Thoughts on 'Half-Life: Alyx' and G-Man2020-03-29
This post contains spoilers and assumes that you’re familiar with the entire extent of the Half-Life storyline across all of its instalments.
I recently finished Half-Life: Alyx, the first instalment in the Half-Life series in thirteen years. The Half-Life sci-fi universe has captured my imagination since I was in my early teens, and it was really great to not only be able to explore it again, but to do so in virtual reality.
Especially in its ending, Half-Life: Alyx provides a pretty solid set of revelations that push the Half-Life story forward in substantial ways. Being dissatisfied with the speculation I’ve seen online, I wanted to supplement it with my own thoughts on where the Half-Life saga is heading, and to do so in an organized fashion.
It is increasingly the case that the entire plot of Half-Life centers around, and is impossible to discuss without, G-Man, a character most aptly described by Valve themselves as a “sinister interdimensional bureaucrat”. Michael Shapiro is quoted in his recent interview with Vice as saying that “there is a long story here. There’s a long game that G-Man is playing”, which makes navigating G-Man’s role in the series doubly worthwhile.
Here’s a chronological summary of what we know about G-Man’s influence on the plot:
- In Half-Life, G-Man is the source of the Xen crystal that ends up causing the resonance cascade at Black Mesa. He also strongly pushed for the experiment to move forward. We know this from Eli Vance in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. G-Man spends Half-Life 1 casually observing the consequences of his “nudging”, collecting useful pawns (Freeman, Shephard) and ultimately seems to have definitely wanted both the Nihilanth’s demise and the Combine’s invasion of Earth.
- In Half-Life 2, G-Man brings Gordon to Earth, positions him to cause optimal headache to the Combine, monitors Gordon along the way and then plucks him out when the deed is done. Nobody else professes knowledge of his existence.
- In Half-Life 2: Episode One, we get the first ever suggestion that G-Man isn’t indeed omnipotent/omnipresent, since at the very start of the game a group of Vortigaunts is capable to keep him at bay and to remove Gordon from his sphere of influence. G-Man seems upset but indeed fails to make any appearance all the way up until…
- Half-Life 2: Episode Two, where G-Man actually was forced to wait until the Vortigaunts were busy saving Alyx from the brink of death to have any way of speaking to Gordon. G-Man doesn’t like the vorts, and makes that clear in his speech to Gordon, where he also instructs him to see Alyx safely to White Forest. It’s interesting that G-Man at this point doesn’t want much from Gordon other than for him to chaperone Alyx, and that he positions this as a way for Gordon to repay G-Man for his saving his neck from the Nihilanth’s death.
In Half-Life: Alyx, the Combine had to pluck out an entire apartment building containing G-Man, suspend it in some kind of Vortigaunt-powered stasis, and make it float in the sky above the deserted and rarely-frequented Quarantine Zone in order to contain his influence. The Combine are abjectly terrified of G-Man and don’t seem to know how to deal with him aside from extreme and panicky containment measures.
The Unknown Female Scientist
A very curious happenstance is when Alyx witnesses Combine Advisors taking rude jabs and complaints from some unidentified female human scientist, which itself is surprising given that Advisors are generally very high up on the Combine food chain and certainly are never seen taking flak from a lowly human from Earth. The unknown scientist is overheard chastising the Combine for not taking sufficiently good care of the Vault containing G-Man, and for not moving it away quickly enough before Alyx can break into it. The Advisors are so cowed by the risk of G-Man that they’re okay with being berated by her, and she brings him up as a scarecrow during the conversation, in the spirit of “do you have any idea what will happen if he breaks loose again?” It seems implied that this scientist was instrumental in helping the Combine capture G-Man in the first place, which itself is also curious.
There is currently no way of finding out who this scientist is, and I would even go so far as to discourage people from trying until Valve drops more content. There’s simply no way to know, and speculation that she’s actually Judith Mossman is not better or worse than any other option. For what it’s worth, her voice as well as whatever little amount of character modeling was made for her in Alyx do not suggest that she is Mossman.
Alyx is “Infected”; G-Man is a Bacteriophage
I’ve seen shockingly little discussion of this online, and I want people to pay attention to it. The Combine refer to Alyx as “anti-citizen”, but that’s a designation that is seen to be general and that is applied to any lawbreaker deemed worthy of it by Overwatch. Another more interesting nickname Combine soldiers adopt for Alyx is “infected”.
“Anti-citizen” makes sense, you can understand how such a term can relate to the more traditional term of “outlaw”. “Infected” doesn’t relate in the same way and seems out of place, unless you consider this, the shape of G-Man’s prison cell within the Vault:
This isn’t a coincidence; the thing looks precisely like a bacteriophage (illustration used with permission from Servier Laboratories):
So it makes sense to conclude that “infected” is likely a Combine term reserved to those under G-Man’s influence. It’s interesting because it plays well with Overwatch’s usage of medical terms, commanding soldiers to “disinfect” and “inoculate” Combine territory from Gordon and Alyx throughout the series. As for storing the G-Man’s Vault in the “Quarantine Zone”, well, that only goes to support the theory.
This choice of imagery, Combine as clinical disinfectant and G-Man as virus, also serves to accentuate their position as long-term enemies to one another (if not the Combine against G-Man, then certainly Combine against his employers).
When asked about similarities between G-Man and “Q”, a similar character from Star Trek, Michael Shapiro answers: “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.”
This actually makes G-Man infinitely more confusing. And for one thing, definitely rules out theories of him being a mature Shu’ulathoi or whatever.
G-Man being singular implies that he isn’t a member of any species, and indeed implies that he’s not even a life-form. That makes him harder to peg down. Is he then a physical phenomena? A component of the universe? If he were part of a living species then he certainly by definition cannot also be singular. He does use strange language when Alyx saves Eli from the Advisor: “This entity will continue, while this entity will not.” He seems to be consciously avoiding using words like “dead” or “alive”. The bacteriophage imagery we discussed earlier might also serve to suggest that, like a virus, G-Man is neither living nor dead.
I think the best way to see G-Man is that he represents a part of the universe that is simply too far-removed for us to understand. Lambda Core scientists were able to wrap their heads around Xen after lots of effort, only to be taken advantage of by the Combine through the Portal Storms. Nobody really understands the full extent of the Combine, although we do have a glimpse of their empire. So, Xen is at a “understandable by smart humans” level while the Combine is at a “potentially graspable by very few humans” level.
G-Man is a few levels above that; understanding what he is is probably like trying to get a penguin to understand quantum mechanics. It just can’t be done. The penguin can’t do it no matter how hard you both try. As Michael Shapiro puts it, “one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the character is that he knows a lot more than he’s saying.” His interviewer also puts it in an interesting way: “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.” Even his breathing seems off; it’s often as if he’s operating his lungs manually.
The nice thing about this theory is that it fully and convincingly explains the G-Man’s appearance, which is stereotypical to the extreme of a male human bureaucrat/administrator from some American TV show. The suit, the tie, the briefcase, the crew cut, and most of all, the vocabulary: employers, tasks, hirings, and so on. All of it is so “vanilla”, and yet so outrageously bizarre and unsuited in the context of dealing with wars between worlds. G-Man adopts this template in the way some impossibly far away intelligence looks at humanity and adopts the $STANDARD_HUMAN_INTERLOCUTOR set of features. But it still uses them clumsily anyway, with broken cadence and strange wording and mechanical breathing, because it just can’t help it given how far-removed its origins are from us.
Incidentally, Michael Shapiro’s genius portrayal of this immeasurably distant entity trying to communicate in something as far-removed from it as a human bureaucrat in a blue suit speaking English is at the very center of what makes G-Man such a brilliantly executed character.
G-Man’s employers don’t make any goddamn sense. Things they certainly seem to want:
- Combine on Earth, for an extended period of time, while also suffering heavy damages. How that works is beyond me. Why give them Earth if all you’re doing to do next is send Gordon to blow up their Citadel and Alyx and Eli to generally cause havoc? He did explicitly refuse Alyx’s wish to get them off Earth. Is it part of some long-term plan to get at them somehow? I guess I’m the penguin here.
- Nihilanth dead. Makes total sense, as it gives G-Man and his employers control over Xen, the borderworld which is necessary for all intra-dimensional teleportation. Hey, maybe control over Xen is what allowed G-Man to mess with Gordon’s teleportation from Kleiner’s lab to Black Mesa East in Half-Life 2! Nobody seems to have looked into this.
Based on the above, as well as on how over-the-top the Combine’s measures to contain G-Man are, we can conclude that G-Man’s employers and the Combine are long-term enemies. Aside from that, we don’t know much, and may indeed never know much more.
It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that G-Man only wanted the resonance cascade to happen so that he could ultimately achieve control over Xen, and that the Combine came as some kind of extra unforeseen consequence. Nobody knows what G-Man wants with the Combine. It’s possible the Combine themselves don’t know the answer to that question.
Another puzzling thing that’s at issue here: why does an entity as powerful as G-Man, capable of apparently full control over space and time, require or be beholden to some superior, some employer? (Although, he is indeed surprisingly easy to tether once a handful of Vortigaunts get together.)
An interesting and possibly related element here is G-Man’s apparent relationship with Wallace Breen, a person we know has made a sincere intellectual effort at understanding the Combine, who has operated a research lab directly based on samples provided by G-Man, and who definitely stands to benefit from better understanding him.
- Breen actually mentions G-Man twice in Half-Life 2, which is a lot:
- “Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist who had hardly earned the distinction of his Ph.D. at the time of the Black Mesa Incident. I have good reason to believe that in the intervening years, he was in a state that precluded further development of covert skills. The man you have consistently failed to slow, let alone capture, is by all standards simply that—an ordinary man. How can you have failed to apprehend him?”
- “[Gordon] has proven himself to be a fine pawn to those who control him. […] Didn’t you realize your contract was open to the highest bidder?”
- Breen’s face flashes briefly during G-Man’s “heart-to-heart” with Gordon in “Episode 2” while G-Man is lamenting the “nay-sayers” to his saving baby Alyx from the Black Mesa Incident.
- G-Man was the way Black Mesa got the Xen crystals they used in the anti-mass spectrometer, and we know Breen and G-Man were both very intent on those experiments taking place. This further suggests Breen’s awareness and potential relationship with G-Man.
I don’t know what relevance, if any, G-Man’s relationship with Breen has on his relationship with his employers.
At any rate, Michael Shapiro’s thoughts on this are: “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.”
G-Man, “Half-Life: Alyx” and Nudging Timelines
By the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, it is possible that a number of things didn’t happen the way G-Man wanted:
- Eli is killed. A pawn against the Combine is lost.
- Gordon is running around outside G-Man’s control thanks to the Vortigaunts’ messianic worship of him. That’s another pawn lost.
- Alyx is destroyed by her father’s death and G-Man’s employers never liked her enough anyway.
G-Man decides that this timeline sucks, and that it’s time to employ another nudge. So he goes back five years before Half-Life 2 and gets himself locked up by the Combine, predicting that Alyx will rescue him.
Once Alyx enters the Vault, there are multiple signs that G-Man is guiding her to him: during his imprisonment, waves of weird “G-Man energy” periodically radiate from his cell. More often than not, they open exactly the door that Alyx needs to go through, or grant her Russel gloves Vortigaunt-like powers that allow her to zap through Combine.
It’s also worth nothing that Valve did a really beautiful job in that final chapter of illustrating the surreal and Kafkaesque effects of G-Man’s prolonged influence on that poor apartment complex.
Once Alyx reaches the Vault, G-Man can maneuver her into accepting his “offer of employment” in exchange for saving her father; an offer rendered impossible to refuse given that in Episode 2, G-Man’s parting wish to Gordon was to simply ensure Alyx’s arrival to White Forest, thereby ensuring that she witnesses Eli’s death, thereby ensuring that G-Man can show her that particularly harrowing future where she cradles an Eli that’s bleeding through the skull. Who could say no to avoiding that timeline?
Freeing G-Man from the Vault legitimizes Alyx in the eyes of G-Man’s employers, who, despite dissatisfaction with Gordon since his Vortigaunt escapades starting in Episode 1, still didn’t have full confidence in Alyx as a replacement (by G-Man’s own admission in Episode 2). It leads Alyx straight to G-Man, who can then push her to alter the future, thereby authorizing him to secure her as a replacement for Gordon who hopefully won’t be as strong a rescue target for crowbar-worshipping Vortigaunts.
“But Nadim, if G-Man can see the future and navigate to the past, why didn’t he—?” Let me stop you right there. G-Man can see the past and future, but not within his own dimension, you know, the dream world he takes us into whenever he pops in for a chat. In that world, he does indeed appear to be constrained to linear time.
So, the events of Half-Life: Alyx have set a new timeline in motion: at the end of the game, Alyx is likely returned outside of the Vault unharmed and with no memory of what just occurred. Half-Life 2 happens as it did before. Gordon shows up, destroys the Citadel, gets plucked out. Then it’s time for Episode 1.
Notice how in the opening scene of Episode 1, G-Man doesn’t have his briefcase? :-)
That’s because he handed it to Alyx in the ending scene for Half-Life: Alyx.
Now, that G-Man is the one who is prepared for the Vortigaunt’s interference, and the same who recognizes that for the time being, the only use he can have for Gordon is to make sure he sees Alyx safely to White Forest so she can see Eli die since she’ll be hired at that exact moment and put in stasis instead of Gordon after her past self saves Eli and accepts G-Man’s offer of employment.
This might actually mean that Gordon has been “fired” by G-Man, which might mean that he could be instrumental in discovering what the hell he is and who the heck his employers are in Half-Life 3. That is, if Eli doesn’t make good on his promise and strangle G-Man to death first. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to the brawl between an African-American scientist in his sixties and a sinister interdimensional bureaucrat with full control over space and time.
Minor Details: Breen and Kleiner’s Non-Appearance
I don’t think that Breen and Kleiner’s non-appearance is a big deal. Valve didn’t have a reason to make them part of Half-Life: Alyx and so they didn’t. Breen shows up on some newspaper covers and Kleiner’s book is seen in a bunch of places. I sure hope we’ll see at least Kleiner again next time.