Editor’s note: … – Aaron
Gamers are a strange bunch. We indulge in a very creative medium that covers a wide array of art styles, stories, gameplay types, and experiences. But for all of our love of this wondrous format, we’re an unimaginative bunch. We want developers to have every element of a game fully-explained to us, because we will not consider how things might be — we want to know.
To explain my point, I’m going to write three articles, each of which will explore a different scenario. This first article is in defense of the silent protagonist, particularly Gordon Freeman of the Half Life series. Because Valve did not hire a voice actor for Gordon, or write lines of dialogue for him, many write him off as a soulless avatar with no personality. And yet, when I play through the Half Life games, my opinion of Gordon is the complete opposite.
In my opinion, Valve wants us to fill in for the role of Gordon. He doesn’t speak so that we may give him a voice. No lines of dialogue are written lest they conflict with how we want to character to react to the world around him. Now, I’m not saying you have to speak out loud in response to everything Alex says to you (although I have found myself inadvertently doing that on occasion), but even some subconscious thoughts can do the trick.
I’ll draw an example from a scene in Half Life 2: Episode 2. This could be considered spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned. There is a point in the game where Alex becomes mortally wounded. Gordon is stuck under rubble as Alex desperately reaches out to him before she is struck once more by a Hunter.
In my experience, I was desperate to save Alex, but there was nothing I could do — no matter how many buttons I pressed, I was stuck. I literally felt helpless, just as if I was the one in the game losing a friend.
Some people probably would have preferred a cutscene with Gordon actually shouting, “No! Alex! No!” or what have you. It may have worked (depending on the quality of the voice acting), but I fear people would have found it cheesy, which would have completely ruined the moment.
But by allowing us to use our imagination to fill in the missing pieces, the scene was far more powerful than any passive cinema could have been. This is why I watch movies, and this is why I play games.
That’s not the only time in the series where I felt an emotional attachment to a character. When Dog found me in the rubble of Half-Life 2: Episode 1‘s opening, I was glad to see him. When Alex hugged me, I actually felt loved to some degree. When Dog jumped that Strider, I was relieved, excited, and actually shouted out “Fuck yeah! It’s Dog!”
Half-Life isn’t the only series to appeal to gamers on an emotional level by truly allowing you to immerse yourself in the role of the lead character. The Myst series is another that comes to mind. By Myst IV, Atrus feels like an old friend, and the news of his passing in the opening of Myst V left me genuinely sad.
Fallout 3 let me fill walk in the shoes of The Wanderer, and I made that character my own. By the end of the game (warning, another spoiler), I felt a strange connection to my in-game parents when I entered the final code into Project Purity. I experienced a strange and almost calming moment as I faced certain death. That was one of the best endings I’ve ever experienced.
I pity the person with no imaginiation, who just saw that as some puzzle, punched in the numbers, and then complained about the final cutscene.
Tune in for part 2, where I’ll explore why moral choices in games don’t necessarily need to have a direct impact the game’s story or gameplay.