Who are you?

Who is Gordon Freeman?

That is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The elements of his character that can be said to be fixed, are insubstantial and provide little that is definitive. In reality there are a hundred thousand Gordon Freemans, a million. Each person who plays Half-Life has a subtly different interpretation of who Gordon Freeman is yet in each instance he is explicitly not the player; he may be of a different race, a different gender, or may simply have a different name. At the same time it cannot accurately be said that Gordon Freeman is a specific pre-authored character. He is in fact a composite entity who’s authorship is shared between two different individuals separated by a multitude of factors, not least time and physical location.

The precise nature of this shared authorship is unique to the interactive medium however there are some striking similarities to a type of authorship that has been occurring for decades in other media. Let me present another question.

Who is Batman?

I expect everybody reading this has an instant mental image of a specific character. Everybody’s mental depiction of Batman will share some key similarities but the precise nature of that character will be subtly different. Some will be more influenced by the recent work of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, others might go back further with a concept of Batman heavily based around the work of Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton, or that of Frank Miller, or Tim Sale and Jeph Leob. Over the years, hundreds of different artists have reinterpreted the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman through the lens of their own tastes and beliefs. Each of these is unique and yet all of them are still identifiably Batman.

Consider how this relates to the original question: Who is Gordon Freeman? There are some fixed elements of Freeman’s character, defined by Marc Laidlaw and Valve Software, the rest is constantly reinterpreted by each player through the lens of their own actions. In one instance Gordon Freeman is cold, methodical and precise, in another he is messy, aggressive and violent.

Much as each writer, or actor, brings their own style to the character of Batman, each player brings their own style to the character of Gordon Freeman.

The specific instance of Gordon Freeman each player experiences exists within the common ground constrained by the boundaries set down by the original creators and those imposed by the actions of the player.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared authorship, but even in an otherwise linear game such as Half-Life there is a layer of player interpretation that makes every player’s experience uniquely theirs.

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6 Comments

  • I always get frustrated by the fact that Gordon Freeman is supposed to be me, but I am unable to interact with the characters in any way. I can’t warn Alyx about the hunter, or explain to everyone that some creepy dude has kept me in stasis for the past decade or two. When I first played the games I thought it was kinda cool that I was supposed to Gordon Freeman, but now it seems that that particular conceit of the games is starting to look a little silly.

  • Borut says:

    So if ludo-narrative dissonance happens when the actions available to you in game don’t mesh what the narrative wants you to do, is narra-ludative dissonance when the narrative implies you should be able to perform certain actions but cannot? :)

  • @Sean Beanland, When he was initially designed the mute Gordon Freeman made some degree of sense as he rarely interacted with other people and when he did he was in a very junior position relative to them. The more Valve have focused on the direct story and character interaction the less sense the silent protagonist has made. Especially as the nature of the game is such that play experience and expectation is likely to be very similar for each player, making it unlikely that Freeman might say something the player doesn’t agree with.

    @Borut, Heh probably, though either way strikes me as poor game design.

    I’m planning on looking further at this as a metaphor for shared authorship, specifically which elements are needed to ensure a specific character is still identifiable as such and which are open to interpretation.

  • Brendan says:

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog through some random links, and you have amazing articles here which are pretty much what I wanted to write in my own blog, but never actually did (the story of the Internet).

    It is refreshing to finally find someone who shares this opinion of authorship in game. it makes me cringe when people talk about how games are killing the author with user created content (especially the article “Death of the Author” in Edge Magazine, E206 which makes me want to cry and yell simutaneously). Alternatively, it is just as bad when games force us to watch something, or tell us exactly how we are to interpret something.

    I think Gordon Freeman and Half-Life are a great example as it is one of the few games that, I think, seriously knows how to tell an interactive narrative without falling back on film techniques (ie. cutscens), and without splitting the storytelling from the gameplay. In Half-Life, the player only sees and experiences what they choose to see and experience, and two players will have two different experiences based on which direction they were looking when something happened. That said, those different experiences will be similar in the sense that Half-life is a linear game and there is only really one story to be told. It’s a perfect example of how games must straddle between authored narrative and player expression without tipping too far to either side.

    I have this great big Bioshock-metaphor theory where Andrew Ryan stands for player expression-focused gaming ideology (going to the extremes to build a crazy city under the ocean to get away from logic, rationality, and the other mediums), while Frank Fontaine stands for traditional authored narrative (supposedly killed off, but still lurking behind every ‘choice’ the player makes). This is something I want to muse on further in the future, but I just thought I’d throw it out there.

    Anyhoo, this comment has gone on for long enough! If you are interested, the most recent post on my blog is a response to the Edge Magazine article and I think is closely related to what you have discussed. It is not as conclusive as it could be, but it is a start.

    I look forward to reading more interesting things that I should have bothered to write myself on here :)

  • Evilagram says:

    Here’s an answer as to who Gordon is supposed to be, a minimally defined character. Gordon Freeman’s character doesn’t change based on the player. The player’s actions do not define Gordon Freeman as a character. The player’s actions define who the player is, not who the character is. The player is not the character, and this article makes that more clear than anything.

    There are no hundred thousand Gordon Freemans, there is one, the one with the appearance he has, the profession Valve wrote in, the weapons he carries, the deeds the game acknowledges he has done, and what the other characters are scripted to say about him.

    There is you, and there is the character. Players may each have their own interpretation and understanding of the role authored by valve, but perception doesn’t affect reality, only the perception of it and reaction to it.

    While we’re on the topic of meaningless questions, who’s the main character of tetris? Who’s the main character of Chess? Rock Paper Scissors? The player isn’t a character. The player doesn’t control or define the characters. Case Dismissed.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      This is a simplification of the complex ways in which we engage with, and react to all media, and player characters in particular. The topic of player and player character identification has been discussed by many with few clear answers, and was the subject of GDC lecture in 2011 by former Visceral Games designer Matthias Worch, which is interesting if still overly vague in places.

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