How did it ever become a conversation? And why, after such a long time, does it persist? You can't have a story – a nine hour story – fronted by a character who doesn't ever speak. That's basic. That's the first rule. I can definitely imagine the meeting where someone boasted it would allow videogame players to more easily identify with their avatar. But I can't imagine why nobody in the same meeting stood up and said “No. That's stupid. That's anti-narrative.”
Writers, players and developers alike wax lyrical about Half-Life and Half-Life 2's abilities to weave a convincing story. But in every single dialogue scene, people are talking straight into Gordon Freeman's face about how the world is going to end or the resistance is under threat, or how their father has been murdered just now, right in front of their eyes, and Gordon is staring straight back at them. Completely mute. Totally emotionless. With dead, unmoving eyes. In every. Single. Dialogue scene. I don't think it's contrarian or facetious to say that when one character is crying over the corpse of her father and the other, ostensibly her best friend and possible love interest, is standing ramrod still next to her not saying a single word – and he hasn't said a single word, ever – I find it hard to be convinced by the power of Half-Life's story.
Gordon Freeman has the opposite effect on me: his silence rips me right out of every moment in Half-Life. He is not a conduit – he is abjectly disconnected from his own world. The fact that he consistently tops polls about the best videogame characters ever is indicative of just how lame characters are in videogames, in what dire straits videogame writing generally is in and how videogame players would rather games stroke their egos and tell them it's all about what THEY feel and what THEY want, than be told challenging stories with credible characters. In short: Gordon Freeman is the pits.
As for the original Half-Life, its various sights and sounds are instantly evocative. The blood splashes and “gibbing” animations which emanate from dead bodies, should you repeatedly bash them with the crowbar. The suckling sound of the Barnacle. The automated announcements over Black Mesa's PA system. Even that discouraging bloop sound when you press Use in front of something which cannot be used. I have spent hours not just playing Half-Life, but watching it being played, gazing at its screenshots, listening to its sound effects. And I'm not alone. This is a YouTube channel devoted to Half-Life minutiae. Without comment or analysis, the videos merely observe small happenings and behaviour amongst Black Mesa and its inhabitants. I've said this before about Goldeneye on the N64: I don't know what it is, but the sound, colour and assets palette of Half-Life, for some reason, appeals to my senses. My ears and ears just like it.
And it's a fine shooter. Instead of constantly blasting enemies, Half-Life makes fun out of crawling in vents and treading carefully over ledges and ladders – at its best, it feels like the earlier scenes in Die Hard, as you tangentially move around Black Mesa trying to avoid both enemies and the dangerous, destroyed environment. But the narrative keeps moving further and further away. To begin with, it's simple: get out of Black Mesa. And then the soldiers turn up. And then you've to get to the Lambda Complex. And then you're on Xen. A simple, solid set-up quickly devolves into gaseous, save-the-world nonsense. Half-Life 2: Episode Two is Valve's strongest piece of writing. It's because, overarching plot wise, all the player has to do is get from A to B. Everything else is stitched in along the way.
All this to say, instead of smart or graceful, Half-Life is often pretentious. The second one especially hates itself for being a shooter and does everything it can to avoid what it perceives as base clichés. DOOM is better.