Anti-anticitizen One

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

Note: Spoilers for the Half-Life series.

A while ago I started a series examining the various premises surrounding Half-Life 2. When I sat down and reflected (and wrote in my own blog, which will be where the following links redirect), I found that there was a lot I liked about the game from both a technical and narrative standpoint. For instance, looking into the situation surrounding Alyx and Eli Vance, I found not just characters who weren’t the default white NPCs, but also people whose backgrounds gave more narrative power to the situations in which they found themselves: Eli’s role as leader of a previously enslaved alien race seemed the more powerful given his age, the only near-future of the game, and his racial background based off the US.

This then made the narrative surrounding the 1984-esque questions of individuality and how we obtain security by giving in to the system all the more poignant. The figureheads of the kyriarchy, the powers we see, are put front and center through Dr. Breen and G-Man, though it leads to further questions of what is really going on and how the power structures remain even if you can get rid of the figurehead of the organization—oppression cannot be rid of by deposing of the face of your oppression. Power does not exist as an absolute, and its tendrils reach far and wide to help subjugate those it requires to rise itself up and gain its privileges.

However, the part that kept befuddling me is the role of Gordon Freeman. I couldn’t access him as a character, which left me feeling cold much of the time, as someone who enjoys inhabiting roles given him, as I would a character on stage. Often framed as an Everyman, his role is left quite bare in a world that has some rather strong personalities, causing a bit of a clash. I don’t mind extemporaneous acting, but it is a bit odd when you are still following a script, and everyone else is stuck to it. I had a problem, that is, until I started reframing how I looked how I approached Freeman.

As many allies who have certain privileges and have yet to examine them, I was once one of those who was in other spaces and had a disproportionate time spent talking rather than listening. As is often stated to allies in spaces where they may be invited expressly or not, please listen, as what we are sharing is our experience—an experience you do not necessarily have.

Freeman is the silent ally. He is no voice for the resistance. He is a figure. He is a hero. His words are his actions, which by extension are how we interact with the world. We speak against the injustice by progressing the plot, shooting the Combine footsoldiers (which does nothing to help the overall deconstruction of the power structures in place—they are nameless, faceless enemies), and helping Alyx, who helps us progress while giving voice to the story.

Gordon does not have the same experiences as the people he helps. He disappeared for a few decades, and his own background does not necessarily mesh with those whom he helps. While he is a champion whose actions help the resistance, his history and thoughts are not what Valve felt necessary to share with us: he is an ally who can help with action to shape the world, but cannot put voice to the oppression in quite the same way.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Outside of the player/Freeman, the most important player on your side would be Alyx Vance. There has been quite a bit of love for her around these parts, as she is a character who is well-acted, well-drawn, and given a role beyond just superwoman or whimpering sexpot. We called her a character done right. It is on Alyx that much of this hinges.

The world itself is difficult to care about in the same way that I do about the characters. While it is based on our own world, the landscapes are foreign enough that they do not evoke any great sense of attachment. The care and emotions put into the relationships among the Resistance group and then their relationship to Dr. Freeman is what stands out.

To be clear, the politics of the time are largely focused on enslaving humanity as a whole, as well as the Vortigaunts, but as I stated previously, the Vances’ own racial background has that much more effect. The setting of the second game is in 202-, leaving us to believe Eli Vance is somewhere between his 50s and 60s. This means he may not have been alive to see the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it would certainly had an effect on how he was raised. It is never revealed what manner of scientist Vance is exactly, but he is proven as an inventor, and hinted at as a graduate of Harvard. Not impossible tasks given the time frame, but ones that would color his worldview: he is not someone new to facing daunting odds.

Which is why it is significant that the Vortigaunts stress he was the first to contact them and make peace. The first to champion for their cause. Gordon may be the hero of the game we play, but without Eli, he would be the hero of a vastly different world, and while his oppression by these forces would be present as conflict, the larger oppressions taking place give more context as to what is at stake.

What is also worth noting is that while there exist moments of levity and humor with both Alyx and Eli Vance, they are not so much comedic camp as the other members of Black Mesa East such as Dr. Kleiner. These are characters who have a serious mission, can still remain human, and yet trust Gordon for his previous actions. Yet they are still the leaders of their group. It is Eli who often tells Gordon where to go, or what needs be done. Alyx is often aiding him, and helping him in difficult situations, opening doors for him that he cannot himself.

Which is why the sinister overarching plot of G-Man seems all the more tied to the kyriarchy. In many ways, he is using Gordon to achieve his own aims, whatever they might be. It is not even told for whom G-Man is working. While one could surmise it is against the Combine, there is no certainty of that, as there is none that his loyalties may have shifted. What we know of his purposes is vague, beyond controlling Gordon, and setting up the events that led to the Resonance Cascade. He is the figure we see, but the tendrils that control our life and the world of Half-Life 2 remain unseen, and work at subjugating the human race, as it did the Vortigaunts.

Therefore, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes about resistance against an unseen power. While we play more privileged party in that equation, the human voice and compassion we see, the very essence of what we would likely consider the good in humanity, is embodied in the leader and his daughter: Eli and Alyx. As Gordon Freeman, we the player fight their battle for a world they wish and believe in, and one which we, by the way we enter the story, can easily take for granted as we do not fully understand their experiences or what is at stake until we see and hear their story. We listen, we stay silent, and we help them achieve their goal.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

As can often be the case in terms of allies, it is Gordon who receives the lion’s share of the recognition, however. As a tale of resisting kyriarchy, Half-Life 2 gives us a look into how allies are perceived as more of a threat and given more accolades than those fighting the daily struggle, as they are seen to be setting an example for other privileged people. Which is not to say that I believe this was Valve’s intent necessarily. While Freeman is still not a protagonist who greatly breaks the mold of straight white male protagonist who is bland and boring (something rarely afforded a character who is none of these), he can set an example for ally who learns that he can help while not always having to interject his own opinion.

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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10 Responses to Anti-anticitizen One

  1. TheLaquidara says:

    Ugh. This really makes me wish Episode 2 never happened, or at least ended differently.

    I never thought much of Freeman, but others seemed to either latch onto him or reject him. I never understood this for the longest time until I played Portal and realized how much a silent protagonist can bring to the table even if you don’t get much of a chance to see what they look like. If you replaced Chell with some white dude the story of Portal, especially Portal 2, would change significantly.

    • Denis Farr says:

      I think my largest gripe with how Episode 2 ended is we still haven’t seen how the story progresses. The sacrifice itself can make sense, in certain lights, but we haven’t been able to see what it actually brings. Right now it’s just a cliffhanger which leaves us with little to no information.

      Agreed on Portal (though I have not yet played Portal 2). When I realized that, I made myself look back at Freeman and imagine reasons for his default status. It may well be that they were saddled with it from the first Half-Life, but surrounding him with POC in both the name and generic NPCs spoke quite a bit to me about a future which doesn’t forget there are more than white people hanging around fighting for survival.

  2. It seems inadequate to discuss power and Half-Life without discussing the game’s mechanics, specifically the immensely linear game design (even moreso in the second game than the first). Half-Life is a game about performance; it’s a roller-coaster ride. Sure, the G-Man complicates things somewhat–and you missed a few of the really interesting moments in Half-Life 2, like when Breen suggests that the Resistance merely outbid the Combine for Freeman’s services, and Eli and Alyx don’t deny it–but this ain’t BioShock, where the linear design is at least presented as somewhat lamentable (even if resistance is futile, which is ultimately BioShock’s argument). Half-Life is about finding pleasure in being a tool; for all the demonstrations of the Combine’s cruelty and oppression, Gordon is the biggest slave in all of Half-Life, never making a meaningful choice in the entire course of the games, and he–as us, the players–enjoy it.

    • Denis Farr says:

      I did cover the mechanics in the other posts I made, but it wasn’t as relevant to me in this frame: everyone is under an oppression, and Gordon being a puppet does speak to the greater kyriarchy, but I’m not sure I would say he’s “biggest slave.”

  3. Laurentius says:

    “The world itself is difficult to care about in the same way that I do about the characters. While it is based on our own world, the landscapes are foreign enough that they do not evoke any great sense of attachment.”

    Are You sure about that? For people from Eastern Europe who lived in communist system and watched it being overthrown, City 17 under Combine oppression and fight against it can give as much emotional attachment as video game can give.

    • Denis Farr says:

      This is why I included the “I.” This was speaking of my experience. As I don’t have not lived in Eastern European, I don’t feel well-versed enough to speak to that lived experienced.

      It’s a good point to make, but would require someone with more intimate knowledge of it.

  4. Hirvox says:

    I think that Portal, Half-Life and Bioshock explore different ways of oppression and ways to resist it.

    The villains of Portal completely control the environment, and while they may be able to corral Chell to do any individual action they want, that control can end catastrophically at the smallest slip-up.

    In Bioshock, the villain can interfere at any time and micromanage Jack’s actions, but those actions that they consider worthless to micromanage add up and make all the difference in the end.

    Finally, Half-Life is about the illusion of freedom. Up until Episode 1, the G-Man has been a very hands-off oppressor. He set up the conflict between Earth and Xen, knowing that a desirable solution would present itself, even if he didn’t know the details. In Half-Life 2, he tips the scales of power of an existing conflict by dropping Freeman into it and lets the scenario play out. And when he does interfere, he does it with such sublety that only people with near-complete knowledge of the conflict can recognize his handiwork.

  5. Overmind says:

    “Alyx is often aiding him, and helping him in difficult situations, opening doors for him that he cannot himself.”

    Not to mention that she saves his life at the beginning of the game during a combine ambush (what’s more, she does that without using any weapons). I mean, how often is your typical male action hero saved by someone, especially by a woman, in a video game?

  6. Ike says:

    What does TAB stand for?

    • Corbiu Geisha says:

      Temporarily-Able-Bodied.

      It acknowledges that one may become disabled later in life due to accidents or illnesses.

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