Saturday, 26 January 2019

To Be a Free Man: Understanding the Futility of Freedom in Half-Life

The full Half-Life series currently comprises two main games, a series of expansions to the first installment, and two episodes continuing the story of the second game. The gameplay is fairly simple, focusing on a mix of first-person shooter action and problem-solving that usually require the player character to get from once place to another while avoiding obstacles and enemies.

In the first game, the player assumes the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist newly hired at the Black Mesa laboratory. Shortly after his arrival, an experiment goes wrong causing a resonance cascade that results in the laboratory being infested by aliens from another dimension. Gordon then finds himself battling through both aliens and marines sent to cover up the disaster eventually travelling to the dimension of Xen where he defeats the nihilanth (the apparent "boss alien"). Half-Life 2 picks up twenty years later, where the world has been taken over by a ruthless alien race known as the Combine, and Gordon Freeman becomes the leader of a revolution.

But this is where the situation gets more complicated. The themes of freedom and liberation are hardly subtle. It's even reflected in the protagonist's name: Gordon FREEman. Yet the irony is that Gordon Freeman, the so-called "One Free Man" is never truly free. He is constantly subordinated to someone or something in what seems to be a never-ending chain of command. Throughout the series, Gordon Freeman is constantly under the thumb of a mysterious figure of authority. The true identity of this unnamed man remains a mystery still debated among fans of the games. Numerous fan theories exist to explain his apparently metaphysical presence, and the uncertainty of whether he's even human.

However, the identity of this character, known in the community as "G-Man" (derived from his filename) is ultimately not as important as what he represents to the world of Half-Life. Whoever this guy is is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that he is the puppet master behind Gordon Freeman. Whatever his endgoals are, and for better or worse, he displays a firm investment in Freeman's activities and appears to be working toward specific outcomes (even if to what end remains unclear). Throughout both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 G-Man makes routine cameos where he appears to be observing Gordon, or otherwise taking an interest in the setting. Both games also see G-Man congratulating Gordon for his efforts, implying that the player did indeed produce G-Man's desired outcome.

At the end of Half-Life, G-Man appears to offer Gordon a "job opportunity," yet the game implies that this is not a choice on Gordon's part. G-Man appears to consider Gordon a valuable asset for reasons unclear and wants to make use of him again, and subsequently puts him into stasis until the events of Half-Life 2. In that game, G-Man once again awakens Gordon, only to once again suspend him in stasis as the film's conclusion after, once again, Gordon has produced the desired outcome. G-Man has essentially enslaved Gordon and is treating him like one might a tool, literally the same way one might treat a hammer or a screwdriver. Gordon is taken out when he is needed, but when he is no longer useful he is placed back into stasis, a sort of "toolbox" where he is stored until such a time as he is needed again.

This adds a peculiar irony to the events of Half-Life 2, where Gordon is drawn into the resistance against the oppressive Combine. He becomes a beacon of freedom towards everyone. The vortigaunts, once enslaved by the antagonists of the first game, now happily aid Freeman. By the end of the game resistance members eagerly follow him and place their trust in his leadership. But is this really freedom? Or are we only seeing a transition from one handler to another?

As the player already knows, Gordon is trapped under the thumb of G-Man, with no clear means of escape (this is accomplished in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, but G-Man's reaction suggests this is little more than a temporary setback). And yet the vortigaunts are calling him the "One Free Man," a moniker the player knows to be false. In short, Gordon Freeman, the leader of the freedom fighters is himself under the control of someone else, only he is given strings that can be seen by nobody else.

The futility of Gordon's efforts at freedom is further reinforced by the decision of Valve to treat him as a silent protagonist. Throughout the series Gordon never speaks a single word, not even so much as a grunt. The series is also experienced in the first-person- Gordon's face is only ever seen on the game boxes and posters. This deprives Gordon the chance to express himself in any meaningful way. By keeping him from speaking, Gordon is unable to share his thoughts or opinions on any issue. The first-person perspective prevents him from emoting. This is also fitting as there is another dimension to his character.

G-Man is not the only one manipulating Gordon. He is also being controlled more directly by someone else- the player. Every action Gordon performs is up to the player. Gordon's movements are based on the actions of a figure who, within the diegesis, shouldn't even exist. As a silent protagonist whose story is seen in the first person, he never gets a chance to properly share any independent thought, personality, or emotions. They are whatever the player decides them to be. So even when Gordon is released from G-Man's grip by the vortigaunts, he is never released from the player's.

Furthermore, in addition to the players, Gordon's path and actions are dictated by the game's writers and developers. His movements are controlled by an entity he doesn't know exists, and his story is scripted. Freeman is therefore perhaps the least free of all the cast of Half-Life, without so much as a means to share or even indicate any real independent thought. Gordon is a puppet on three different fronts, and he can only recognize the strings of one of his puppet masters. He is about as far from a "free man" as can be imagined.

And yet, the contradiction of the so-called "Free Man" and his constant imprisonment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the themes of control. While Gordon Freeman is indeed being manipulated by forces he can't control, he also has puppets of his own in the form of his apparent allies. Part way through Half-Life 2 one of the Vortigaunts provides Gordon a means of controlling the antlions (a hive-minded race of insectoid aliens) by harvesting Pheropods. As a result, the antlions become Gordon's personal army.

Now the puppet has become a puppeteer. The antlions under Gordon's control blindly follow his orders, taking on enemies and being ready to get themselves killed on mass just to protect Gordon. Just as Gordon cannot see that he is being controlled by the player, now the antlions become his unwitting servants, fighting and dying for him all while being unable to see or even comprehend the strings that are manipulating them.

Once Gordon reaches the levels Anticitizen One and Follow Freeman, the antlions are replaced by human resistance members. "Hey everybody," the rebels yell as they join him, "Follow Freeman!" These are freedom fighters, driven by a desire to end the oppression of the Combine and liberate humanity, but in fact they are now Gordon's servants. He can instruct them on where to go, when to hold position, when to follow, and they obey his orders.

These people are devoting themselves to following Freeman, meaning they are in fact becoming his puppets. Just as Freeman is being manipulated by G-Man, now he manipulates the resistance. The only difference is that the resistance can't see that they're being controlled, and that they are not truly free.

And yet this is only what is seen through the perspective of Freeman himself. Let us shift our perspective for a moment and consider the character of the so-called "G-Man." We never do find out exactly who he is or what his intentions are, beyond that he seems to have an investment in Gordon's success and the implication that he may not be entirely human. He is even shown to be able to freeze time itself. It is obvious that G-Man is a powerful figure, perhaps moreso than even Gordon could begin to understand. When he is not directly obverving Freeman, he is seen interacting with other characters in ambiguous conversations. The expansion Opposing Force even implies that G-Man was the one who sent the marines into Black Mesa. This would seem to suggest he is a boss figure of some sort, the man in control of everything...

Except that is not in fact what he is. He may appear this way as far as any human is concerned, but one important detail is G-Man's references to his "employers." Who G-Man works for is an even bigger mystery than the man himself, but it is clear that he is working for someone. This is not some all-powerful being manipulating everything for his own personal gain, but an agent or employee acting on behalf of an even bigger party, someone so high up that we have no idea who they even are. This means that G-Man may in fact have no more control over anything that goes on than Gordon himself, and his actions are mainly conducted to suit the needs of his unknown employers.

This does leave an interesting question to think about. If G-Man is himself being controlled by someone else, whoever they are, is that party also being controlled by someone else? Is this simply a never-ending chain of command, servants controlling servants who control servants? This appears to be the case when one examines Gordon's enemies. In the first game, Freeman is battling a mix of aliens and U.S. Marines. In the second, he is mainly fighting his way through the Combine forces, with a particular emphasis on their human propaganda master Wallace Breen.

Breen is an interesting case study given his status as the "face" of the dystopian world established in Half-Life 2. In keeping with its not-so-subtle Orwellian influence, Breen takes on the role of a "big-brother"-like figure who regularly appears on screens to deliver messages encouraging City 17's residents to be compliant and submit to the Combine authority. Among the city's residents he is a figure of resentment and a symbol of the Combine's oppression. The man basically sold out humanity when the combine first arrived (though this proved the only way to ensure humanity's survival). As a result he has practically enslaved the entire human race, enjoying the privileges of his role as administrator while trying to comfort everyone else with exaggerated claims about the supposed long-term benefits of Combine rule (even referring to them on-camera as "Our Benefactors").

But Breen is himself little more than a puppet for the Combine. His job is simply to go along with whatever they desire and find some way to present it to the human population as a positive move. Under Breen's direction, it is implied that humans are stripped of everything that makes them individuals to turn them into the ruthless metro police and and the soldiers who routinely work to stop Gordon Freeman, but they are ultimately serving the Combine, not Breen. Breen is only a tool used by the Combine to subjugate humanity. He is ultimately using his position of authority to work toward their interests. Once again we a puppet, albeit a puppet who also has puppets of his own.

Curiously, in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 we see the screens once again being used, this time by Dr. Isaac Kleiner. This comes after the revolution started in the previous game, after Breen has been deposed from his position as administrator for humanity. Kleiner instead takes up a suspiciously similar role, even if he is now speaking on behalf of the resistance. We hear him instructing humanity on what to do, and how they should feel about the Combine recognizing them as "malefactors" (echoing Breen's referring to them as "Our Benefactors" throughout Half-Life 2). He even begins providing instructions for any humans who aren't in immediate danger to begin reproducing to re-establish the human race. It leaves us to wonder: is anything really changed? Has the resistance made things better or are we only replacing one authoritarian regime with another?

Likewise, in Half-Life both groups of antagonists are acting on behalf of other authorities. The marines who arrive to cover up the Black Mesa incident are themselves implied to be manipulated by G-Man. They are only acting under orders, not even fully understanding why they have been deployed or to what end they are working. They are only acting under orders, not out of any malevolence to Black Mesa, on a mission that appears to have been meticulously planned by someone well above their level of command.

The aliens that invade Black Mesa have been enslaved by a creature called the Nihilanth, a peculiar telepathic entity that rules the dimension of Xen. The Nihilinth serves as the primary antagonist and ultimately the final boss. But it ultimately turns out that the whole reason the aliens were in Xen to begin with was because they had themselves been enslaved by the Combine (the primary antagonists of the second game). The enslaved had now become the slaver.

Furthermore, the Vortigaunts find themselves in a peculiar position. They were previously enslaved by the Nihilinth until it was defeated by Gordon. This leads to the Vortigaunts developing a particular respect for Freeman, to the point where he takes on an almost messianic quality in their view. They become extremely loyal and willing to do almost anything for the person they have come to know as "The Free Man" (who, as we have established, is not in fact free in any sense). Throughout Half-Life 2 and its episodes the Vortigaunts provide Freeman with various services. This suggests that Gordon did not in fact liberate the Vortigaunts, but that he merely replaced the Nihilanth as their master while they unknowingly continue to be controlled by their own blind loyalty.

Given these patterns, one is left to wonder about the Combine, who at first seemed to be brutal imperialists interested only in domination. We never do find out just who or what runs the full empire, something only alluded to by the transmission sent in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, but what we have seen of the other characters suggests some interesting questions about what might be found if the series had continue or were to be revived. Is it not possible that, given what we've seen, the oppression and brutality exerted by the Combine forces is in fact because they themselves are being controlled by something else?

At the end of the day, we are left with a simple question: what is freedom? What does it mean to be free? Can one ever be truly free or do they just change controllers? These are the questions which the series constantly wrestles. Their answer? Freedom is an abstract concept constructed in our minds, one for which we constantly feel we must strive towards and yet can never truly attain. True freedom is impossible. The closest one can get is the illusion of freedom brought on by strings they cannot see. Everyone is locked in a series of endless chains of command- servants controlling servants controlling servants, in an inter-tangled web of manipulation and control.


  1. Hey John! I'm not a gamer so this whole thing is lost on me. That said, it was good to see a post from you again. Hope you're doing well.

    1. John Hitchcock26 January 2019 at 19:55

      That's alright. This particular series is almost 20 years old now and a lot of its notoriety has to do with an installment that never got finished. If you're interested in learning more about it, you can probably find plenty of footage from it on YouTube.

      It's not the easiest time for me but I'm doing okay. A lot of my creative energy has been focused elsewhere for a while. I've been dabbling a bit in photography and digital art lately, and haven't done as much writing.

      I am hoping to get back into blogging, though I can't make any promises about the rate of content in the near future.

    2. No need for promises. Just take care of yourself.