After playing Half-Life a bit more, browsing through Half-Life 2 maps in GMod, re-reading what is basically Half-Life 2: Episode 3 and watching a large array of Half-Life content, I’ve realised something. The more you play Half-Life, the more people begin to worship Gordon Freeman. And that bothers me.
As I re-watched the delightful series Freeman’s Mind, I was reminded by an argument a friend of mine came up with. In Half-Life 1 and the other goldsrc games, you’re just a person who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Half-Life 2 and onwards, you’re seen as a messiah. You’re like a unicorn. A unicorn with a crowbar and probably some guns as well. It’s a very weird change of pace. That was part of the reason why my friend didn’t like Half-Life 2, because he felt the messiah stuff was forced down our throats, that it put you firmly in the shoes of Gordon Freeman. But he also thought that Half-Life 2 was a bad game because it mostly consisted of “hey look how shiny our new engine is, here’s a driving section!”.
Watching Freeman’s Mind, I saw what my friend was getting at. The normal Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist. He just does things and you never ever see his face. All we know is that he’s Gordon. But the thing is, anyone could be Gordon. Ross Scott, the person behind Freeman’s Mind, creates a very insane character, a psychotic maniac who gets more and more crazy as things go along, having started off as just some guy who likes to think he’s sticking it to the man. That’s who he thinks Gordon Freeman is, how he thinks Gordon Freeman would act, putting a voice and a character to an otherwise blank slate.
Okay, maybe Freeman’s Mind is a little too over the top and shouty, but that’s the point, Freeman can be anyone you want him to be. Well, he kinda has to be male, since everyone refers to you like that, but it’s open-ended enough that you could feasibly be a naked scientist called Gordon ‘aabicus’ Freeman if you so wanted to, especially since every NPC in the game is optional and can be killed before they can even tell you anything. Sure, there’s a picture on the front of the box, but in-game you have no model, you’re just some guy.
This being literally anyone sort of thing fades away in Half-Life 2. You ARE Gordon Freeman, you ARE the defeater of Xen, you ARE this hero that everyone admires. There’s no getting around it. You already have a legacy and everyone’s already looking up to you. You’re a hero before the story even begins.
You see, that’s partly what made Half-Life so amazing in the first place. You were just some average schmuck who got caught up in everything horrible. You weren’t a super soldier killing everything. You could be if you WANT to, but you’ve got choices. It’s that internal roleplaying and immersion you get from these things. That’s all taken away from you in Half-Life 2 because you’re already a hero and your choices are already being made for you by others. You’re proving that you’re the hero they expect you to be rather than just trying to survive.
It’s still being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in Half-Life 1, you just want to escape, you have no idea what awaits you. In Half-Life 2, you’re put there by the G-Man and have no choice but to go on with your destiny. Even though both games have their own amounts of puzzles, fighting and linear paths, it feels like there’s some freedom missing somewhere, and I just can’t place my finger on it.