Mute protagonists were a staple of games for a very long time. Not anymore though. Having the player character talk smack or otherwise engage in banter is pretty much expected today. This is especially true for shooters, which rely heavily on player dialogue to give the protagonist some token amount of depth. But what about NPCs? Even the earliest NPCs were not strictly mute. Lines of text would randomly appear over the heads of companions in RPGs for example. I have lost count of how many “shallow” companions I have lost to enemies. Many of these deaths did little but elicit a casual shrug. It’s hard to care about characters that have little in the way of personality. It’s a real surprise then, when one comes across a companion that leaves a deep impression without saying a word.
Half Life 2 was a revelation. It did more to revolutionize the FPS genre (in the single player space) than any other game I can think of. A large part of this was creating a world that was, in many subtle ways, “real”. The people you came across in the world no doubt added to this in a major way. Alyx Vance, Barney Calhoun, Dr Eli etc. were all people that I, playing as Gordon Freeman, deeply cared about. But the star of the show (for me at least) was DOG.
Designed by and for Freeman’s occasional side kick Alyx Vance, this robotic construct is more like a playful puppy than anything else. A playful puppy that weights a couple of tons and tosses cars for fun. I’ll never forget the first time I saw DOG. It’s remarkable how quickly I went from “Holy crap! Run!!” to “Aaaaw!”
As I mentioned before, DOG’s mannerisms are akin to that of a playful puppy. His (I cannot bring myself to refer to DOG as “it”) animations and behaviors are done to perfection in this regard. I cannot help but gape at how the designers pulled this off for it seems like an impossible task. Visually, the character’s gait is ape like. There is a very tangible sense of immense weight when he moves, something complemented by the convincing audio that accompanies his earth shaking steps. DOG has no organic vocal chords and cannot talk but he does have certain audio cues to aid expression. His “bleeps” and “bloops” change in pitch and frequency depending on his mood and his “eye” opens and closes in relation to this. It beats the majority of voice overs employed for humanoid characters by a long shot.
To be honest, DOG should come across as a mechanical Frankenstein, especially when you consider what he is made up of, i.e., scavenged bits and pieces of Combine tech (the bad guys). Heck, one of his “hands” is a gravity gun! The actual effect is quite the opposite. It reminds me of Wall-E on steroids. Only DOG predates Pixar’s cute little creation by years.
From a design perspective, DOG fulfills two very specific roles. His first job is to play the supporting character in some tightly scripted events that happen in game. Secondly, he acts as a “key” of sorts, opening up areas of the world that are otherwise inaccessible. An example of this would be to move some heavy wreckage out of the way.
Stuff like that made HL2 a sheer joy to play. These functions could just as well have been handled by way of a “switch” or “lever” of some kind (of which there are many in the game) but Valve decided to go against that idea. No, they decided to give you a playful -giant-mechanical-gorilla-puppy. One that’s fiercely loyal and likes to play fetch with cars.
So here’s to you DOG. Now go fetch!