When you first arrive at Station 12, which is surrounded by City 17's irradiated river, you immediately realize that something is wrong. No-one exits the Station to greet you. A large wooden container dangles ominously from a pulley, revealing a shocking truth.
Everyone is dead when you enter the building, naturally. A couple of levels ago, you saw a missile land in front of you, then open up to release its payload — several headcrabs used by the Combine to make the Resistance into zombies. Here, you find a single headcrab still alive, and some far-off Resistance member crackles over the radio: "Come in, Station 12."
Gordon Freeman, as a silent protagonist, follows and coheres that Half-Life 2's story – and its small, isolated sub-story, like Station 12 – is equally wordless and understood through our own participation.
Gordon doesn't speak. The game doesn't speak. One of Half-Life 2's'mechanics is looking around, taking things in, and independently creating your own narratives and conclusions.
But then, just after Water Hazard, you arrive at Black Mesa East. Alyx is there. And Judith is there. And Eli is there. And they're all talking to Gordon about how frightening his journey must have been, and what transpired after the events of the resonance cascade. He just stands there, staring – there is nothing else he can do.
I suppose we should respond to these situations in our heads. “Gordon Freeman!” says Eli. “Let me see you, man.” We don’t, therefore, because we don’t know who Eli is or how Gordon knows him – and we can’t just improvise the appropriate dialogue and say it in our heads whenever Half-Life 2.
So, you get these bizarre silences; a character who appears to be unnatural and inhuman; and a group of supporting characters who inexplicably flatter Gordon, ignoring the fact that he won't even speak to them.
If Gordon's silence and the rest of the cast's unwillingness to see and talk to him would be acceptable — and it would be within the agreed limits of suspension of disbelief. But Gordon's silence and the rest of the cast's unreliable desire to see and talk to him compromises the narrative and the fiction of the game.
When Gordon behaves as an inhumane man, it's difficult to make the connection particularly strong; not only do we as players have essentially nothing to connect to or recognise his personality, but we continually see him refusing to speak to anyone, staring at everything blankly, and acting like a bizarre, rude, distant robot.
Without any sense of belonging or personality, it's difficult to care what happens to them. In gameplay terms, Gordon is unlikely to die, or you'd better succeed in this physics-based platforming section, or Gordon will. And yet, his silence and his emptiness allow us to project onto him, too.
Gordon Freeman's survival in Half-Life 2, as well as his quest, become metaphors for humanity's war against the Combine. He's a flag. He's a statue. He's an icon. To this extent, the character works. The level 'Follow Freeman,' in which you automatically recruit freedom fighters wherever you go, illustrates how each member of the Resistance views and projects their individual goals.
When they see Gordon Freeman, without any ideas or words of his own, they can see themselves. Again, when these people try and talk to him, he says nothing. He is the leader of humanity, but by definition, has no charisma, no vision, and, most importantly, no humanity. In the later levels, under Gordon Freeman's command, we see them die in the streets.
Gordon has nothing to say – not a syllable – about any of it. Half your team in the later levels might be blown up by a Combine grenade, and as the other half stands there looking at you, the only thing you can do as Gordon looks back, says not a word, and move on like nothing happened.
Gordon Freeman, who has been silent in his quest to lead by action, can only lead by one thing: shoot and kill the Combine. It is a matter of absurdity, again, when all around Gordon Freeman there is spectacular, human drama. He only stares blankly.
Half-Life 1 has better writing than Half-Life 2, because it has less writing. The narrative is simpler. There are fewer characters who talk to Gordon Freeman (and, by association, fewer characters at whom Gordon oddly stares). And there is no emotional burden for Gordon, as a character, to bear or recognise.
In Half-Life 2, we see Alyx become angry or sad, where Barney is making jokes, and where Eli is being warm and welcoming — all these little, emotional moments, framed by a larger narrative whereby Gordon is the hope for all humanity. In Half-Life 1, however, he is on his own with the sole purpose of escaping Black Mesa.
Gordon is confronted with interpersonal, dramatic, and human difficulties in Half-Life 2, but his character hasn't changed. He is a socket wrench and a pistol that the rest of the cast use to express their feelings.
Half-Life 2's narrative and storytelling, like Gordon, work best when they aren't wordless. The solution, perhaps, is to design the Half-Life games (if Valve ever makes another) around Gordon Freeman being by himself. Either that, or just let him talk.
If you like the classic Half-Life series, you may want to look into some other great old games. Or, you may want to know what happened to Half-Life 3, or perhaps look into some other compelling story games available on PC.