So, in a previous article, I briefly mentioned that I think Alyx Vance is a badly written female character, despite usually (although not always) being talked about as a being a well written and strong female character.
So, let’s just dive in.
We’re first introduced to Alyx when she saves Gordon Freeman when he’s unarmed and surrounded. She defeats the Combine police that are beating him up and leads him to safety. So, she’s being introduced as a strong character. She kicks butt and I guess quantity of butt kicked is how we measure strength of character in an action video game. I can go along with that, that’s fine, honest.
There are more moments like this later on (like when Gordon uses his flashlight and Alyx uses her gun) which demonstrate how useful Alyx is to Gordon and how they work as a team. But! These moments really only happen when Gordon is unarmed and vulnerable. Whenever Gordon has weapons, Alyx is really only helpful in terms of unlocking doors with her magic wand, which kind of relegates her to the role of Red Key Card from Doom.
That’s not so bad in and of itself, so let’s continue.
In a previous article, Commenter WorldTurtle suggested that part of why Alyx is seen as a strong female character is that:
“1) She wasn’t dressed slutty. 2) She had speaking lines and 3) the lines she spoke were not overtly slutty.”
This is true. And female characters who aren’t being slutty is a step in the right direction. But, a “step in the right direction” does not equal “arrived at well written character”.
So, let’s dig deeper into our first impression of Alyx, keeping in mind that she’s supposed to be this strong, confident woman who is Gordon’s equal and who has been an active member of a militant resistance movement fighting a pan-dimensional empire.
After Alyx saves us, she gives us some exposition as we take an elevator to the next level, and one of the things she says is,
“I’m Alyx Vance. My father worked with you, back in Black Mesa. I’m sure you don’t remember me though.”
She says it a little nervously, and looks sheepishly at the ground while she pulls a strand of hair behind her ear.
For those not familiar with really basic non verbal communication: this means she has a crush on Gordon and is feeling self-conscious.
And there is the first whopping big clue as to why she’s a badly written female character.
You have to remember that this is the first time Alyx has seen Gordon in about twenty years (the approximate amount of time that has passed between HL and HL2), and since she’s in her twenties during HL2, that means that the last time she saw Gordon was when she was about five years old.
A strong, confident, battle ready woman shouldn’t react this nervously or self-consciously when confronted with her equal (especially after she just saved his weaponless ass). There’s only a few reasons she might react to Gordon in this way and in this situation. (I feel like the logic behind these reasons should be intuitive, but let me know if it’s not.)
1) She had a crush on Gordon when she was five, and she still has that same crush on him now, which means she has not grown or developed emotionally over the last twenty years; Valve’s writers have severely stunted Alyx’s emotional growth.
2) Psychologically, Alyx is trapped as a teenager and still gets boy crazy over the first new boy she sees; Valve’s writers have severely stunted Alyx’s psychological growth.
3) Gordon is a mega-handsome older man with a monster cock, and that happens to be exactly what Alyx has been aching for; Valve’s writers think porn archetypes are suitable substitutes for characters.
4) There are no other men anywhere in the world. Only Gordon. All other male NPCs you see are actually women. This is not actually the fault of Valve’s writers, but of Valve’s 3D artists, animators, and voice actors.
5) There is no narrative reason for Alyx’s immediate girly-girl crush on Gordon; Valve’s writers just wanted Alyx to immediately be Gordon’s love interest no matter what and were too lazy to spend time actually building up to that kind of a relationship.
Yes, some of those points were facetious.
Anyway, Valve’s writers try to set up Alyx as being Gordon’s equal by having her kicking ass and saving his. Then, they contradict this by having Alyx behave like an unconfident little girl in front of him. Alyx’s girl crush reaction to Gordon does not fit with the character of a head strong, independent, and confident adult woman.
Can a confident, adult woman become attracted to a man immediately upon meeting him? Sure. Might she straighten her hair self-consciously? Sure. Might she nervously avoid prolonged eye contact and glance at the floor? Sure. Might she feel self conscious and say, “You probably don’t remember me,”? Sure. BUT ALL THREE AT THE SAME TIME??? That is very much the behavior of young girls and of caricatures in romantic comedies. It is not really the behavior of confident women.
Alyx’s reaction also implies that she hasn’t had much experience with relationships or romance (I hope we all intuitively understand why), which doesn’t fit with her being this hot headed, passionate, head strong woman who’s involved in a militant resistance movement where she must have at some point during her teens and twenties run into and spent time with hot headed, passionate, head strong men. Keep in mind that this meeting would have taken place in a world where there is no danger of getting pregnant (because of aliens).
Am I nitpicking and hyper-focusing on this one moment at the beginning of the game? YES! But that’s because it is a really important moment for a really important character. This is the first time we meet Alyx and the first time we see her interacting with Gordon. This is our first impression of her.
And it’s not like I’m nitpicking the dialogue of some nameless NPC. Alyx Vance is the most important character in Half-life 2’s story next to Gordon and the G-man. She’s so important that both the G-man and the Vortigaunts have taken a personal interest in her on par with their interest in Gordon Freeman, the player character. Let me emphasize this point: other characters in the game think Alyx is as important as the player. A character of with that level of importance to a story is precisely the type of character whose actions and motivations you’re supposed to nitpick.
Alyx’s character is set up in that first scene: Alyx Vance is here to serve Gordon; she is here to serve as his love interest and as his savior when he is vulnerable or when he’s trapped
That set up kind of rings true throughout the rest of the HL2 series.
Sure, as the series progresses, Valve’s writers tone down the romantic angle between Alyx and Gordon, probably because they realized it was stupid, and the two characters become less like partners (wink wink) and more like partners (butt slap).
But still, Alyx usually becomes a badass only when the player is weak, vulnerable, or trapped, Other times she just delivers exposition and unlocks doors. Sometimes she rides in your car with you. Sometimes she covers you with a sniper rifle. Sometimes she shoots.
Don’t get me wrong. In terms of gameplay, I usually really enjoy Alyx. Whenever she mans a sniper post or gun turret, or when I’m guiding her with my flashlight while she shoots zombies, I’m having a lot of fun and I genuinely feel like I have a teammate. Her non-story dialogue is sometimes used very well to draw my attention to changes in the game (the gravity gun losing its power) or to puzzles and their possible solutions. The gameplay portions with Alyx are pretty damn good.
Commenter WorldTurtle also pointed out a gameplay reason that Alyx might be considered strongly written female character, which will lead me to my next point.
“4) Her character in game was an invincible AI helper most of the time.
Alyx, being invulnerable, becomes instantly capable… I think this is interesting because the gameplay makes her a strong character even though the true arc of the story ultimately casts her as the damsel in distress.”
Maybe being invulnerable makes Alyx seem strong, I don’t completely agree with that. But, what I do agree with is: Alyx’s character in terms of gameplay is very different from Alyx’s character in terms of story.
Gameplay Alyx is usually well designed and well developed. She’s fun, strong, and usually I’m happy when she’s around.
Story Alyx, like WorldTurtle said, is kind of a damsel in distress. Sure she’s a badass here and there, but a lot of the time she needs to be rescued. In HL2 this weak portrayal of Alyx is at it’s worst, but in further episodes it diminishes along with the diminishing romantic sub plot.
Let me give a run down of Alyx being weak or being written poorly. I’m not going to note any times when she’s a badass, partially because I have an agenda and partially because I’m just starting to get bored with this topic.
In HL2, Alyx is jealous of the only other woman in the entire world, Judith Mossman, because Judith is stealing her daddy (or because all women are catty). But, I guess Alyx is right about her after all because Judith turns out to be a bad guy. No, never mind, Judith is a good guy again. So many twists and turns; too bad they didn’t make their way into the level design. At some point Alyx is captured by the combine and Gordon has to go save her; in all fairness Gordon also gets captured, but I think it’s because he lets himself get captured.
In Episode 1, Alyx is rescued from an explosion by ALL VORTIGAUNTS. So is Gordon, I guess, even though it looks like the G-man was already going to free Gordon for a mission so it’s kind of redundant, but whatever. Alyx does rescue Gordon from being buried in a pile of rubble. Although, it’s really D0g that does the rescuing, but I guess Alyx told D0g to do it so she’s still the hero. Actually, I’m surprised this scene wasn’t reversed, and the player didn’t rescue Alyx with the gravity gun so Valve could show off their physics engine AGAIN. That’s okay, Valve makes up for this missed opportunity by having Gordon save Alyx from being smushed by a zombie cacoon on a train, using his gravity gun and Valve’s physics engine (I actually feel bad criticizing this moment, because it is really great in terms of gameplay).
Episode 2, Alyx doesn’t notice a nine foot tall iPod speaker on legs because she’s too busy staring into Gordon’s dreamy eyes. The iHunter stabs her even though everywhere else in the game iHunters use their ranged attacks first. While the iHunter wife-beats Alyx for, like, a full minute, for not having dinner ready, she whimpers, “Help me, Gordon.” In a change of pace, Alyx saves herself, LOL, just kidding, a vortigaunt saves her. It carries her to safety. Alyx Vance is kept alive like Sleeping Beauty (or Snow White) by some vortigaunts, while Gordon and Vortigaunt go on a quest to retrieve a magic potion that will wake her up. Prince Freedom fights monsters through caves and dungeons, fights a glow-in-the-dark dragon, enters the heart of the dragons lair to retrieve the potion, and finally brings back the magic potion for Princess Fancy – I mean, Princess Vance – I mean strong, independent woman Vance. One of the vortigaunts that is keeping Alyx alive refers to the magic potion as “miraculous secretions”, and no one bursts in laughter proving that Valve doesn’t know how to write realistic characters. While Alyx is being resurrected, G-man pops up and tells Freeman that Miss Vance is important and that Freeman needs to protect her on the way to White Forest. Apparently G-man believes women can’t protect themselves and they need a man to protect them, but I guess if you let a nine foot tall iPod speaker sneak up on you then maybe G-man’s got a point.
Anyway, it’s not horribly damning stuff, but you can definitely see a theme of Alyx being a weak female character. She’s even kind of a princess at times.
Yea, that’s about it, I’m bored with this topic now. What I really want to talk about are other problems with Half-life 2’s story. Like Father Grigori. Remember Father Grigori? What a bunch of bullshit.
Next time, though, next time.