One of the mainstays of the Half-Life series is the voice of Mike Shapiro. He plays a bunch of roles in the series, most notably your faithful ally Barney, and the strange, otherworldly G-Man. Shapiro has been involved in Half-Life since the first game, and now reprises his role as the G-Man in Half-Life: Alyx (opens in new tab). I recently spoke to Shapiro about voicing gaming's creepiest character, and here are some highlights from our conversation.
Hooking up with Valve
"I lived in Seattle at the time, and I had the good fortune of being part of that golden age of gaming. In Seattle there was Microsoft, Headbone, Humongous, Sierra, and a couple of other companies that came along at the same time. And I was part of the community of actors that worked with all of these studios, and I worked on some really neat titles, even before Half-Life.
"I had worked on something else with Bill Van Buren, who was one of the early producers of Half-Life. There was a studio in Seattle that we all worked at, Pure Audio, and that was kind of a hotbed of recording. And sometimes we'd record at Valve, which was in Kirkland at the time, not Bellevue."
Working on Half-Life
"I'd done a game called Torin's Passage, which was a Sierra game, and I played the title character. And I was doing a lot of theatre and music at the same time. I'm not sure how they came to know my work, but when we found the character of G-Man together very quickly, it was a very special relationship right from the off. I knew that Half-Life was a different kind of game. And G-Man and Barney were just terrific characters.
"You usually get to see a rendering of the character, but it might literally be a pencil sketch. You're usually working with the artists and designers as early as you are with the writers. They might not even be in the booth with you. It was probably Marc Laidlaw, Gabe Newell, or Bill Van Buren in there with me giving the direction for Half-Life."
Creating the G-Man's voice
"When you're recording a voiceover, you'll take a pass through the script exactly as it is on the page. Then you'll get asked if there's a different way the character might say a line, or if you want to try something else. Sometimes they'll love what we've recorded, but then I'll ask if we can have one more take.
"They gave me a little bit of background information on Barney and G-Man. Less so on the aliens. They probably just showed me a picture and said "How do you think the Nihilanth talks?" Then at some point I wondered if the G-Man's speech might sound like this, with the pauses and the skip-step, and that's what it ended up being."
On playing such a powerful, mysterious character
"I think the way he speaks is very connected to the way he manipulates the room, everything going on in it, and everyone in it. And that came pretty organically and pretty quickly. And it was so easy to step back into this many years later. It came right back into position.
"It's quietly, mischievously exhilarating. I know a lot more about him and his story than I've ever been able to say aloud. If you've played the Half-Life games, you'll understand what I mean when I say that I know both what has come before, and what is yet to come. G-Man isn't governed by time. On Twitter, my location is set as Inside of Time. That's where I think he moves from. He's not governed by the watch on anyone's wrist."(opens in new tab)
Making an impact
"I enjoy this character like few others. I've had the opportunity to play some really wonderful characters, and I've done other things too that have made a similar impact. I was the voice of the Easy Button, which was a huge thing here in the United States. It had a place in the world for a while, for a number of years.
"Being the voice of something like that, or playing a character like that, I feel a lot of responsibility. It's something I feel honoured to do. If G-Man's coming back, I'm happy to keep inhabiting him. He's absolutely a compelling set of eyes to look out at the world through."
On G-Man's briefcase
"In my office, I have my own G-Man briefcase. It's not a gift from Valve, though. Valve has given me some really neat gifts over the years for being connected with Half-Life. But this is one I purchased, because I know G-Man and I think I know what he has in that briefcase.
"As the artwork for him has improved, it has only lent more richness and integrity to the character. The more clearly you can see him, the more evident it becomes that you're not seeing everything that's going on. As they've stepped up the visual rendering of him, and the entire world, it's all given greater complexity.
"The more details we can see of him, the texture on his lapel, the clearer it is that he's playing a really long game. And I'm fairly certain that it's yet to play out. Contact with G-Man is a visceral experience."
You can always rely on Barney
"I have such a fondness for Barney. You can't kill the guy. He's always gonna come back in some form. And he never gets you the beer he keeps promising you. I so know that guy.
"One of the real pleasures of voicing a real array of characters is being able to experience life through these different guises. Barney is always close to getting it right, but doesn't quite pull through. But he's always got your back, and you never doubt that for a second."
You can follow Mike Shapiro on Twitter (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)