vita-Chambers, autosaves and checkpoints exist in games: dying is not fun. In the main, it’s highly frustrating and, if you’ve invested emotionally in your character, can affect you in a similar way to seeing a favourite TV show character get beaten up or tortured. If this is then compounded by losing all your progress (because you didn’t happen to save, or because a save function doesn’t exist) then the frustration might reach terminal levels.

So the checkpoint mechanic exists to make games fun, by effectively making them easier. Given the booming video game industry, this is clearly no bad thing. Players want to be challenged – an easy game is a boring game – but they rarely want to be persistently punished and forced to re-do large portions of the game. Yes, XCOM’s Ironman mode provides an extreme, “no extra lives” challenge – but don’t forget that it’s a game mode that players can choose, rather than have it forced upon them.

How else do games handle death? There are of course games where you cannot die: it goes without saying that death is not a part of the vast majority of sports titles and driving simulations, but there are also many instances of character-based adventure or puzzle games where you control effectively-immortal characters. Fez (2012) is a puzzle game wrapped around a platformer mechanic – but if you miss a jump and fall, the game helpfully restores you to your previous position. Challenge removed? Quite the opposite: Fez is a brain-hurtingly difficult puzzler, using an innovative 3D mechanic, a made-up language and even in-game QR codes. Throw in frequent death for mis-timing a jump and players would become overwhelmed. Instead the game allows you to move through its serene, soothing environs at your own pace without the threat of danger.

2008’s Braid is another puzzle game whose core mechanic is one that allows the player to rewind time to undo their mistakes, even after death. Similarly, in 2008’s Prince of Persia, the character Elika “saves” your character from impending death throughout the game – freeing the player to enjoy open, acrobatically-focussed gameplay. The lack of death encourages rather than inhibits exploration and experimentation.

Like all game rules, immortality is ripe for subversion. The Monkey Island adventure games keep the threat of death away from the central character, Guybrush Threepwood, and the tone consequently comedic: swordfights end in punctured dignity rather than punctured lungs, and even an off-screen attempt to “use staple remover on tremendous dangerous-looking yak” leads to little more than Guybrush flying through a wall, cartoon-style, before diving back into the fray. Guybrush even claims to be able to hold his breath for ten minutes – allowing plenty of time for the player to solve a simple puzzle when Threepwood finds himself underwater (pick up weight, walk to ladder). Wait too long, however and… Easter Egg.

Monkey Island 2 contains the best example of this subversion. Guybrush, captured by his nemesis LeChuck, is being lowered into a vat of acid in a trap that would make a Bond villain blush. The player moves the mouse around, looking for a typically-elaborate solution to the puzzle. The only action available is to (inadvertently) trigger the trap itself, which leads to the screaming Guybrush being lowered into the acid… only to be taken back to the game’s opening scene and reminded that we’ve been playing through a flashback of Guybrush’s story up to that point.

“You honestly expect me to believe you were disintegrated in acid.” Just for a moment, we, the players, believed.


1: It’s true though: I can’t stop playing XCOM.

2: This straightforward puzzle – grab gun, shoot zombie – barely scratches the surface of the rest of The Walking Dead, that frequently forces you to make emotion-based decisions under pressure.

3: It’s slightly worrying to wonder where gaming would be today if those early arcade machines were too easy and didn’t make any money.

4: System Shock 2 (1999), the spiritual predecessor to BioShock, has its own form of Vita-Chambers in its Quantum Bio-reconstruction Devices. These are similar to Borderlands’ New-U stations, in that they need to be activated and you incur a fairly-sizeable fee every time you use one. In keeping with the rest of Borderlands’ brash, tongue-in-cheek style, the New-U stations helpfully take your genetic make-up and reconstruct your body after death. Got that, scientists?

4: Fez is wonderful. Please play it.

FINALLY thanks to everyone who threw suggestions at me for this post, on Facebook and Twitter!

Who is Gordon Freeman? An examination of a detailed blank canvas

Gordon Freeman, age 27, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works as a Research Associate at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. He is assigned to the Anomalous Materials Laboratory, has a level 3 security clearance, and an administrative sponsor listed – cryptically – as classified. He is the player’s window into the universe of Half-Life and, by popular opinion, the greatest video game character of all time.

What is it that makes Gordon so memorable, and so well-loved? Maybe it’s the beard, or the glasses. It’s certainly not because of any one-liners he delivers, or the sympathy he shows to other characters during the game, because the lines of dialogue uttered by Gordon Freeman in his four appearances in the Half-Life series amount to exactly zero.

Halflife 2 Gordon Freeman 4

This lack of dialogue was not uncommon around the time of Half-Life’s release in 1998 – similar games in the First Person Shooter genre like Quake (1996) or Unreal (1998) divulged barely any details about the player’s character. Half-Life gives us a few hints about Gordon in those opening moments of the game, but it amounts to nothing more than the bare facts listed above.

Nonetheless, those facts alone are enough to tell us that Gordon is no ordinary hero – at least, not by 1998’s standards, where the Schwarzenegger-styled Duke Nukem was still viewed as the archetypal FPS lead. A physicist from MIT was new ground for a genre where the main characters were super-soldiers with overpowered weapons with names like “the BFG” (the F didn’t stand for “friendly”) – suddenly here was a guy called Gordon running around a disaster zone with a crowbar.

These sparse details aside – and Half-Life makes no attempt to build upon them at any stage during the series – Gordon is a blank canvas for the player. With no dialogue, and no visual appearance in the game, there is nothing for the player to work with. In 1998, it wasn’t expected that you would walk past an in-game mirror and see a reflection of your character. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to believe that the developers, Valve, made this omission consciously to keep Gordon purely in your head – especially given that his lack of speech was reputedly an intentional decision to keep the player immersed in the Half-Life world. There isn’t even a glimpse of any part of Gordon’s body until he swings his crowbar – and he doesn’t acquire that until at least half an hour into the game (1) – at which point you see his hand. Even that, however, is concealed within the Hazardous Environment Suit that you pick up early on. Gordon’s appearances are restricted only to the box art (2).

In 2001, another seen-but-unseen protagonist arrived, in the form of Halo’s Master Chief. Like Gordon, Master Chief wears an armoured suit that conceals everything that lies beneath. The game’s creators, Bungie, go as far as to tease the player during cut-scenes in the Halo series that suggest we’re about to see Master Chief’s true face – only to be summarily fig-leafed. Master Chief is an interesting comparison to Gordon, not least because of the sheer weight of material that has been written about him and the Halo universe (3), which is in stark contrast to Dr Freeman.

In the book Halo and Philosophy, Joyce C. Havstad suggests:

“Master Chief’s personal identity […] is to some extent determined by each player of Halo. This is an ingenious consequence of generating a character without a face. By never revealing, and perhaps never creating, the face of Master Chief, the designers of the game allow each player to imagine Master Chief’s face however they choose. Part of his personal identity is unfixed, and can thus be envisioned in a multitude of ways. Players can make up and relate to the character that they choose.”

Havstad is suggesting that, perhaps contrary to common perception, the best characters are the ones that aren’t mapped out for us. This seems like a paradox: how can Gordon or Master Chief be two of the most memorable video game characters of all time when there is little to remember them by? We knew more about the characters of Mario in 1985 (cutesy, pudgy Italian plumber) and Sonic in 1991 (sassy, impatient so-and-so) than we do about Gordon Freeman, even four games into the Half-Life series.

Yet, while I don’t dispute Havstad’s claim, I do think that her theory would be much better applied not to Master Chief, but to Gordon. Even if we discount all Halo canon outside of the games, there is actually much more to Master Chief than Havstad suggests. Yes, he wears a near-impenetrable suit of armour and symbolically reflective visor, but we have in fact been given a very detailed look into Master Chief’s character in the four Halo games released to date. We now know that John-117 was acquired (“kidnapped”, even) as a child and augmented into the ultimate soldier. And, by the start of Halo 4’s timeline, he is “at his core, broken”.

In mitigation, Halo 4 was released the year after Halo and Philosophy was published, but even ignoring that most recent game we still know more about Master Chief than Havstad suggests above. For starters, he has a voice (LA DJ Steve Downes) and every Halo game has plenty of cut-scenes that not only advance the story but also give an insight into the game’s characters, Chief included. We know he has an action hero’s sense of humour (“Sir, request permission to leave the station […] to give the Covenant back their bomb.”) and we get further clues as to his character by the fact that he is shown in third person in those cut-scenes. This means that, despite the depersonalising armour, we get a wealth of information through Chief’s body language – he double-takes, he flinches, he moves slowly and softly during emotional scenes with Cortana.

In short, the player gets a much clearer picture of John – the man within the armour – than we ever get of Gordon Freeman. There are no cut-scenes to speak of in Half-Life, with the story being told exclusively within the game engine (somewhat revolutionary at the time). Gordon is much more “unfixed” a character than Chief – he has no voice, no face, no body language. In a game, every time a character opens their mouth, they are prescribing a little bit of their personality onto the player. Not so with Gordon. It’s not until Half-Life 2 that he even gets a cast of characters with which to interact, save for some interchangeable – and very disposable – Black Mesa scientists. Even his name is begging to have a personality applied to it: the Free Man (4).

Yet if we accept that Gordon is a blank canvas character, does that really explain the accolades? Is it not simplistic to say that we love Gordon because we readily transpose ourselves onto him?

Certainly, there are more factors involved in making him so well-liked. On a basic level, we like Gordon because we like Half-Life: the series is a regular fixture on all-time greatest video game lists. Gordon is our window into the world; we enjoy the world, ergo we feel positively about the character. In the case of Half-Life, the character is inseparable from the experience. This would not be the case if Gordon had a “fixed” personality, to borrow Havstad’s term.

In Half-Life 2, the story expands to include more characters, and these are fixed, particularly in the case of Alyx Vance. Alyx is a character who is extremely easy to like: feisty and knowing (crowbar joke), and devoted to her father and his revolutionary cause. It is great testament to the work done by Valve that any way I attempt to describe Alyx Vance’s character seems totally deficient (5). By readily developing an affinity between Alyx and the player, the game positions Gordon in a much more emotionally-driven position than in the original Half-Life.

When the player rescues Alyx, Gordon has become the hero and the conduit for the player’s emotion towards her – and vice versa. When Alyx hugs Gordon, she’s really hugging the player. We thus feel even more positively towards Gordon – the conduit – for rescuing her. Without Gordon, we wouldn’t receive our emotional and narrative pay-off.

Compare this with Jason Brody rescuing his girlfriend Liza in Far Cry 3 (to choose another example from the FPS genre) – when Liza hugs the player, we know that she is hugging Jason – we are distant from that emotional interaction. Unlike Gordon, Jason is a fully fixed character who talks, has a network of family members prominent in the game’s storyline, and a drip-fed backstory. In fact, Jason’s character – and the transformations it undergoes – is key to Far Cry 3’s narrative. He is anything but a blank canvas.

Conversely, Gordon’s non-personality means that any interaction between him and Alyx remains underplayed. There is no gazing wistfully into the eyes of the player; in fact there is not really a hint of physical attraction from Alyx at any stage (the presence of which, in retrospect, may have compromised her as a character). Like Gordon himself, the emotional link between Gordon and Alyx is left entirely in the player’s mind.

The player’s mind, then, is where Gordon’s fame rests. It is not just because we, as players, can invent any kind of hero that we wish and transpose it onto the unfixed Gordon. Instead, it is because Half-Life – a visually and narratively stunning series of games – lets us feel those thrills and emotions in a manner as close to first-hand as possible within the medium’s restraints. If Half-Life were dull, or if Alyx Vance was a clichéd damsel in distress, we would care far less about Gordon than we do. Half-Life invites us into its world, terrors and all, but never treads heavily over the experience with a cut-scene or a piece of prescribed characterisation.

Who is Gordon Freeman?

Only you can answer that.


1: Unless you’re doing a speed run.

2: There is a solitary moment in the Half-Life expansion pack Blue Shift, released in 2001, where Gordon can be seen in third-person being dragged away by two soldiers – a moment that we experience as Gordon during Half-Life’s story. EDIT: there are actually a couple of other glimpses of Gordon in Blue Shift – thanks to @blackmyron for the heads-up.

A glimpse of Gordon in Blue Shift

3: I may look into this in a future post – why do some games have so much written about them, fiction and non-fiction, where others (Half-Life being a case-in-point) are left by the wayside? The amount of words written about Halo is quite staggering, to say nothing of web series like Red vs Blue or the Halo toy range. As a brand, it nears comparison to Star Wars.

4: Half-Life 2 actually makes this point somewhat more heavy-handedly, with the alien Vortigaunts openly referring to Gordon as “the Free Man” following his ascendance from scientist to liberator.

5: Seriously – does anyone not like Alyx Vance? It’s not just me, right?