Half-Life: Alyx is out and it’s fantastic. One of the elements that makes the Half-Life games so beloved is its commitment to story and character. Gordon Freeman, Dog, Barney, and Alyx are all memorable characters. But G-Man, the series’ mysterious and seemingly cosmic mover and shaker, is a fan favorite. The crew cut, the stilted cadence, and the briefcase all speak to a deeper mystery that fans have spent more than a decade untangling.
VICE Games caught up with G-Man voice actor Michael Shapiro to see what he could tell us about the enduring mystery of Half-Life’s strangest character.
How did Valve initially pitch the character to you?
I'm not sure if there was a written description. I saw a pencil sketch and his dialogue. That was the starting point. I knew one of the things that I think is true of G-Man is that he has permissions that most people don't. He can travel through time and he can travel in and out of spaces.
I think there's sort of two theories. One is that he has employers and the other that he has employers, but really, he's got the bigger game in mind and they're just doing his bidding by hiring him. And I think that the knowledge that he had that kind of influence in the universe and yet he’s very personally connected with all the characters he interacts with. It’s a very visceral, very personal character. That’s something that I knew early on. That’s something I wanted to put into the character’s voice in performance.
Did Valve give you any direction in the recording studio?
It’s a steering process…one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the character is that he knows a lot more than he’s saying. That’s the kind of direction you could actually get. It might not seem that tangible but it actually informs a lot of how you’ll speak and how you’ll tempo your cadence and the pace with which you reveal information and the path you take watching the person you’re speaking with as they slowly begin to put it together.
G-Man has a very unique cadence. He talks as if he’s having to translate his thoughts into a language his mouth is unfamiliar with.
That’s an interesting way to put it.
Where did that come from? How did you get there?
The way G-Man speaks is a form of music. What you said to me suggests a kind of transportation, a translation, a kind of transformation and adaptation that’s happening. I hear the music in G-Man’s voice. I’ve acted for many years and I’m also a musician and so that’s a mode of communication that is very organic to me.
So there’s an a-tempo [offbeat, without tempo] to the formulation of his thoughts that reveals a number of things. There's a lot going on inside G-Man’s head that we don't know about and I can tell you, without revealing too much, there's a lot of story and we haven’t received all of it yet. That’s backstory and fore-story. Time isn’t really a confining element for G-Man.
There’s another aspect to it—the pleasure he takes in engaging with characters whom he meets is, for me, always a notable aspect of him. He is delightfully messing with each of them. He makes offers that one can not entirely refuse and yet it’s not clear what’s going to happen. I think those moments of interaction are enjoyable to him.
He’s very engaged. You’d think someone as powerful as him would be removed, but he’s not. He’s in it. He’s. In. It.
What’s your theory on who or what he is?
Do you have one? A theory?
The character he reminds me most of is Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation . Q is a god-like character that shows up at random times to test and cajole the crew of the Starship Enterprise. G-Man does the same, he shows up to test Freeman and his friends.
Ah, but Q is part of an entire species, right? I don’t know that there’s more than one G-Man. Let me be clear about that. I think he’s singular and I can tell you that it’s the long game he has in mind.
You’ve been voicing this character, off and on, for almost twenty years. Is there a memory of recording him that sticks out?
In voice acting, sometimes you’re in isolation. But there’s a real collaborative experience working with the guys from Valve. He’s an example.
I get the call that Valve is getting the band back together for Half-Life: Alyx, although I don’t know that it’s called that initially. I just know they want me to come back and record some stuff.
I walk in and I say hi. I’ve done a bunch of different things with these guys, but we hadn’t seen each other in a little while. They fly me the pages, I go into the booth. And I can’t hear them because they’re on the other side of the tempered glass. One of the things I tend to is, I’ll close my eyes. I’ll read through the script, but once I’ve got the lies, I’ll close my eyes.
And I read through some of the very first G-Man lines that we’re recording for Half-Life: Alyx and I can’t hear because it’s a soundproof room. And I’m thinking, “This feels so natural. This feels like I just stepped back into his show and wrapped my hand around a briefcase.” It’s so pleasurable.
I finish the lines and I open my eyes and on the other side of the glass they’re dancing around and waving their hands. G-Man is back. Those guys, with me and G-Man, it was a really exuberant moment.
When did you realize how big a deal Half-Life was?
Half-Life as a series and G-Man as a character is standalone.
I can’t say that I knew that in 1998, but what I did know in 1998—because I was voicing a lot of FPS games—was what they were after in the first place was something more than just an excuse to go on to the next shooting scene, that they believed in the sort of effect and magnetic effect and magnetic connection that results from a story and character that’s grounded in history.
Are there lines for the G-Man you have recorded that we haven’t heard yet?
How could the answer to that not be no?
Look, it’s requiqsuite. I have to ask you about Half-Life 3 .
There is a long story here. There’s a long game that G-Man is playing. I’ll say that.