Friday, May 30, 2008

"Man of few words, aren't you?"

In Half-Life, Gordon Freeman didn’t really need a voice. All he was trying to do (or at least, so he thought) was escape from Black Mesa alive. The fact that, majority of the time, he was completely alone further justified him not needing to speak. The silent protagonist wasn’t something new to the FPS genre; even today, few protagonists of FPS games speak during gameplay, saving all their witty one-liners for the cutscene before the next level—Master Chief, for example.

This poses several issues for Gordon’s continued silence into Half-Life 2. No longer is he simply trying to escape Black Mesa and, a lot of the time, he isn’t alone. However, although this may at first appear to mean Gordon Freeman must speak in Half-Life 2, things get complicated when you consider Half-Life’s trademark lack of cutscenes, with all action happening in-game.

Some people argue that the (unsuccessful) goal of the silent protagonist in gaming is to increase a player’s agency in a situation and, consequentially, “it can often feel like the player is just being jerked around through the whole game like a puppet without any real power over what is going on.” I would argue that this isn’t a consequence of the silent protagonist, but its actual goal. The silent protagonist doesn’t try to further immerse the player, nor does it give him or her more agency within the game world. Contradictory in all respects, implementing a silent protagonist intentionally removes the protagonist’s agency.

Master Chief speaks—he’s on top of things; he’s got it all under control. Gordon Freeman doesn’t. Gordon Freeman is a puppet. He is nothing but the G-man’s puppet. Even throughout Half-Life, Gordon isn’t just trying to escape Black Mesa (though, the player is tricked into thinking that is all he or she is doing); he is doing exactly what the G-man wants him to do.

I think, for the purpose of Half-Life 2, not being able to speak, combined with being suddenly dropped in a dystopic future, emphasises just how much Gordon Freeman is a victim, not an agent. The first few hours of the game are spent wondering what the hell has happened, and the fact that you can’t just ask someone—as frustrating as it is—just furthers the player’s alienation to the world. I think Valve pull this off quite well. To me, it rarely feels as though I, the player, should be speaking. Between Eli, Alyx, Barney, and the others—the ones who actually have agency over the events of the game—, the way they talk around Gordon, as though he has no say in anything comes across as natural.

It could be argued, then, that from the start Episode 1, when the Vortigaunts prevent the G-man from getting to Gordon, that he should then be able to speak, as he is no longer under the G-man’s pursuasion. Yet, in Episode 1, it could be argued that Gordon isn't even truly the protagonist anymore, but Alyx. At this point in the narrative, Gordon just allows us a third-person perspective from which to view Alyx and the decisions she makes. Kind of like Raiden viewing Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2.

Another instance of the silent protagonist having no agency would be Grand Theft Auto III when compared to Vice City and San Andreas. Each GTA title has a very different protagonist. The protagonist of Grand Theft Auto III—let’s call him Clyde—is just a lackey. He is content to do jobs for people and to make money from doing those jobs. Clyde doesn’t need a voice; he just needs ears. As rich as he might end up, he never ‘owns’ Liberty City; he still lives in a back-alley apartment, and he seems content to do so.

Tommy Vercetti isn’t. Tommy has goals for Vice City and thus, Tommy needs to be able to speak. The same goes for Carl Jackson: he doesn’t want to own San Andreas, but he has very clear goals for himself, and having a voice emphasises that.

This argument of the silent protagonist being implemented in order to remove the protagonist’s agency, as I have claimed it here, only really stands up when used to analyse action games. I think the role of the silent protagonist in other genres—such as rpgs—achieves completely different ends. It would be hard to argue that the protagonists of Pok√©mon or Oblivion don’t have a say in their world. But that’s a different topic altogether.

Maybe, one day, Gordon Freeman will break free of the G-man. Then, maybe, he might have a chance to make his own decisions and voice them. Though, from the less-than-optimistic ends every other protagonist in the Half-Life universe has met (Opposing Force, Portal ,etc.), I’m not hoping for too much.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Welcome to Critical Damage! My goal for this site is to make critical analyses of different aspects of computer games that are generally overlooked or taken for granted by the general audience. By this I mean looking at things such as (for example) the role of the silent protagonist in game-series such as Zelda or Half-Life, or the narrative devices used in Halo, or whether Grand Theft Auto 4 is immature crudity or intelligent social criticism. Basically, i want to go beyond the typical "This game has cool graphics!" technical assessment of games and look at the elements more typical of any other medium of storytelling--such as film or literature.

Hopefully I can manage to do this in a professional and interesting way, without taking all the ingrained fun of cool graphics and leet explosions out of games.

If it is important to know, I am a 22-year-old student, almost finished a BA in Creative Writing and Japanese. Before this, I spent eighteen-months in an IT and Multimedia degree before realising I have little interesting in the technical side of gaming, only the storytelling side. I began playing games with Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Alex Kidd on the Sega Master System II and haven't looked back since.

So that's about it, really. Hopefully I can keep committed to this and publish some interesting article that people might find worthy of reading.