Gordon Freeman is anything but your traditional run of the mill first person shooter hero. In a genre that for many is long since saturated and defined by tough guys with gruff voices and cliché objectives, Gordon Freeman, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics with a neat goatee and thick spectacles lining his geeky facial profile, has somehow established himself as one of the most beloved and iconic gaming characters of the last two decades.
In truth, Gordon Freeman is an enigma, an unlikely mysterious hero who exhibits very little personality on the surface. He never ushers a single word. Dr. Gordon Freeman it seems, just likes to let his crowbar do all the talking.
As part of our on-going Voice Actor Week, TGL had the distinguished honour of speaking with Ex-Valve and Half Life composer and audio designer Kelly Bailey. Kelly is responsible for the many sound effects, musical compositions and audio stylings of every Half-Life game to date and TGL spoke to Kelly about Gordon’s synonymous silence and the decision to keep Dr. Freeman mute.
We asked Kelly about his career, his many joyful years at the helm of sound design at Valve and how the team’s decision to keep Gordon silent was a subtle decision of player immersion that has succeeded in every possible way.
Here we go…..
TGL: Hi Kelly. You’re very welcome to TheGamingLiberty. How are you doing today? Thanks for taking the time to speak with us…..
Kelly Bailey: Hi TGL, I’m doing great thanks!
TGL: Obviously you’re best known for your work as a composer, sound designer and programmer with Valve, but can you tell us a little about the role that music played in your life growing up? Who were the big influences for you as you were crafting your understanding of musical technique and method?
KB: I’ve always been a fan of much of the earliest electronic music. I’d say obviously from that era Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Synergy, Isao Tomita and Vangelis all influenced me. When I was growing up in New Zealand, I remember seeing a BBC clip of Emerson Lake and Palmer performing “Fanfare for the Common Man”. I just thought that huge analog synth looming over Emerson looked and sounded so cool – I was hooked. I still find something totally unique about the sonic textures many of the early synth pioneers were able to create. At a time when a polyphonic synth setup could cost as much as several houses, I think it influenced the amount of time and thought invested in crafting unique sounds.
TGL: Was an eventual career and a profession in music and composition always what you envisaged for yourself? And how did this lead you to videogames and a job working with Valve and the first Half Life game?
KB: It was completely unplanned! I’d known Mike Harrington, the co-founder of Valve, since high school. We’d enjoyed working together before, and that led me to Valve. The Half-Life 1 sound track was my first professional work and came about because we simply reached a point in building the game where we needed in-game music. I happened to have a home studio set up at the time that I used for work I was doing with bands. So I went home and created some tracks to see how they’d feel in-game. People seemed to like them, so I kept making more! At the time we were all insanely busy, writing code, designing game play and building levels. So that initial HL1 sound track was something I had to put together fairly quickly as a side project.
TGL: What was your exact role at Valve and what were your responsibilities? You’ve worked on every Half Life game to date and the first Portal….
KB: At Valve there aren’t really specific titles and roles – you’re encouraged to use whatever applicable skills you have to build games. Before I joined Valve, I had a professional background in software development, as well as some personal experience in art, music, and pen-and-paper RPG game design. Sadly, Valve pretty much absorbed all of my hobbies! I wrote chunks of the sound engine, created the sound effects and music for the Half-Life series, as well as some of the music and sound on Portal 1. I also worked on game and level design, and did a lot of drawing to help visualize and map out game play. It was great fun!
TGL: Did you have any idea at that time just how huge Half Life would become?
KB: Many of us had shipped software before, but never a game. We just had no idea.
TGL: How would you describe the music and sounds you created for the Half Life series?
KB: I really just tried to create the music and sounds to fit with the mood of the series as I saw it. Much of Half life is set in a dark and technically oppressive setting, so I wanted to reinforce that somehow. There are moments of action and fear, moments of stillness and mystery, and moments of loss and sadness. So I just tried hard to stay within that scope, and throw out anything that didn’t fit.
TGL: As part of our on-going voice actor week, we’d like to ask you about the use of character voices in the Half Life games. Obviously protagonist Gordon Freeman is a mute character and has never been voiced in any of the Half Life games. But why was the decision made to keep Gordon mute? Did you ever at anytime consider giving Gordon a voice?
KB: We decided very early that we wanted players to feel immersed in the role of Gordon Freeman. We felt that having Gordon make in-game comments would jar players out of that ‘first person’ experience. For instance, near the beginning of HL1 there’s a “disaster sequence” wherein the player must perform a task in a huge test chamber. Everyone is watching and relying on the player. Inevitably, this task goes wrong and ends up destroying the facility, injuring Gordon’s co-workers, and opening the world to invasion. When we were designing that sequence, we wanted players to feel a bit of guilt – to think ‘uh-oh, I REALLY did something wrong here’. During the disaster, to further play up the shock and disorientation, we’d suddenly and periodically cut to a silent and black ‘shock’ room where all you hear is your own breathing. If we’d had Gordon commenting and exclaiming throughout that sequence, I think it would have lessened the personal impact on players.
TGL: Why is Gordon’s silence and muteness complimentary to his character? Would the addition of a voice invalidate the character that Valve has created with Gordon?
KB: Our intent was that Gordon’s voice is your own voice – it’s whatever you hear in your own head as you play. A silent character certainly makes life easier as a sound designer, but as a game designer, Gordon’s silence creates continual challenges. Every encounter with another speaking character within the game has to be carefully designed, and of course you can never just have the main character offer hints or explanation. Instead, you have to build all of that information into the level or into the dialog of other characters. As we shipped more games in the HL series, we actually started to have other speaking characters comment on Gordon’s infamous silence. Alyx makes a “man of few words” quip now and then, for instance. Who knows though, 14 years is a long time to remain silent – maybe someday Valve will let Gordon speak!
TGL: Of course, the Half Life games do contain a number of strong voice performances in characters other than Gordon for example Merle Dandridge (Alyx), Robert Guillaume (Eli Vance) or G-Man (Michael Shapiro). As the sound designer, just how much of a say did you have in the creation of these voices and how they ultimately would be performed by their respective voice over actor?
KB: There were quite a few people at Valve involved in auditioning, writing and directing the voice performances. I helped out on most of the HL1 sessions, fewer sessions for later games.
TGL: Valve actually used your physical likeness for Gordon, correct?
KB: One of our artists used a 4-way morph to create Gordon, and for whatever strange reason, selected a photo of me as one of the morph sources.
TGL: So you actually left Valve last year and have enjoyed some considerable early successes with your new venture Sunspark Labs. Tell us a little bit about Sunspark and your motivation to start the company. It couldn’t have been easy for you to leave Valve…..
KB: After well over a decade of great times at Valve, I set out on my own last year and created a new company called Sunspark Labs. I didn’t start with a specific goal, I just knew I wanted to “make something fun and completely different”. I eventually partnered with Mike Dussault (another ex-Valver) and we began experimenting with new ideas in mobile app design. It was certainly hard to leave Valve, but it’s also been exciting to create new products in a totally new arena. Being able to go from concept to completion in just a few months is great fun – very rewarding.
TGL: Morfo 3D Face Booth is the first Sunspark creation to hit the mobile app market. It’s enjoying some fantastic critical success and bumper sales since its launch last month. In fact, Morfo is (as we speak) the No.1 Entertainment App here in Ireland. How does it work? Is it unlike anything else out there on the market?
KB: So, Morfo is our iPhone/iPad app that creates a talking 3D face from a 2D photo. You can use your phone to take a picture of someone sitting across the table, for instance, or use a library photo of a friend, pet, celebrity or whatever. Once you give us a bit of information on where the eyes, nose, mouth etc are, we do a bunch of techie stuff to automatically create the 3D face for you. At which point you can make it say or do pretty much whatever you want, wear wigs and makeup, dance etc. Often, to the delight or horror of your subject. To make matters worse, you can also send a video off to your friends, or post it on Facebook. People seem to get a pretty good jolt out of seeing their own face in 3D, talking and looking around on an iPhone, so it’s been a really fun app to demo. We’ve been completely amazed with how well received Morfo has been world-wide: in our first 10 weeks, Morfo hit over 1 million downloads, and we’ve reached the #1 entertainment app spot in several countries including in Ireland, Italy, France, UK and Spain.
TGL: Have you by any chance actually tried to make a talking Gordon Freeman using Morfo just yet? Seems like one of the first things i’d do….
KB: Hah! I think I mapped just about every Half-Life character at some point while testing Morfo for shipping. I’ve got a book with photos of all the characters, so I just used Morfo to snap pictures and map ‘em. Somehow, Morfo takes the G-Man to new levels of creepiness.
TGL: Now that you’re devoting all you efforts to Sunspark, do you think you’ll ever work on a high profile videogame project again like Half Life?
KB: I hope so! I’m obviously thinking a lot about mobile these days. The present economics of mobile apps discourages large, up-front investments in big teams and long ship cycles that are currently common for triple-A titles. So now more than ever, small, focused teams with multi-talented members have a great opportunity to create relatively deep titles, and ship them to a world-wide audience. The entry price of game engines has dropped dramatically, and many now support simultaneous deployment to PC, iOS, Android and Xbox. All the tools are there, including the publishing mechanism. The content production path is also becoming far less expensive, with texture, model and animation libraries and services appearing all over the web. With in-app purchasing becoming standard on mobile, an episodic delivery model could allow a smaller team to build a very large game in increments. Anyway, we’ll see – I’m optimistic.
TGL: What’s next for Sunspark? It’s safe to assume that you’re already thinking about expanding on Morfo’s early success and potentially thinking about your next original creation.
KB: Near term, we’ve got another app coming out that’s based on a similar technology used in a really different way, so we’re working hard right now to finish that up. It’s testing really well, we’re getting lots of great laughs out of this one, can’t wait for people to try it out. Beyond that, it seems we’ve got more ideas that time.
TGL: And finally, I have to ask, do you think the time is right for Half Life and Gordon Freeman to finally make the return that millions of gamers everywhere crave so much for? I could just ask you “Where the hell is Episode 3?” but that wouldn’t exactly be subtle now would it?
KB: All I can say is that I’m pretty sure Valve hasn’t forgotten about Gordon. As a fan, I personally can’t wait to find out what he’s been up to.