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.