If Gordon Freeman was the emblematic poster child for the Silent Protagonist, then for a time his foil, Adrian Shephard, became the iconic parallel for the faceless ones. Gordon’s robust Gen-X “nerd turned combatant” archetype was intended as an answer to the typical grunting brawn-over-brain space marine motif we have come to endlessly celebrate in every perennial iteration of DOOM, subverting the expectant trope audiences had grown accustomed to over the years.
Gordon had a ponytail, he didn’t speak in one liners or at all, and the player’s perception of who he is was built up entirely from in-world clues and inferring meaning through NPC commentary. A theoretical physicist seemed like an unlikely protagonist for 1998’s hit action game blockbuster, so when it came time for Gearbox to approach Valve to make an expansion pack, they had to come up with a character that not only built upon this framework, but also made a powerfully distinct protagonist. Thus, Adrian Shephard was born and swiftly embedded into the adolescent imagination of thousands of gamers.
OpFor would telegraph GearBox’s future ambitions to relive the nostalgic motifs from the 80s cinema of yesteryear, featuring an opening sequence stripped right out of Full Metal Jacket or Aliens, the latter being a franchise that Gearbox would prove to be incredibly eager to wade into and promptly tamper with the canonical lore of. Adrian, like Gordon, was a quiet passenger, a witness to meta-textual atrocities unable to intervene in any meaningful capacity outside of bare survival.
Unlike Freeman, however, Adrian was leveraged much the same way he was in the marine corps- a cog in a machine beyond his comprehension, helpless to assert his own agency past self-preservation, a feat more attributable to the opaque whims of the “G-Man” than to his own ability to outlast the endless alien onslaught. Adrian’s perspective of Black Mesa is both shadowed by the legacy of Freeman’s questionable intent (a theme later revisited in Half-Life 2) and Gearbox’s need to make the entry stand out; everything is slightly off, different enough to riff on the original and establish a new set of exotic foes dubbed “Race X”.
Through and through, Adrian is positioned as a sort of underdog, a normal dude trying to do a normal job in extraordinary circumstances. It was an archetype quickly latched onto by young fans lacking their own sense of personal identity with apprehension of adulthood being foisted upon them in the distant horizon. With neither a face nor a voice, Adrian quickly turned into an unsung hero for those who had no idea who they were or why they were being dragged into any of this.
The fan fixation on Adrian’s unexplored impact would persist long after the release of Opposing Force. With the announcement of Half-Life 2, speculative fan lore spread like wildfire. Who would be the counter-weight to Gordon Freeman’s chaotic sprint through the ruins of City 17? Would our beloved underdog find himself conscripted into the occupational forces, or would he stand alone as a rogue people’s hero, an honorable vigilante answer to the careless wanton destruction that Freeman’s selfish actions leave for those caught in his wake?
Adrian had, in a way, manifested into the folk hero role that the lore of Half-Life 2 presupposed for Freeman, someone who would instill truth and virtue into the lies left in the path of his predecessor- the man-behind-the-man. Adrian’s quick thinking response to the Black Mesa incident would result in the temporary dismantling of a nuclear device designed to wipe out the facility and it’s innocent inhabitants, a scene attempting to mirror Kurt Russel’s heroic antics at the end of Stargate, though even this noble action would quickly be undone by the nefarious “G-man” at the last second. This moment is critical in the construction of the mythic status of Shephard, a noble fixer trying to defuse the mess constantly implied to be the fault of Freeman’s impulsive dog-eat-dog actions.
Inevitably upon release of the Source Engine SDK, a multitude of efforts to “pick the story up where Valve left off” would spring forth like dandelions in a field of grass, quickly shedding evidence of their presence before going suddenly dormant. One by one over the years, each vain attempt to relive cherished nostalgia fell by the wayside until the unspeakable fanfiction disaster that was Hunt Down The Freeman emerged, a Wiseauian masterpiece that nonetheless managed to somehow get approved for commercial release. However, much like Opposing Force and its subsequent lack of a follow-up, Adrian manages to remain trapped in the sidelines of yet-another melodramatic protagonist, this time as his supposedly long-lost brother.
This obsessive need to leave no man behind, to repeatedly revisit Adrian’s “unfinished” story and to re-attach him to the Half-Life lore, even if it means using duct-tape and superglue to do so, is representative of a subset of the audience’s inability to leave things unresolved. It goes beyond simple admiration or fond memories, instead being outright elevated by Hunt Down The Freeman as a family member. Adrian is the older brother so many of those who played Opposing Force never had or desperately craved, and to leave him stuck in a so-so action romp is somehow an insult to his supposedly meaningful presence.
With no visibly approved successor, Adrian remains exactly where the game left him, trapped in stasis by the G-Man’s inter-dimensional prison. Perhaps that’s for the best, lest Half-Life become some sort of iterative cinematic universe requiring individual standalone releases that explain away every small minutiae of the fictional setting.
For all the effort put in to supposedly relive and honor his rightful place amongst the other protagonists of the franchise, rarely has Adrian’s own perspective been taken into consideration. Maybe he doesn’t want to be re-activated or to be thrown back into the endless thriller that Freeman is perpetually pulled out of the closet for. Perhaps the fact that he has been mothballed is the best possible outcome outside of a nice cottage in a pastoral fantasy, an earned reprieve from the mayhem and visceral waterfall of blood making up the unforeseen consequences of Black Mesa.
We don’t want to see Adrian rest, to have respite, we want to see him endlessly kill his foes, to be put through repeatedly traumatic events so that we may live vicariously through him. He is a vehicle for our combat tourism, a way for us to feel good about ourselves without any regard for his well-being or human desires. Our ‘gratitude’ comes as a gift wrapped as an explosive satchel instead of severance pay and a nice pension, leaving him to have more in common with Snake Plissken at this point than Arnold Schwarzenegger- a faceless titan whose existence is predicated upon the need to destroy and be destroyed, existing only within the loop of carnage, his self quietly ignored outside of his personal Sisyphean hell.
If the fans truly love this iconic character, then why don’t you ever propose an expansion where he has a nice farm? Half-Life: Yachting Off The Mediterranean, Half-Life: Adrian Shephard Reads A Nice Book And Has A Lovely Cup Of Coffee, Half-Life: Taking A Nice Stroll Down The Beach With Your Dog. It’s time to step up and give him the retirement he deserves, else we simply perpetuate the cycle of violence to simply have the brief joy of dragging our favorite underdog into the fray to dance for our amusement to the tune of artillery and gunfire.
With an exciting cast of characters that are more human, more lively than ever, finally shedding the mandate of a silent protagonist in Alyx, Half-Life as a franchise deserves the opportunity to explore new characters and settings. Fans should take solace in this, and let poor ol’ Adrian finally get some well-deserved R&R.
Let’s stop following Freeman.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice