Poll Question 160 – Should there be swearing in Half-Life games and mods?

21st February 2010

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half-Life 1, 2 and Episodes 1, 2 and 3

This week’s poll is taken from the discussion from Outpost 16 where Alyx says “fuck“. Initially the discussion started out as to whether it was out of character for her but quickly moved onto whether it fitted the HL universe.

I am torn.

On the one hand I dislike swearing in games. I am not sure why because it doesn’t bother me in movies, TV or real life. In fact, when Alyx says “Jesus” in one of the episodes I flinched. It was a natural expression, although I never use it personally, but I wonder why it wasn’t edited to “Geez” which would probably have worked just as well. I dislike references to religion in games too, buy that’s another story.

I am slightly ashamed to say that I outside of work, I swear quite a lot, more from laziness than anything else, so it’s not as if I have never heard these words.

And on the other hand, swearing in these types of situations is a natural reaction. Who wouldn’t use that kind of language if you were being fired at and repressed by aliens?

There is also the very interesting point that isn’t it a bit silly to be worrying about swearing when I am in fact killing other sentient beings? Which is worse; talk or actions? so, it’s ok to kill, mutilate, burn, cut in half and completely fragment enemies, but no way can we use any expletives – bit silly really, don’t you think?

For those that say it’s just out of character, I see your point, but we haven’t really seen enough of her to know how she reacts in all situations over a long period of time. Maybe, it’s like guys who don’t fart in front of women until they are really comfortable with them. You know what I am talking about, right? Maybe Alyx is the same, she’s a wild gal but she is trying to impress you, you being Gordon of course.

On the same topic, Human Error was recently criticised by some for its use of “fuck“. Some people felt that one particular section, where one of the characters said fuck about 15 times in 90 seconds was excessive. It was felt that it was bad writing. This is interesting, because I was always taught that people who swear lack the verbal skills to express themselves in a more eloquent and dignified way. Do you agree?

Time to vote.

The Poll


  1. czeapek

    ok man be serious common…
    it is no need of that the game is perfect

    definetly NO

  2. An option needs to be added; “Yes, but only when used for the right types of characters”

    Your last paragraph basically summed the issue up. Though I haven’t gotten that far in Human Error yet, I’ve already gotten the impression that most of the characters the story focuses on are trying to avoid thinking about just about anything, so for them it may be appropriate.

    In the case of Alyx, she’s supposed to be intelligent and was raised by a well mannered scientist, Eli Vance. While it is entirely possible that Alyx does have particular types of emotions that will prompt cursing, I personally feel that between the events of HL2, Ep1, and Ep2; [spoiler]having her dad get hit on by Mossman, having then had him kidnapped, having had him kidnapped AGAIN after having just rescued him, being captured herself and interrogated by Breen, being just microseconds away from being caught in an explosion from a nuclear energy core meltdown, getting hit by a Advisor Mind Blast, staring directly into the nuclear core that she had already almost gotten caught in before knowing it was about to go off again, caught in a trainwreck full of stalkers, attacked by fast zombies and zombine while waiting for an elevator in the dark without a flashlight of her own, another nuclear core meltdown explosion(though from further away) followed by another trainwreck, followed by not being able to communicate critical information to Magnussun, followed by her getting critically injured by a Hunter and nearly dying, followed by more attacks from more hunters, and another mind blast from an Advisor and nearly getting killed by it right afterwards, oh yeah, and having her father killed in front of her eyes![/spoiler] I think that by now, it should be fairly clear what will and wont prompt swearing from her, and of what level of swearing she will use when prompted.

    Ultimately what it boils down to is that while there are certain situations that swearing is realistically appropriate, people in general will have a much harder time forming a positive emotional connection to a character who swears too often or too easily, which is critical for when you have to tell a story where you are only going to have anywhere from 3 hours to only 3 minutes in which to start forming that connection. This is especially true for a game that so effectively immerses you in its story like Half Life 2 does, and therefor for its characters as well.
    Now some might argue that there are plenty of characters who can be likable despite swearing constantly, but usually these characters will not be have incredibly inventive and almost ridiculous takes on their cursing, rather than (just) using words like ass, fuck, shit, dawn, hell, bitch, etc. Which is different than just saying fuck multiple times within a single minute.
    This also brings back the point I raised in the original debate; different swear words have different levels of crassness associated with their use. Bitch has a specific use (a breedable female dog) and when used in other context it is specifically derogatory. Damn and hell have religious basis of the place Hell, and being damned to that place. In a post apocalyptic world that Alyx is in could be construed to merely be implying a perfectly reasonable comparison. Shit and fuck are terms that are merely crass versions of already existing words; crap/feces/poop and sex/have sex/fornicate, so their use almost always comes across crass as a result. Ass can be either a crass version of butt/posterior, or it can be similar to the use of bitch when it is used to refer to a donkey, the use of which also has religious history(ox and ass etc), at which point while it is derogatory, is not necessarily still considered to even be truly swearing.

  3. MikeS

    I voted unnecessary.

    I don’t say “fuck” a lot, reserving it for those occasions when I’m stressed, or feel the need to emphasise my point or to be humorous, and even then I only say it to people I know won’t be offended.

    When folks use bad language a public place I flinch — not so much for myself but for people who might be offended, especially if there are children around. It’s this latter reason I dislike it in games. The game makers don’t know the age or sensibilities of the player, so they should keep it clean. I hate it when I’m playing a game on my PC with my wife and little girl present, and “Shoot the motherfucker!!” comes screaming out of the speakers. I’ve uninstalled more than one game and not bought others for this very reason. And don’t tell me to wear headphones, that should be a choice based on comfort and playing-experience, not because some lazy scriptwriter couldn’t be bothered to dig a little deeper.

  4. Oh god, I just realized that Phillip has seriously given himself a hard time with this poll. I’m pretty sure that one of the conditions for a comment to need manual moderator approval is if there are enough swear words, so there are going to be a bunch of perfectly valid posts simply trying to discuss the use of swear words that phillip is going to have to be manually approve.

    I could be wrong, but usually my comments show up almost right away, and my previous one still hasn’t shown yet, so I’m speculating that the delay is connected to the content.

  5. john

    the curse words were in a mod, I suppose a warning could be listed about it. in the actual game, I think valve wanted to keep it pg-13 ish. but if needed a filter switch in settings or something.
    havent got too far into outpost 16 but did get to “that” part, it kinda catch my ear. but as I say its a mod, not the game.
    like outpost 16 so far as I have played it.

  6. I’m with MikeS on this one. I too feel almost embarrassed when people I’m with swear in public and it is because of what other people think less than what I think. Expletives themselves do not necessarily offend me, but I am often disappointed or unimpressed if writers resort to using them a lot.

    A good recent example I saw was Aliens Vs Predator (the new game). One of the characters just spouted F-bombs within her first few lines of dialogue, which didn’t really give me a chance to connect to the character in a positive way. Instead I just thought “What an idiot”. She just seemed like a character who could not control her mouth or emotions, which is not a commendable trait in a person.

    I think expletives are best used sparingly. There are maybe 3 or 4 cases in the entire HL series where characters swear, and they are at critical moments and they retain all the more impact because they are uncommon. However, even in some of these examples Valve chose to comically censor them, such as the Citadel walls crashing down at conveniently the right time as Barney yells “tell him I said f*** you!”.

    1. I agree in entirety.

  7. Gradius

    Having a character scream “Oh fiddle sticks!” when their best friend is killed would be ridiculous but oh so many mods end up sounding juvenile due to inappropriate language (I use this term since it isn’t necessarily solely profanity to blame).
    On the other hand, let’s take the F-bomb Minerva drops in Metastasis, while others critisized it for being crass I actually thought it fit the character because it was rather crass. Throughout the mod she had been maintaining this put-on air of eloquence and interlectualism that was then thrown out of the window when things start taking a turn for the worse.

  8. I think the wording in the poll, “unnecessary” says it all. Also as Acumen says, its out of character for Alyx. I also find it offensive.

    So when this happens I immediately think of the mod maker and why they thought of imposing this. Conclusion, it looks bad on them.

  9. clunkfish

    The bit in Human Error where f*ck is said about two dozen times is the funniest in-game dialogue I have ever heard.

    One issue is that access to games by minors is not nearly as easy to control as, say, access to TV programmes or movies. Many parents are not very game-savvy and will not appreciate how adult games can be. I think that means that dialogue writers need to be careful, and by and large there are always alternatives that sound fine. Not always though: the dialogue in Human Error needed the F word because it was written for humorous effect and would not have worked with anything other a swear word. Getting shot at, on the other hand, can be greeted with exclamations of fear, shock or bewilderment without having to go down the four letter route.

    I write this as someone who swears a lot – I mean, a *lot* 😉

  10. I think that for there are lots of kids that play HL, there shouldn’t be any swearing. At least when it’s not necessary to express the feelings.

    1. Kyouryuu

      It’s an M-rated game, which technically means kids shouldn’t be playing it. Course it doesn’t stop them, but the warning is clearly displayed on the box.

    2. Hearing the F word isn’t as bad as beating people to death with a crowbar

      1. It’s the difference between unnecessary and necessary actions.

        Sure, beating a person to death with a crowbar is bad, but sometimes it just simply is necessary. As they say, the best defense is a good offense, and sometimes you need the best defense in order to protect your self/rights/liberty/friends/etc…

        I can’t think of a single instance in which swearing would actually be necessary. In which using those specific words would be the only way to complete any particular task. There may be instances that you really REALLY WANT to swear, but you never NEED to.

  11. No. I flaming (instead of f.cking) well object to the use of obscenities and blasphemies. They are the first resort of the coarse (instead of sh.theads).
    Push off is as effective as p.ss off.
    Damn, damn, damn works better than f.ck, f.ck, f.ck.
    The english language is wonderful and, when used intelligently, makes words and expressions more weighty than any obscenity.

    1. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a non-expletive is “better” or “more effective” than an expletive. They both have a time and a place in which they can be appropriate. The key is moderation and an awareness of how much it takes before their usage becomes distasteful.

      I would never say to a writer “you can’t use expletives”, because sometimes they are necessary and appropriate. It’s all down to the tone of the piece. Presumably most Half-Life mods aim for a similar tone to the full games and should therefore tone down the strong language accordingly.

      1. On reflection, you’re quite right CrowbarSka.
        On tripping at the top of a flight of stairs, it’s for sure I’ll muttering obscenities at the bottom while nursing my bruises and not “oh bother’.
        But in Outpost 16 I would preferred damn, damn, damn which I think would be more in character for Alyx as well as just as, or more, effective.

        1. in a case like that, you don’t have to have clear obscenities, you can go the mumbled and alternate word route of “fricken fracken grumble frazzen razzen” etc. It’s a remarkably effective alternative.

    2. I find that almost any swear word has a reasonably usable alternate term that will carry the same meaning or intent, and merely lack the vulgarity. While it may lose some feeling of “intensity” even full out swear words lose their “intensity” when used too often:

      freaking = fucking
      dang/darn = damn
      crap/shoot = shit
      butt = ass
      donkey/jerk = jackass/bastard
      heck/abyss = hell
      witch = bitch

      But I completely agree that along with the character personality, it also requires sparing use of the words and only in situations that distinctly call for their use.

  12. Hardcore

    F*&k! yeah there should be swearing in half life

  13. Don’t the Combine occasionally yell the word “SHIT!!” when a grenade is about to blow them up?

    1. again, these are characters with whom we, as the player who kills them, are not supposed to form any positive emotional connection to, and are supposed to be rough, crude and unmannerly.

  14. Pax

    The words themselves never bother me, but then I’m a young American male who pretty much lives in a world of profanity. I swear, my friends swear, and we consume lots of “adult” media that contains an unthinkingly-sprinkled seasoning of profanity. (Though we’ll see what happens when my buddy’s new baby arrives and starts learning the language.)

    Needless to say, swear words in a mod don’t phase me much.

    That said, I think there is definitely still a time and place for them, and a time and place for something else. Quite often, sweaar words in general, and the dreaded, feared, ever-scary f-word are used by a writer in place of actual writing skill to try and prove they are “adult” and “mature.”

    It’s like so-called “adult” M-rated games where “adult” apparently equalls boobs and intestines. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like boobs and intestines, but it’s a tone issue. In Half-Life, as has been pointed out, there is very little actual swearing. I would believe if Half-Life had looser writing, Barney would be the expletive machine. He’s a good guy, but he always seems so at his wit’s end dealing with this apocalypse that in a less-well-written game he’d be stinking up the verbal airspace with so much profane mouth flatulence that he’d be uncomfortable to be around. And in real-life, I have no doubt a person in Barney’s position would probably be entitled to it.

    But swearing in a game is just another element like any other. Like a character’s physical design, color scheme, a level’s layout or the tone and pacing of the gameplay, it’s there to serve a purpose. We know Barney is that guy. He’s even the guy who comes closest to audibly f-ing up the wordspace. But in media, the swearing guy loses audience favor, so Barney’s swearing is augmented to support his portrayal as the likable friend-guy who’s still rough around the edges.

    Man I wrote a lot of workds. F-!

  15. Kyouryuu

    The swearing doesn’t bother me in the series because I don’t even remember it happening. I would agree that an excessive use of swearing, especially early on in a character’s life, will forever taint the character as a jerk. Basically, it communicates the idea that the writers had no other way to make this character a badass than to have him cuss like a sailor every line. But realistically, it’s all about show, not tell. The lame writer tries to tell me the character is badass by making him sound like one. The good writer has the character’s actions do the speaking for him.

    The one caveat I would point out to this is that you can overdo it comically and intentionally. House of the Dead: Overkill on the Wii is an example where the characters cuss every other word and it’s so excessively over-the-top, it actually becomes funny. The blood in Evil Dead is the same way – a guy running around chopping up people with a chainsaw sounds horrific on paper, but when gallons upon gallons of blood are splashing all over the place, it becomes absurd. It’s hard to tell where that line is, but excessiveness can lead to absurdity which leads to humor.

  16. I believe that it is alright to have swearing if it fits the context of the situation or the personality of the character. I remember sections where you know Barney swears but the audio is cut off (If you open the appropriate files the swearing has been recorded). If we saw more of Barney in stressful situations he would probably swear a whole lot more.

    As for Alyx, I believe that it fairly well established that she is not going to swear. There have been plenty of situations where it would fit but Valve didn’t add it. For me, that adds something extra to that character’s personality.

  17. jgoodroad

    you know, in hl2 barney swears at the end. it was something like…

    “hey when you see breen, tell him I said Fuck you!”

  18. you people need to watch your mouths

  19. Robert Yang

    Curse words are important words. Shakespeare’s plays were full of curse words, Allen Ginsberg uses “fuck” non-trivially in his poetry, etc. Think about how versatile the word “fuck” is, for a second here:

    It’s a verb. It’s a noun. It’s an exclamation. It’s an emphatic particle. And that’s without any of the morphology, as with “fucked” and “fucking” which carry their own connotations.

    It’s important for humor. If an upper-class princess spends the entire story speaking impeccable English, and then descends into “crudeness” with a “fuck you” to someone, it’s often funny.

    Anyway, my point is that cursing is in books, movies, songs… everywhere around you. It can be artfully used or tastelessly used.

    To generalize like this is, well, a really fucking stupid thing to do.

  20. Botolf

    It only works when it is used sparingly and fits the moment/character. Human Error’s long “Fuck this and that” rant was a poor use of language, whereas Outpost 16 seemed to be much more thoughtful about it (it was still a bit jarring, however, because we’ve never heard Alyx drop a “fuck” before).

    Minerva: Metastasis also used “fuck” once, but it was fitting because it was used sparingly, and at the most dire part of the campaign

    [spoiler]when the portal opens and Minerva realizes that things have gone immeasurably worse in a single instant.[/spoiler]

  21. Forgot to add that in Minerva: Metastasis, because “fuck” appears only once and during said critical moment, it drives home just how serious the event is and how thoroughly Minerva has been rattled. Up until that point she was calm and almost disinterested in the player’s success or failure.

  22. Berrie

    I doesn’t bother me that much.
    It’s been stated that it depends on the situation and intention and I would agree. They can be used to humorous effect, to emphasize a certain situation/emotion or to add some character to a certain character.

    If it’s dropped every other word however the character doing so becomes a bit unlikable and it can become grating and bothersome.

    I’ve always found it a bit hypocritical to be so uppity about a few expletives in games of rampant violence.
    If done appropriately they should not be a problem. I agree though that Alyx hasn’t shown any tendency to use them, though as a mod team trying to tell their own story they can be excused.

  23. Polo

    I voted “yes, it’s realistic’, simply because it is !
    However, when considering the possibility of people getting offended, which I really cannot see how when considering the nature (violence) of the game, and the very real possibility of very young children being exposed to it, then an “option” should be provided to turn this on or off.

    I really fail to see how people can get offended at things like this, yet blood and gore seems to be ok – takes all sorts, I suppose.

  24. ANonEntity

    When one is being shot at and vice versa, it’s only natural to curse. A “hail mary…” won’t save you. Why I voted “Yes, it’s realistic” without a sweat!

  25. Gypsy_Jim

    I voted “I Don’t Mind” , though in a funny sort of way I do.

    I’d rather nobody swore, at all, ever, including me, but they do, you do, and I definitely do.

    Virtually all the above comments are therefore utterly valid, for their own reasons, which I’m not going to disect one by one. But…

    The thing is, this is a game, like it or not, as “realistic” as you want it, or not. The increased cinematography, sounds, effects, game-play, physics etc are fantastic, but it’s still just a game, an interactive animation. One where you get to drive the main character, “physically” through a death-delivering dystopia of bizarre puzzles & gun-slinging madness. The boundaries are hardly close to normal after all…..

    The added voice-acting is fabulous, especially when executed as well as some of the best Mods have had it, but what we’re talking about here is “where to draw the line?” and there are many ways to do that without cursing, blaspheming, or just talking gutter-talk.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not even remotely offended personally by any of this. I have taken a bit of time to think though, and have no illusions that swearing adds a tiny bit of realism to any Mod whatsoever, it doesn’t. “Realism” is stretched so far already that there simply isn’t any need for it.

    Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment though. Would you swear in front of a complete stranger? Because as a mod maker who chooses this route that is exactly what you’re doing, many times over. Some might not give a darn, but others might, is your Mod worth that level of judgement, or is it actually way higher “quality”?

    You might not think you care, but if you publish your work, do you not want to be assessed by the widest possible audience that there might be? (I don’t know as far as Mods are concerned, but I do write and want something similar) Why kill off half your target audience by not caring what or who they might actually be?

    Hope I’ve made my point?


  26. Lewis Denby

    “I was always taught that people who swear lack the verbal skills to express themselves in a more eloquent and dignified way.”

    Words are words. Knowing “sesquipedelian” is no more eloquent and dignified than knowing “fuck”.

    We have at our disposal an extraordinary lexicon from which we can select the most appropriate language in any given situation. As long as it’s appropriate, and well written, and naturalistic, that’s all that matters.

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  28. Michal

    I think yes, but only for certain characters. I think Alyx neither Barney for example shouldn’t use bad language (I don’t think she tries to impress Gordon). You can see on their behaviour both are somehow decent. But I have anything against if used with right characters.
    For example I loved in HL1 soldiers’: Shit! We’ve got hostiles!

  29. reapy

    Accurate communication can be short and do the point or long and superfluous. Sometimes saying fuck 15 times in under a minute gets the message across much clearer then overly descriptive adjectives. Swearing is not laziness. Stop being afraid of certain frequencies that leave our voice boxes.

  30. Berzee

    “Stop being afraid of certain frequencies that leave our voice boxes.”
    Tchah — I used to think the same, but words are not just noises, they are meanings. Or better, they hold meanings. QUOTE I read earlier today: “Words are not truth, but caskets in which the gem of truth is carried.”

    Regarding the discrepancy between the swearing and the killing, I think I know why there is such a difference. The killing is all fake — it is a fake weapon killing a fake person who usually does not even have a written history. The swearing is real — it is a real voice uttering a real word that has as real a meaning as if it were used in real life. Yes, it’s spoken by a character…I guess you could say that in games and stories, a character’s voice is a lot more real than his life. Games are a lot better at simulating dialogue (a snippet of a person’s existence) than of simulating a person’s entire existence. It’s easy to make an NPC talk, but it’s impossible to make him live and breathe.

    So the killing will always be fake (unless you look forward to sentient AI’s =) but the swearing is already real.

    Said another way, we haven’t *actually* killed a man after playing. But we have *actually* heard swear words after playing. Playing a foul-mouthed game is pretty much equivalent to hanging out with foul-mouthed friends (minus some peer pressure)…but shooting people in a game is not nearly so equivalent to being in a live gang fight.

    That’s why I think there is sometimes a stronger objection to swearing than to killing. Even gamerswho think of games as “just games” might nevertheless object to the language — because it’s writing, and writing is real. 🙂

    1. Anon_218680

      “Said another way, we haven’t *actually* killed a man after playing. But we have *actually* heard swear words after playing.”

      I hadn’t looked at this thread for several days, but the thought came to mind and this is what I was thinking. Berzee, you expressed the concept very well. Thank You.

  31. Nrmartins

    I think so, there are moments in the game that I feel definitely frustrated and if the character would swear that would make me feel better and more immersed, reliefed.

  32. Ryan C.

    Hmm, thats a tough one. I believe that if it fits the circumstances, then sure, I mean they are only human. In a Half Life 2 WWII mod, an occaisional “Fuck, get down!” or “Holy shit!” wouldn’t be out of the question. As for the Half Life Universe, sure why not. I mean, its Mature rated, you run around shooting and killing things.

  33. After playing the first part of Outpost 16 (I’ll wait for a new system to play any more), I thought the voice acting for Alyx was good, but didn’t really appreciate the swearing.

    I swear myself (I didn’t even notice that he said “fucking generator” in Human Error–of course I only heard it about 3 times), but it doesn’t really seem believable in Alyx. Maybe if she swore it would just be a heartfelt “damn”, or something.

    As far as other characters swearing, it depends on the circumstances and the character. Some people swear all the time, but as for HL2, I’d just as soon they avoid it, or use it sparingly.

  34. Elv02

    I believe it was Barney who once said:

    “And when you see Doctor Breen, tell him I said FUCK YOU!”

    I think the “Fuck you” gets covered by a train or something, but I’ve listed to the sound file.

    I voted realistic. I don’t think it’s a problem to have swearing in games, just use it sparingly where appropriate.

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  36. I find it refreshing when to see this more realistic aspect of current cultural norms displayed in a mod ( within reason ). It’s the every day
    element of verbal language we all hear and use to express various emotions, but also the one no one wants to touch in this media. How human.

  37. AI

    As much as I don’t care for it (I’m no angel myself) after finally finishing “Bioshock 2” the swearing was rampent! All I can say is “why fight it” The game companies are going to do what they do anyway! 🙁 So maybe I don’t care any more! (too negitive??)

  38. Sean Schirmer

    Given that all of us have racked up body counts in the 1000s it seems odd to be debating the use of profanity, but, I hear the f word so often elsewhere it’s nice to get a break when I can. It also typically does nothing for the story or character, so I’d rather writers didn’t have obscenity to fall back on.

  39. Michael G.

    I think swearing should be kept to a minimum, but it shouldn’t be removed. And it should be kept in character. So if I throw a grenade at some combine, they might yell “sh*t” but If a combine throws a grenade at alyx, I don;t expect to her to do anything but run away

  40. Well it will cause problems..It is out of character for Alyx, but even sweet home town girls get pissed off.. I have heard things come out of granny’s mouth that would shock a sailor..lol.. I can take or leave it.. But I really do think it is out of character for her..Now Barney? F K yea..lol.. I can hear him now..”Oh crap,RUN… here comes those bastards again”

  41. Well, this is really “without significant bias”… 1/3 don’t mind, 1/3 “yes”, 1/3 “no”…

  42. Anon_1448402

    Well, in Half Life 2 Episode 1, Alyx might say “Sh*t!” when she gets surrounded by zombies.


    Look for “al_swamped09”.

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