In one of PC gaming’s most famous series, Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman. Across numerous games, the Half-Life series sees its hero traipse through dangerous environments, mostly as a result of an initial scientific accident that calls forth alien hordes. Throughout all this, Gordon is an obvious example of the “silent protagonist.” The silent protagonist is one who, quite literally, remains silent. Even in conversation with another character or the face of apparent death, Freeman makes no sounds.
The opening sequence of Half-Life is famous for an engaging establishment of its environment. The player, as Freeman, is transported via a futuristic railcar to a desert facility named Black Mesa, an amalgamation of shadowy government experimentation. As Freeman, the player takes in vague sights and listens to the monotonous drone of a pre-recorded speech extolling safety procedures. The first character Gordon Freeman interacts—and I use the term loosely—with is a security guard. The guard, upon opening the railcar door, greets him: “Morning Mr. Freeman. Looks like you’re running late.”
This bit of dialogue is one of a small collection of identifying information about Gordon, but ultimately, it doesn’t reveal much. All the player knows is that he has a prior line of history and existence with this facility. In essence, the player knows he is returning to his day job. The comment is an allusion to this character’s constant existence, his place in the game’s narrative.
In games, characters, narratives, and environments are essentially defined through two aspects. The first is that which already exists, coloring the history and environments that define the in-game world and people within it. The second is that which colors the player-character’s present, which is intrinsically tied to the game’s action—essentially what we as players see and experience. A more important distinction between the two is that the history and narrative are defined by the developer or creator, while the present of the game and the character’s present, is defined by the player and his or her actions.
As he is silent, Gordon’s interactions with other characters are defined solely by the dialogue and intent of those that interact with him. Freeman meets a variety of characters on his journey through the games, and some even develop close relationships with him. Just as the security guard’s comment solidified his history as a scientist, those interactions which occur during the actual game fill out his nature as perceived by both the characters around him, and the environment in which they exist—all as predicated by the developer. Developer-dictated detail and narrative is that which the player cannot affect, but only know and learn passively.
This is the opposite of that narrative detail which is defined by action, and as a result, the player. A large part of what begins to define the character relies upon and is determined by player action—and this action sometimes occurs in direct opposition to character history.
When a player plays as an established hero—say, Batman—the action that occurs during the player-defined portion is usually entirely in agreement with that character’s history. That is, when a player controls Batman and beats up a gang of thugs, this action is fully in line with what players expect from Batman’s colorful and storied history. His historical, developer-defined narrative transitions seamlessly into the player-defined action.
What’s perhaps most odd about Gordon Freeman is though his established history is scarce, what shines through results in direct opposition with his player-controlled present. Gordon’s day job is that of a theoretical physicist. His physicality—prominently displayed only on some editions of the box art, in the game’s menu, and briefly during spin-off games—paints him as an obvious ectomorph. Yet his player-defined narrative has him leaping over pools of caustic acid, wielding numerous firearms with incredible accuracy, and dispatching hordes of aliens and marines alike.
This isn’t an argument that the game should have been a scientist simulator—one that, given the events of the game, would have probably ended in premature death or hiding in a reinforced closet. But the developer-defined aspects of Freeman as a character—his history and his relationships—don’t come together with the player-driven narrative to create a complete, acceptable portrait. And when this happens, the relationship between the protagonist and player is not as fulfilling. Rather than portraying Freeman, the player is portraying a fantasy, and Freeman is merely a replaceable vessel.
This year saw the release of The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Much has been written about Gone Home, and for good reason—the game deals eagerly with a non-violent plot and consists of relatable family life complete with uncomfortable discovery, a 1995 setting with a Riot Grrl soundtrack, and celebration of sexual identity.
But in addition to that—which alone makes the game worth exploring, ten times over—it offers a refreshing version of the player-defined narrative, one that creates a unique relationship between player, protagonist, and environment. One of the geniuses of Gone Home is that its environment is not only entirely unknown to its player, but that its environment is also entirely unknown to its protagonist. The protagonist, Kaitlin (or Katie) is an elder daughter returning from an extended overseas trip. In the meantime, her family (a father, mother, and younger sister) have moved into a house willed to them from the father’s estranged uncle. Her return finds the house empty, leaving her and the player without a guide or character with which to interact.
This single aspect defines the environment an exciting way: one that is entirely unknown to both the player and the protagonist. This allows for the player to more closely identify with Katie as a protagonist, sharpening the relationship. And when the relationship is a closer one, the player-driven action becomes more relevant in moving towards meaningfully defining a character and world.
Gone Home is essentially a story about relationships, told via intelligent discovery and modern archaeology. As the player-as-Katie moves through the home, mysteries unfold via papers left out. Notes from Katie’s younger sister Sam provide the central narrative, while crumpled notes, pamphlets, and other documents fill out the mother and father in addition.
What’s interesting about Gone Home isn’t just the unified developer-defined narrative, but the narrative that develops as defined through the player’s action. Rather than shooting aliens or (gleefully) breaking crates as in Half-Life, Gone Home’s interactivity is defined by searching and discovering. While the player’s actions on a most basic level defines Kaitlin as a snoop without any sort of respect for boundaries, they, perhaps more importantly, serve to define the environment around them. Much of the game’s content is bound up in secrecy, waiting to be unleashed, and only with careful searching does the world come into focus.
Historically—and in games such as Half-Life—the environment and the characters within it are developer-defined, and as a result, the protagonist’s history is as well. But in Gone Home, the lack of external characters ultimately means a lack of active developer-driven meaning, and instead the player finds something that feels more personal.
And while of course, all of the content in Gone Home has been placed there by the developer—they are still the writer and creator of the game, after all—the player’s action is what actually serves as the access point. Though the player in most games propels the action simply by playing—in the same way a reader reveals the action by reading—the player in Gone Home serves as a more active propellant of the slow reveal of the environment and its characters.
What begins to develop, then, is a picture of Gone Home as a game where the player-as-protagonist is the driving force for the narrative. This is because Gone Home’s player-action is one that paints a picture of the protagonist and the relationships around her in the exact way the protagonist would on her own. This allows the protagonist, and the resulting player/protagonist relationship, to feel incredibly powerful. Because when the player-as-protagonist defines the narrative or the environment, the player/protagonist’s action defines the way in which that entity interacts with them. In a sense, they become the driving force behind the game’s emotional impact. When a player-as-protagonist feels as though they have the power to drive forth the narrative, defining the environment and protagonist through their discoveries and actions, gaming as a medium truly shines.
But perhaps more importantly, as the player gains control and the ability to define the narrative through the interactivity of the medium, the developer appears to exert less control. And when the developer wields less control, they fade from the experience of the game, allowing it to stand on its own. While the relationship between the player and the developer is an interesting one (and well worth exploring at another time), they happen to be at direct odds with either’s direct relationship to the game and the protagonist. In a sense, the developer must be able to release full control of their creation, their child, to the player, and allow them to determine the protagonist’s existence and relation to the game as a whole.