Just Who the Hell Do You Think You Are, Free Man?

So at the very end of my last Half-Life 2 episode, I stopped and strained to hear a fairly short but important Breencast. I’ve taken the liberty of looking up the full text (since I had some trouble hearing it in game) and present it to you in full now:

I’d like to take a moment to address you directly, Dr. Freeman.

Yes. I’m talking to you, the so-called One Free Man. I have a question for you. How could you have thrown it all away? It staggers the mind. A man of science, with the ability to sway reactionary and fearful minds toward the truth, choosing instead to embark on a path of ignorance and decay. Make no mistake, Dr. Freeman. This is not a scientific revolution you have sparked…this is death and finality.

You have plunged humanity into freefall. Even if you offered your surrender now, I cannot guarantee that Our Benefactors would accept it. At the moment, I fear they have begun to look upon even me with suspicion. So much for serving as humanity’s representative.

Help me win back their trust, Dr. Freeman. Surrender while you still can. Help ensure that humanity’s trust in you is not misguided.

Do what is right, Dr. Freeman. Serve mankind.

Let’s, for the sake of this sure to be long winded philosophical exercise,  take most everything in game at face value. Let’s assume that Breen is being entirely forthright here, and honestly believes what he’s saying (which may or may not actually be the case; no real way to know that yet.) Further, let’s assume that Gordon is fighting purely because he believes that what he is doing is right, and that he isn’t being manipulated by some shady, possibly omniscient, time/dimension hopping alien thing  in a suit (we know that he is. That his morals cause him to do what G-Man wants is irrelevant.)

Assuming ALL of that…is Gordon Freeman (and the resistance) doing the right thing?

I mean honestly. We traditionally look at freedom fighters like Gordon and his crew as heroes, and we have plenty of examples of those sorts of heroes in real life, too (the French resistance that worked against the Nazis, for example.) But what if Breen is being sincere–and what if he’s RIGHT? What if the only hope for humanity IS to submit to the Combine, and to survive and adapt as best they can? What if the choice is between that, and extermination of everyone on the planet?

Well. If that’s the case–and for the sake of this thought exercise it is–then one man, one SINGLE person, has made that decision for the entire species. He’s chosen to fight, and risk utter extinction and annihilation, rather than attempting to work with, or even really understand, Breen’s position. Think about it: Gordon is in stasis for who knows how long, wakes up in some strange future dystopia, is told he’s part of the resistance, is handed a gun (and more than a little bit of hero worship), pointed at the Citadel, and pretty much told “go get ’em tiger.” And he does, without question, without pause, without even understanding the implications of his actions (as far as we know–certainly the player doesn’t know) until things have moved too far forward to back out of, and the uprising has begun.

What gives Gordon the right to decide that humanity should fight, quite possibly to the death, instead of trying to survive under the Combine’s yolk? I suppose it’s possible there are some things about Gordon we don’t know; perhaps something about surviving Xen, or about being the One Free Man (still not entirely sure what that means) gives him the right.

Now, it is true that people are falling all over themselves to follow Gordon, and treat him like some sort of messiah almost. But who are the people we see do this? ALL of them, or a person, are either from Black Mesa, or are part of the resistance (that, it seems to be implied, was started and is run by people from Black Mesa). No ‘regular’ folks (and you meet plenty) recognize or care about Freeman at all.

So prophetic hero-ing aside, what does this one person (or small group of people, I suppose, if you count the resistance) get to determine humanity’s fate? Isn’t it possible, even probable, that given the choice, the majority of people would choose a chance at life, no matter how awful that life might be? Dipping back into World War II history again, that was certainly the case for the majority of the Holocaust victims, was it not? No matter how horrifying and unfathomable their life became, they continued to wake up, to get out of their beds and do what they were forced to do because, for the majority of us I think, the chance at life outweighs anything else. That is not at all to say there aren’t some things I’d much rather die than have to live through…but I can almost certainly say that living in City 17 is not one of them.

I’m not saying that Gordon is necessarily wrong, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t fight with him were I in that position (that would depend on a lot of things, I think.) I’m just saying that, for all of the bravado and art and poetry we humansput out into the world regarding ‘good’ deaths, and noble sacrifices, and how it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees…most of us would rather live than fight a battle we know we can’t win, to prove a point to a enemy that doesn’t care. And that Gordon made that choice for humanity by ignoring Breen and never questioning the need to fight.

In fact…what if that’s the whole reason G-man picked Gordon in the first place? No, really; go with me on this (bearing in mind that I haven’t finished the game yet, and that the ending could blow this entire theory to absolute smithereens). I think we can all agree that G-man doesn’t work for or with the Combine; that much seems (fairly) apparent. But he’s definitely given us NO indication that he’s on humanity’s side, either. At the end of the first game, he talks about Xen being ‘in our control’ thanks to Gordon…what if that’s what he’s using Gordon for again? To claim a world that his employer’s couldn’t otherwise get for themselves? By waking him in the middle of a dystopia and pointing him at the bad guys, knowing he’ll charge in and provoke the Combine to war? Perhaps G-man is hoping that both sides will destroy each other, or at least weaken them enough that his employers can come in and mop up, claiming the world for themselves.

Though, having just re-watched the ending of Half-Life again to get that quote right, his line about Gordon’s weapons being government property is extraordinarily weird…

You don’t think…?

Nah.

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7 responses to “Just Who the Hell Do You Think You Are, Free Man?

  1. I’m always impressed with how much thought you put into analyzing the Half-Life and Portal games, Hawk. I think you briefly brought up this issue in a previous post, but this was much more comprehensive. It’s certainly one hell of a philosophical and moral conundrum, and I’ve always loved those. Apologies if I end up writing a small essay, I’ve barely had any work come in today and I really do love overthinking these sorts of questions.

    I agree that Freeman and Friends (wouldn’t that be a great sitcom?) have basically made the decision to openly fight the Combine without necessarily considering all the consequences, and that the Combine could easily decide that humanity is too much trouble to keep around as a result of their actions.

    However, I disagree with you about how Gordon and the Resistance are the only ones determining humanity’s fate. If the Combine decides to utterly wipe out humanity in response to the uprising in City 17, then I think the responsibility for that action would lie primarily with the Combine. They could simply content themselves with killing active resistance members in the area, or even wiping City 17 off the map as some kind of “failed city”. If the Combine does decide to embark on a species-wide genocide because of a city- or even region-wide revolt, then to me it sounds like they didn’t need a reason, just an excuse.

    You brought up the Holocaust at one point, and you’re right about how many of its victims didn’t resist in the hopes of their situation improving, but I think the situation for those in City 17 is closer to what happened right before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Those people discovered that “deportation” actually meant extermination at a death camp, and many chose to die fighting in the streets rather than waiting to be shipped off to die anyway. Given how bad things looked at the start of the game, even before Gordon sparked a city-wide manhunt and later all-out revolt, I get the impression that many of City 17’s residents felt much the same as the Jews of 1943 Warsaw. In a situation where death or perhaps something worse than death is likely to find you regardless of what you do and how little you resist, fighting back, even against an overwhelming force, seems like as good an option as any. At least choosing to fight back gives someone a small measure of control in an otherwise overwhelming situation.

    It’s also worth considering what other options Gordon really had when he arrived in City 17. If he’d simply surrendered to the Combine at the start of the game, he’d likely have been either executed or turned into one more brainwashed/lobotomized Combine soldier. I somehow doubt they’d keep him around as some kind of spokesman like Breen. The Combine gave him no opportunity to talk (assuming Gordon wasn’t a mute FPS protagonist, that is) or even peacefully surrender, but just started trying to beat down/kill him the moment they realized he didn’t belong there. If Gordon and his followers bear some responsibility for possibly provoking the Combine into wiping out humanity, than the Combine has to bear an equal amount for forcing Gordon and his friends down the path of violent resistance against their regime. It works both ways.

    Ultimately, I think Gordon and those who follow his example are justified in fighting back against an oppressive regime that invaded by force and regularly employs terror tactics against innocent people. It would be nice if there was a chance for peaceful negotiations, perhaps some sort of compromise, but I just can’t see any other options for humanity in this scenario other than outright violent resistance. I agree that simple survival can sometimes trump any high-minded ideals or romantic heroic notions, but by the time the Combine was through with us, while there might still be some form of homo sapiens, I very much doubt there’d be anything you could call humanity. I think there are some levels of survival that we should not be prepared to accept. Besides, humanity will go extinct sooner or later no matter what we do, and I’d prefer us not to go out as some sort of slave race for an alien empire.

    In all of this, the motives of the G-man remain as opaque as ever. Like you say, it’s highly unlikely he’s any sort of ally to the Combine, but that certainly doesn’t automatically make him an ally of humanity. Given his observed capabilities, it seems like he could have saved a lot of human lives and hindered the Combine far more than he has, but we just don’t know what sort of rules the G-man is playing by.

    An interesting idea that just occurred to me is that the G-man seems to be limited to only influencing Gordon and a handful of people and things that directly affect Gordon’s path through the world. It reminds me of the stories in which a god chooses a champion or avatar to represent them on Earth, sometimes nudging things in their favor, but otherwise letting them conquer challenges on their own. One has to wonder if the Combine has its own G-man analogue, nudging them one way or the other…

    At this point I think the biggest possible twist would be that the G-man is just an ordinary bureaucrat with a portal device in his briefcase, and his only motivation for trying to topple the Combine is because they didn’t fill out the right form before they invaded Earth. Maybe he works for the IRS, I can’t imagine an alien invasion would slow most of those guys down much. Though most of them would probably just join the Combine, rather than oppose them.

    • Wow. What a fantastic comment. It deserves a much more through answer than I can give right this moment, but I read the whole thing and love it! I’ll give a proper answer later.

  2. An interesting question. But I’d argue that Gordon hasn’t chosen on behalf on humanity and if these benefactors would condemn all of humanity for the actions of a subset, well, then it was always just a question of time before someone stepped over the line and brought down their wrath.

    • It’s not so much that they would condemn humanity because of the rebels, but that the rebels forced the Combine hand and started a war that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

      • I’d argue that the Combine forced the Resistance’s hand as well. Gordon’s actions at Nova Prospekt might have triggered the uprising, but given how numerous, coordinated and well-armed the rebel fighters seem to be only a week later, I don’t think this was a purely spontaneous revolt. It was something that had been building for a long time, out of large-scale resentment and desperation, and I think Gordon was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe the uprising would have happened even if Gordon hadn’t showed up, but his presence at this time and in this place is giving the Resistance their only chance to score some meaningful victories against the Combine?

  3. Considering the Suppresion Field, I don’t think there was much of a choice. The Combine gives zero shits about humanity. They’ve invaded and conquered entire universes according to Laidlaw, and Earth is a tiny notch on their belt.

  4. Pingback: Half-Life 2: A Concerned Retrospective (Part 1) | The Hawk Nest

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