In the case of Gordon Freeman, character design was a matter of interface design. We wanted a minimal amount of interference between the player and the game: no branching conversation trees, no complicated superhuman abilities, and a strong connection between Gordon Freeman as the game world sees him and the Gordon Freeman envisioned by the player. We wanted to make sure that Gordon was a product of his environment and also had an interesting role there that tied into the game play in some way. Often his position is exploited for comic or ironic possibilities. Gordon is supposed to be a bright young physicist, and the characters assume he is well trained for his tasks; yet the player really doesn’t have a clue what to do, and the things they actually spend time doing often amount to menial tasks. When the player solves puzzles, or finds nonlinear ways of progressing, we can play up the idea that they are somehow inhabiting a brilliant scientist. But the most important thing was to give the player a feeling of being constantly off balance, never quite sure of what was expected of them, to give them the task of continually finding this out for themselves. The world, and all the encounters, were crafted to support this experience. It was a delicate balance, as became clear in the part of Half-Life 1 where it failed. When Gordon goes off to the border world, Xen, he is cut off from human contact and the many little props that helped give him a sense of context. While it was our intention to create an eerie sense of isolation and reinforce the feeling that you had gone beyond the point where anyone could help you, many players faltered at this point. It was no longer obvious that you had to be Gordon Freeman; there was no continual feedback from the world.
I think this shift in perspective had much to do with the dissatisfaction that many people felt with the latter part of that game. It also changed the sense of being Gordon as the louder complaint-the fact that it turned into a series of difficult jumping puzzles for which the player had been inadequately trained. We should have left Gordon in constant contact with his scientist allies. This lesson was applied to the Xen sequences of Blue Shift and worked much better in my opinion.
Finally, games tend to distinguish themselves first with their visual style, then with their game-play mechanics, and last with their narrative. Visual style may pull people in, but if the game play is no fun, then the pretty faces won’t matter very much. If the game play is exciting and fun, then players won’t object too much to a weak story. Ideally, all the elements are equally strong, but this is rare. A good game character is one who enables and supports great game play. This is far more important than a strong marketing image. Character is also something that reveals itself only gradually to a player. It is very hard to convey (on a box or a list of features) what that particular character brings to the game that makes the game remarkable.