Wednesday, May 30, 2012

#23: Why is Alyx Vance Such a Beloved Female Character?

I, very recently, had the pleasure of playing Half-Life 2 and its two episodes (which I will be collectively referring to as “the game”, despite being three different games) for the very first time. While I have a favorable opinion of the game, that is not the subject of this week's article. Instead, I will be talking about one of the most well-loved characters of Half-Life 2: Alyx Vance. Critics and fans praise Alyx for being one of the best female characters in gaming. While being a contender for that title is not very impressive, given the history of females in games, Valve did well when writing her. Many people have tried to analyze her to figure out why she works as a character. This week, I will throw my own hat into the ring and attempt to discern why she is lauded as highly as she is. Like many things in this world, I assert that are several reasons behind this.

The biggest reason that Alyx is praised so highly is that she is not just a good female character, but she is a well-written character independent of her gender. Many other female characters in games are very poorly written and/or clearly meant to cater to the lowest possible demographic. One of the more common mistakes made by game writers is that when they try to create a “strong independent woman,” they usually end up going the wrong way about it and write a cold-hearted, frigid bitch instead. Another mistake when writing a “strong, independent woman” is to make another muscle-bound meat-head who also happens to be a girl. These are both huge mistakes to make when writing any character, let alone a female character. If we were to give either of these sets of traits to a male, that character would easily become an incredibly annoying and irritating character. Why would this not be true for a female as well? My metric for making a good female character is as follows: The role could conceivably be filled by a male character without being annoying. However, the fact that the character is a woman informs the character and makes them that much better.

This is the reason why Alyx is a good female character. Almost everything about her character could be conceivably given to a man. Throughout the game, Alyx is the character who backs up the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, more often than any other. She uses her technical expertise to hack through enemy systems, open up doors, etc. But this is not her only trait. Alyx is shown to be a fairly capable combatant as well. She saved Gordon's life on several occasions throughout Half-Life 2 and the episodes. This does not mean that she is a battle-hardened soldier. Far from it. Alyx demonstrates a good sense of humor and does her best to lighten the mood whenever she can. She also demonstrates a very fragile side to her personality during certain moments of the game. While a man could easily fulfill this archetype, the fact that Alyx is a girl makes her much more fitting for this role. Since she is a girl, it allows for a much more playful banter between her and Freeman (well, I guess with her at Freeman, since Freeman is a silent protagonist). It also adds to her relationship with her father, Eli. Eli is allowed to be much more nurturing and protective of Alyx since she is a girl (Because of stereotypical gender roles/attributes. You can argue about whether or not they are right, but they still are a part of society.), adding to his character and giving him a degree of depth and making their relationship much more poignant.

Another reason people like Alyx is that she the most proactive character in the game, even more-so than Gordon Freeman. Do not be mistaken: While the player, as Freeman, plays a significant role in the war against the Combine, which is central to the game's plot, Alyx is much more of a guiding force than he is. She is less of a companion to Gordon Freeman and more of a co-protagonist. She is usually the one plotting the course for the two of them and figuring out what needs to get done. This is particularly noticeable during the episodes. Even in the main game, where she is not always with Gordon, she is either directing Freeman or helping him with his current objective. That is another thing with Alyx, she is almost always doing something in order to either progress the plot or to make Gordon's (and by extension, the player's) life easier. During one huge battle against a gunship in Episode 2, Alyx is not able to fight with Gordon. To compensate, she looks around the base for items as the battle goes on. She happens to stumble upon a stash of med-kits that she will drop down to Gordon should the player get close enough. There are also moments throughout the episodes where she also will man sniper rifles to give the player cover fire to complete objectives. This extends to non-combat scenes. When Gordon is not fighting and the game is in the middle of having conversation or giving some kind of exposition, Alyx will either be a part of the exposition, telling the player about past events, the next objective, or why they would want to do something, or she will be busy preparing for the next section or set-piece. Unlike many other partners and companions in video games, it would be entirely possible (though I would not recommend it) to make an entirely new video game just by telling the story from Alyx's perspective. She is that busy and that vital to the plot, which is another reason people like her so much.

The last reason people like Alyx so much is that she is one of the most competent friendly AIs in video games when she fights with Freeman in the episodes. Valve spent tons of time tuning her AI to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague friendly AIs. In one level of Episode 1 where the player is thrust into a dark area filled with zombies. Unlike other AIs that would just shoot at the enemies regardless of how well they should be able to see them, Alyx was programmed to be more like a human being. She only fires at the zombies when the player shines Gordon's flashlight onto them. This means that the player is able to aim Alyx's shots as well as his/her own. Other tweaks to her programming include keeping her combat taunts to an absolute minimum so that she still feels like a human being and making sure to move out of Gordon's line-of-fire during a fight so that the player is able to aim at his/her target. This is not the most important point, but it definitely helped to keep Alyx's positive reputation amongst the gaming audience.

I have to applaud Valve for what they did with the Alyx Vance character. They could have easily made her another stupid, big-boobed female stereotype to pander to the male demographic. Instead, they spent the time and the effort to make a truly memorable character that players would grow to care for. It speaks to the dedication the people at Valve have to their craft. Game designers and publishers should look to Valve when trying to figure out how to do well in the industry while crafting excellent games.


Phantos said...

"My metric for making a good female character is as follows: The role could conceivably be filled by a male character without being annoying."

What if the character is a biological mother?

newdarkcloud said...

There has to be more to character than just being a mother. That's more of the second part where being a woman informs the character and makes them better. Being a mother speaks to maternal instincts, and that can used to better a role.

If the whole point of them being in the story is just being a mother, than they were never going to rise beyond a bit role anyway. It's a valid question, though.

Phantos said...

But what if being a motherly type is just one of the defining aspects of that character? An important part, but not the end-all?

Could a man play that part, without unintentionally transforming it into a fatherly-role? And avoid that being really annoying?

newdarkcloud said...

I would say that it's possible. It happens all the time, particularly in old western films. So much so that it became cliche. A lone man finds a little kid all on his/her own. The man takes him in and begins to raise him/her as their own child.

I see where you're coming from, but I think that particular example would add to my point. A man could conceivably do alright in that role, but a woman could probably handle that role significantly better.

Anonymous said...

I really liked her.
Oh, what am I saying, I love her.
I remember feeling my heart break when she was impaled by a hunter, and from there on, I hated them with a passion.