Alyx Vance Is Not A Good Game Character

 

vancefreeman

I finally played Half Life 2 – It was like going to a carnival.

Plenty of awesome rides with long waits between them. And then there is Alyx Vance. I had heard so much about this character, about how she raised the bar for female characters in games by defying tropes and stereotypes and about how her depth and complexity made her one of the best characters in videogames. Eh, really?

Alyx Vance breaks female stereotypes in gaming, they say. She doesn’t have big boobs and lordosis. She doesn’t need to be rescued,  she isn’t whiny, and she isn’t background decoration. Females are often used in games, much like in advertising and other media, to appeal to males, usually via their libido or the masculine need to protect helpless people (girls mostly).  Despite not being any of that, Alyx is still used as a reward mechanism within the game, much like cut scenes were the thing in the 90s and early 2000s.. We are only allowed to interact with Alyx after completing certain parts of the game, where we will get a few lines of flirtatious dialogue, a job well done, and a smile. Then she disappears and we have to do more shit before we are rewarded with her presence again. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was an interesting character, but there is no real depth here as her lines are mostly supportive and cliché. She is Gordon’s constant cheerleader, designed to make him feel good about whacking crates and headcrabs with a crowbar.

While Alyx isn’t presented as a sexual object or a damsel in distress, her interactions and character are designed to strictly appeal to certain teenage boys. I feel this since I used to be one. She is Gordon’s romantic interest, inserted just as clumsily as these things are in Hollywood films. Even though Gordon has literally never uttered a single word or even grunted at her, or anyone for that matter, she develops a crush on him almost immediately. The bizarreness of having a completely silent protagonist in a world where everyone feels the need to address you directly is amplified in Alyx Vance,  a fully capable woman who likes Gordon for no reason at all. There is no basis for her feelings because the systems necessary for that to build upon are not part of the game. It is unconditional from the get go, and this is what I wanted as a nerdy and shy teenager. Wailing “I just want a girl  to like me.” into my pillow is a memory i will never forget, but wish I could. For that lonely teenager that I was, Alyx is the best kind of fan service. But I am not that person anymore so it all comes off as a bit creepy. Her persistent (and persistently unreciprocated) flirting saddened me, and then it annoyed me. “Alyx, stop it! Gordon is never going to return your affection. He hasn’t been programmed for interaction.”  Like sitting in my high-school cafeteria, consoling one of my girlfriends after the person of her affection had been ignoring her romantic advances for weeks. Alyx’s enduring persistence is praiseworthy, perhaps, but I would not recommend anyone to emulate it much less see her as a role-model. Gordon, on the other hand, finds enough joy in smashing everything with a crowbar and doesn’t care what she thinks.

Besides appealing to heartstrings, is there a reason for Alyx?

Half Life 2 was a way for Valve to show off its new Source engine, which is evident in the game’s padding. The game is comprised of loosely connected chapters, often with their own isolated gimmick. Ravenholm – gravity gun, Havoc physics, and lighting. Highway 17 – vehicles and drawn distance. Sandtraps – antlion environmental effects and a fun new weapon (only used in that chapter.) Honestly, the game can be seen as one long-ass tech demo.

One other part of technology they worked hard on for the Source engine was facial animation. (Even to date, Half Life 2 / Source engine is considered by many to have the best facial animations.) Since most of the humans in the game are either shooting, getting shot at, scared, or just exuberantly happy to see Gordon (also weird), the variety of facial expressions that can plausibly be in the game are limited. By including Alyx, the types of facial expressions Valve could include increase greatly. The first time we see Alyx in the game, her face covers most of the screen as she goes through a variety of facial expressions. Valve literally gets in our face with their tech. I admit, it looks impressive.

For a game, Half Life 2 was fun in parts and tedious in others, it kind of overstayed its welcome for me.  As for Alyx, I don’t see her as one of the best female videogame characters, and barely a character at all. Maybe it gets better in Episodes 1 and 2, but I don’t think I will ever get around to playing them and I can’t imagine them changing my opinion.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing is, that as players, the only way we can do to acknowledge Alyx’s romantic advances, is to point a gun at her.  

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