Spoilers: Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Episodes One & Two
The first two significant characters Gordon Freeman encounters in Half-Life 2 serve well to establish the conflicts he will face. First, waking him up from one of the proposed two endings in Half-Life is a person simply known as G-Man (seemingly a reference to the often derogatory term to name government officials). Then, upon leaving the train on which Gordon finds himself, he hears the voice of Dr. Breen–a voice that will follow him quite a few places.
These two men are seemingly opposite in the power struggle into which Freeman finds himself thrown, seeing as it is G-Man who brings back Gordon and throws him into this struggle. Almost, but not quite. While G-Man’s motives are relatively mysterious, and his full import has yet to be laid out in full, Dr. Breen is fairly straight-forward, representing the Combine that is your primary enemy in the game. In contrast, G-Man is a man who works in some interdimensional space, and while he can often be seen about in the world, he is a puppetmaster that makes Breen’s own efforts seem inconsequential, particularly as it seems to be G-Man who is indirectly guiding Gordon’s actions. From here I’d like to work from the outside in, so will start examining Dr. Breen.
Dr. Breen is revealed to be the former administrator at the Black Mesa facility. It is quickly revealed there are deep-seated issues between he and Eli Vance. It becomes apparent that Breen negotiated a peace with the Combine, that included selling off humanity. As is usually the case with power, he obtains it by willingly trading off other peoples’. While that power seems absolute, the way Breen is depicted shows how precarious his position actually is.
He sits high in an office in the Citadel, far away from the rest of the world’s concerns. Our first encounter with him is over a loudspeaker and through a monitor. While broadcasting those messages, he always has the demeanor of someone patiently and stridently defending his choices as the best for humanity–arguing away freedoms and instincts in praise of a larger plan. Yet, early on, when a teleporter incident goes awry and Gordon twice finds himself briefly in Breen’s lofty office, the man is shown to panic, losing the composure we see through most of the rest of the game.
Contrast how we can interact with Breen through most of the game as to how we are forced to do so with G-Man. While Breen’s voice drones on in the background, we have the option of moving on, not looking at his on-screen images, and progressing before hearing his speeches in full. G-Man on the other hand? Every encounter where he speaks is one where the player loses control, directly mirroring the impact Freeman is to have on the story. He cannot touch G-Man, let alone affect him in any way directly, whereas he is to be the cause of Breen’s downfall.
Ultimately, Breen is the face of the organization that is the Combine, and like many men in such a position, only a representative of the larger, underlying power. He is certainly a problem in his own right, but removing him does little to stop the larger issues at hand, as we find in Episodes One and Two.
Breen also offers a bit of a comment on gaming, as well as Gordon’s placement in the larger scheme of things. When Gordon is brought into Breen’s office at the end of the base game, he makes mention how Freeman is a fine pawn for those who control him, and almost mockingly states that Gordon didn’t understand that his contract was open to the highest bidder. This works on two levels: alluding to the contract that has been established at the end of the first game, and is invoked at the start of the game, as well as alluding to the issue of player control. As I read the scene, Breen was mocking my inability to alter the course of the scene at that moment. Yet, while I am immobilized in a trap, I can still move my head around and look about the room. Again, this serves in contrast to G-Man, who remains an unpredictable force in the story, who seems to be dictating not just Gordon’s, but my actions as well. This makes him a far more menacing proposition, despite our not directly fighting against him.
As I stated, every encounter where there is discussion with G-Man involves complete forfeiture of control. One cannot look away, move, or do anything but stare at him. Furthering the unease, the first-person perspective is used so that he vacillates between being far away and uncomfortably near. His speech patterns are off, and he has stresses on syllables that denote someone who is taking pleasure out of drawing out an interaction, and toying with his sentences–he is in no hurry, and his entire attitude seems bordering on flippant. The final note is that his facial expressions often seem misleading, offering opposing motives and reactions to Gordon within the same scene, leading any reading of him to be full of conjecture.
Throughout the series, he can often be seen at a distance, yet rarely ever reached. What comes of this is the air of someone interested in your actions, but watching from afar, constantly appraising and judging your actions. The one time this is called into question is when the Vortigaunts show up at the beginning of Episode One and drive him away from Gordon, which grants a reprieve for some time (and it is the one time his emotions seem fully keyed to the events at hand, as he is both flabbergasted and has a tinge of anger in his voice), until Alyx is wounded, and the Vortigaunts are distracted in healing her. It is upon his return that G-Man casts more doubt into the overall plot, outlining how it was he who spared Alyx’s life after the events of the first game, seeing a ‘potential’ in her. When he whispers a message to give to her father, it recalls a name of one of the chapters from the first game, Unforeseen Consequences. As is revealed when spoken to Eli, somehow, G-Man seems implicated in all the events as we have seen them, starting from the very beginning of Half-Life.
For G-Man, all people seem merely pawns who may be used, have their actions contracted to the highest bidder, and directed as he sees fit.
The struggle in this game therefore read to me as parallel to many of the struggles against kyriarchy one can see today. In particular, the word kyriarchy works well here, as it is not as simple and straight-forward a menace as patriarchy. It alludes to a struggle against interconnected forces that act as an oppressor. While Dr. Breen and G-Man’s aims seem wholly different, their predatory behavior and work at controlling those around them has much the same effect, and paints them in the same light. Particularly in contrast to the struggle being fought by the likes of Eli, Alyx, and the Vortigaunts.
This quotation from Breen, clearly angry as Freeman walks through the Citadel, is rather telling:
“Tell me, Dr. Freeman, if you can. You have destroyed so much. What is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.“
As anyone familiar with Derailing for Dummies can tell you, this is not far off from a common tactic used by varying degrees of privilege in marginalized spaces that offer critique of the larger kyriarchy.
Unfortunately for Dr. Breen, he is merely the face of a larger force and not the overarching lord he believes himself to be–hemmed in by the same restraints he hopes to use to control others. This force is one which we cannot fully conceive of quite yet; while we have small hints available here and there, as with the appearance of the Advisors, thus far the forces we face remain an unseen, but ultimately felt, oppressor with agents running through the world–even briefly taking on the others who have been part of the resistance, as seen with Dr. Mossman.
The G-Man’s involvement in all this becomes all the more sinister as he appears to be someone who is at once offering you small glimpses, as well as deliberately withholding information on the larger scheme. He is a gatekeeper of the larger events occurring in the world.
Half-Life 2 Analysis: