Is ‘Half-Life: Alyx’ the Death Knell of the Silent Protagonist?

Grace Curtis
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming PlayStation

Half-Life is back. After almost two decades of riots, memes, and general gamer despair, Valve has finally announced the next installment in the iconic series. But, hold the champagne: there’s a couple of caveats. Firstly, it’s VR exclusive. Secondly, it’s a prequel.

The high paywall has caused a stir all on it’s own, and as a penniless twenty-something I’m far from thrilled myself. But Valve has always made a point of pushing the boat out, taking the medium in bold new directions, blah blah blah. That’s not the point. I want to talk about the real news here. Gordon Freeman is not in the game. The crowbar man has been given the can.

Half-Life without Gordon Freeman? That’s like releasing Metal Gear without Solid Snake. Or Devil May Cry without Dante. Hysteria is sure to follow. But if you listen to the internet airwaves, the outcry at Freeman’s loss is minimal, even though he’s been replaced with – of all things – a black woman.

Alyx Vance has been promoted from sidekick NPC to titular heroine, but far from the usual accusations of ‘forced politics’ that are usually levelled at game stories that have the audacity to feature women, Alyx’s shift to the spotlight has been met with, if not open arms, at least not bared fangs. To an outside observer, this might seem strange. But if you’re familiar with the Half-Life Series it makes perfect sense.

Because Alyx is the protagonist of Half-Life 2. She comes up with the plans, she’s got the motivations. It’s her dad that gets captured. It’s her home that comes under threat. And, really, who is Gordon Freeman? No one, really. A blank slate.

Which begs the question, why was the story his to begin with?

JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE

There’s a wealth of Freeman backstory scattered around in the strategy guides, instruction booklets and assorted official Valve literature from the early 2000s. Curious players can find out, with a quick google, his age (27), his place of birth (Seattle, Washington) and where he studied (MIT, presumably doing a degree in advanced button pressing). What you’ll not find is any long tributes to his winning personality, his quirky hobbies, or his penchant for witty banter.

The big selling point of the original Half Life was immersion. Black Mesa descends into fluid cutscene-free chaos, and you, the average Joe, have to fend for your life. There’s a reason that the original Half-Life adverts were written in second person.

'You're scrambling to stay alive' (Sadly this Dreamcast port never saw the light of day)

It’s easy to see why Valve chose to keep Gordon Freeman silent. Rather than risk him saying the wrong thing, it leaves gaps that the imagination can fill, making the player feel less like a passenger and more like a participant.

One of the many ways Half-Life 2 improved upon its predecessor was in the area of characterisation. Writers, animators and psychologists worked together to fill City 17 with a dynamic cast of characters, with Alyx Vance at the forefront. After saving your life in the opening scene she is a constant presence, guiding you to the next location, dealing out advice (or ominous warnings) as needed. Almost everything that happens in the story is somehow connected to her. But Half-Life 2 isn’t about Alyx’s relationship with Gordon Freeman. It’s about her relationship with you.

It’s a dynamic shaped by two profoundly different forms of communication: dialogue and gameplay. Everything you do – navigating the map, defeating the enemies, and yes, even pressing buttons – as well as being fist-pumpingly fun, also helps earn her respect and trust.

In return, you’re rewarded with snippets of dialogue that deepen your understanding of who Alyx is. This wouldn’t work with a poorly written character. But Alyx is so believable, so damn likeable, it’s all too easy to form a bond with her.

Just so long as you’re happy being addressed as Gordon.

SILENCE OF THE LADS

The silent protagonist is a convention almost as old as gaming itself. From Link to Chrono to Issac Clarke, unspeaking heroes have been fighting their way to victory for years. These characters are all iconic, and rightly so. But they also tell us a lot about the assumed audience of these games – AKA, straight, white and male. From a storytelling perspective, there’s something about a silent protagonist that feels very safe. It is presumed that their thoughts are our thoughts, their feelings are our feelings. It raises questions of who we consider to be neutral.

Stunned into silence: Breath of the Wild

A few exceptions spring to mind. Chell from the Portal series, for example – though Chell’s silence strikes me as a product of her origins as a sort of in-house Half-Life spin off. The developers were simply doing their own version of an established formula. For the most part, silence is a male dominion.

As AAA games grow more cinematic, player characters have become more like Hollywood heroes. They’re chattier, more expressive. They have emotional arcs outside the need to kill whatever Lovecraftian entity is inconveniencing them that day. Inch by inch, room has been freed up for protagonists who reside outside of the cultural ‘default’ to come in and have their say. It’s a sign of progress that Valve no longer feels the need to place us in the shoes of an unspeaking man in order to better digest Alyx’s story. We’re seeing through her eyes now.

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

A landscape of emotion: Gris

Inclusivity in video games is obviously a good thing. But I’ll admit, I’ll be sad to lose that unique player/character dynamic that made a lot of Half Life fans (myself included) fall in love with Alyx in the first place. There’s a part of me that’s still nostalgic for the days of the silent protagonist – which is why it’s so refreshing to see what indie developers are doing with the trope.

There are games where the world gives us a glimpse into a mute character’s interiority (Gris), or where the lack of dialogue reminds us of the distance between us and our avatar (Undertale), or where the reclamation of the heroine’s voice is part of the goal (Transistor). Silence is a narrative tool like any other. What matters is how it’s used.

Roger Ebert once called movies ‘A machine that generates empathy’. Given the proper treatment, games can do the same.

Grace Curtis
Grace is a geordie-born writer currently living in Scotland. She's obsessed with video games, comics, and all the other stuff she wasn't allowed to have as a kid.