Freeman’s Mind: an appreciation.

It is commonplace to speak of ours as a culture built on “instant gratification”. It is said today’s young people are used to instantly accessing whatever they want through the miracle of the internet, and that such ease of access makes us soft, greedy, and demanding. “Life, if it would be great, is hard” said the philosopher Spengler. As a corollary, this easy access to entertainment and information makes our lives petty and little.

Perhaps this is so, despite how clichéd it sounds. I would not want to live in any other period in the history of the world, but perhaps there is something in this theory nonetheless. If so, then it is something of a boon, in this day and age, to be able to experience the sensation of waiting, of anticipating our entertainment. To be able to await something and not know when it will be done, and be pleasantly surprised upon its completion—as opposed to merely having our expectations met when a date known well in advance arrives.

I am speaking, of course, about the experience of being a fan of Ross Scott’s darkly comic Machinima series Freeman’s Mind. Perhaps it is a series that can only be fully appreciated by a gamer, but even non-game playing people I know have shared my enjoyment of Mr. Scott’s reinterpretation of Half-Life’s taciturn physicist as a short-tempered, paranoid “neurotic individual”, whose questionable sanity is further eroded by his experiences in the absurd Black Mesa complex.

It is a difficult balance that Freeman’s Mind achieves—to be at once a criticism of Half-Life and an appreciation of it. For though Scott-as-Freeman routinely points out the oddities of the facility in which he is trapped, such as massive fans that can only be turned on or off by dodging the fan’s deadly blades, it is nonetheless done so well that it does not detract from the game at all. It mocks the game, yet it never veers into being someone just whining about the level design.

In a way, Scott’s Freeman is even more of an everyman than Valve’s silent protagonist. For he gives voice to what all of us gamers feel as we play Half-Life, or really almost any game of the sort, since such games are, after all, worlds designed to frustrate us. When Scott’s Freeman gives voice to his beliefs of the world being out to destroy him, he really is speaking the truth, for the whole place really does exist just to make him—in reality, the player–suffer.

Not that his portrayal is just an everyman figure. If I could be half as witty about a game I was playing as Scott is, I could entertain myself with just one game for years. Obviously, the Freeman of Freeman’s Mind is a distinct character, with recognizable traits and even—and this is one of the under-appreciated elements of the series—a bit of development. We shall know more when the series is concluded, but as of now the character has already undergone a noticeable personality change.

One of the subtleties of the series is that, in the beginning, Scott’s Freeman isn’t a complete jerk. He’s an arrogant, wise-cracking slacker, to be sure, but when one of the scientists is clinging desperately to a ledge in Episode 5, Freeman does offer him assistance—in vain, of course. It would have been easier, for some quick laughs, to have him mock the unfortunate NPC or something, but it would have cheapened the character long-term.

As a comic work, Freeman’s Mind is successful both as a piece of funny characterization and witty criticism. I suppose the closest parallel is Mystery Science Theater 3000 or something of that sort. But Freeman’s Mind is more closely integrated with the original work than a simple parody. And moreover, because Half-Life is a video game, there is a certain degree of choice in how its creator approaches each part of it, and wondering what choices he will make in future episodes is part of the appeal.

I sometimes wonder what Roger Ebert, who famously claimed that video games can’t be art, would make of Freeman’s Mind. Certainly, the non-gamer I have watched it with thinks it is immensely funny, while also commenting that the game itself looks unbearably dull. It bridges the gap between “game” and “movie” in a way that most Machinima productions I have seen don’t, though I admit I am not a connoisseur of the form.

Freeman’s Mind is part character-driven comedy, part video game criticism and part player’s guide. Most people will probably only really notice the first part, but even that by itself is more than adequate for a good gaming experience. If nothing else, it is the funniest action series I’ve seen in years.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?