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.

ENDNOTES

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?