MCM Buzz talk to Mark Meer – Voice of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard

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It’s the ultimate hero fantasy; the world is doomed and due to a personal vision, only you know the end is coming. With nobody to back you up, you single handedly build a loyal group of followers, growing that into your own personal army, to lead the assault that saves all life from certain destruction, defying the odds and ensuring your name lives on in legend. This is the story of Mass Effect, the story of Commander Shepard. At the MCM London Comic Con we were lucky enough to be able to meet the man behind the legendary hero, voice actor Mark Meer, and discuss with him everything from cosplaying, how the Mass Effect fandom compares to others he sees at conventions, his future involvement in the Mass Effect series and his thoughts on everything from his favourite ways to play RPG’s to his work outside of video games. What are you waiting for? Read on and find out how many times he mentions the possibility of punching this reporter in the face.

BIjpIHTCQAAW5q3MCM: Could you start by introducing yourself for anyone who doesn’t know you?

Mark: Sure. Hello I’m Mark Meer, I do voices in video games. Also, as you might be able to tell, I am a nerd myself. I’m here today as Hyrda, one of the bad guys from Captain America, but my costume is not specifically from the movie or the comic book, this is my interpretation of what a Hydra officer’s dress uniform would look like. I’m known for being the voice of Commander Shepard, but I’m also random aliens, elves, Vorcha and Hanar.

MCM: In the Mass Effect games there must have been times where you were having conversations with yourself. Is it weird having to try and have a conversation with your own voice?

Mark: Certainly, it was strange but delightful. We use a system called VEDA (Ed – Bioware’s propietary software) where the other recordings in the scene are played back to you through your headset, so you’re not just acting into a vacuum. I believe I recorded Shepard first, it depends sometimes on what scenes are written because not all scenes are written in chronological order, so you’re essentially piecing together the game. That’s why you really rely on your director to give you context as to what is going on. We never see a complete script.

So, in scenes where I’m acting against myself, I would hear myself as I was doing the second part and watching those play out in the game was a lot of fun as well. There was the Biotic God Niftu Cal, who’s a Volus who was deluded into thinking he was a powerful Biotic, but was actually just on drugs. Shepard can knock him out or send him to his death which was great fun. In fact, some of the very first work I did for Mass Effect was me speaking to myself. It was for that original demo at E3 and the scene involved Commander Shepard threatening a Salarian bartender, who was also me which was interesting. At this point the game was gearing up, I’d already been cast as Commander Shepard, although when I first started working on the game I was designing all the alien soundsets, helping work out how all the alien races would sound. Because of that, I was some of the earliest Salarians; I guess I’m the reason Salarians kinda sound like Steve Buscemi. That first bartender in particular was very much Steve Buscemi. I don’t think he actually made it into the game though, they thought, “Hey, it might be a little too much,” and they dialed it back a little bit.

There were times where I was playing mercs. There was one in particular where someone was being held hostage and Shepard bursts into the room. I’m playing the merc who has a gun to the hostage’s head, then I shoot myself in the face. So yeah, there were many instances like that, there were several of those in the Dragon Age games too.

MCM: Considering that you do a lot of different and often interacting characters within Mass Effect, does your background in improv effect the way you tackle voice acting in games?

Mark: I’d say it helps immeasurably, because a lot of the time you’ll be dealing with what is essentially a cold read, you’ll hardly ever see your script before the session. You’re seeing your dialogue as it’s coming up and while it’s a little better with the VEDA system, being able to drop immediately into character and being able to roll with the punches that way, that really helps. Actually, I always promote improv as being invaluable in almost any branch of acting.

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MCM: Do you prefer playing the Mass Effect games as Paragon or Renegade Shepard?

Mark: I always do two playthroughs and I always start with the Renegade, followed by Paragon, so that it feels like I’m redeeming myself for being such an a**hole the first time through. That’s not just the Mass Effect games. I am a gamer so any game, like say Fallout, where you can be good or evil, I’ll be evil first, selling orphans into slavery or whatever. Being good the second time cleanses the palette of all the a**hole-ry.

MCM: And as an actor, which of those performances do you prefer recording?

Mark: Let’s face it, Renegade tends to have more fun with the snarky lines and while it’s not necessarily my performance, the Renegade interrupts are a lot more fun too. It’s pretty fun to throw someone out the window or, no offense, to punch the reporter in the face. Actually, the lady who plays the reporter who I can punch in the face is a very good friend of mine. Her brother was my best man at my wedding. I didn’t punch him, but I punch April every time I see her.

MCM: What was your favourite Renegade moment in the series?

Mark: Either getting to punch the reporter in the face or throwing a merc out the window. Oh, that and getting to finally kill Kai Leng.

MCM: Do you have a favourite line of dialogue from the Mass Effect games?

Mark: I always find myself coming back to that Shepard catchphrase “I should go,” because nearly every interaction in the game ends with that, or some variation on it. To Bioware’s credit they could’ve cheaped out and got Jennifer Hale and I to say that line once each and just used it again and again, but they did not, they wanted the various variations on it. Sometimes it’s, “I should go now,” sometimes, “I should be going,” but in whatever the form it was always that basic catchphrase.

For my favourite lines it does usually tend to be the Renegade ones like, “I’ll relinquish one bullet, where do you want it?”, things like that, or his cold one liners as he kills people, those are fun.

MCM: What’s the line you’re most often asked to say by fans?

Mark: The one I’m most often asked to record for peoples outgoing messages and things is usually some variation on, “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite blank on the blank.” Also “I should go.” Actually, I have a funny one that’s recently started. There’s a YouTube guy called Manslayer and he’s created a series called Gamer Poop. Basically what he does is cut up dialogue from popular games and then makes them say ridiculous things. He’s done them on Skyrim, on other popular games and I think he’s done four or five on Mass Effect. He created a new catchphrase for Commander Shepard which was, “We’ll bang, okay,” and as you have the option to sleep with a lot of people in the game you can see where that came from. So yeah, recently a lot of people have been asking me to record that. Last year at a con someone did get me to say that on tape and posted it to YouTube. I think it has over 100,000 hits now and it’s just me saying a phrase that I don’t actually say in the game. I would like to say that I highly admire Gamer Poop, I find the videos very, very funny.

MCM: The first Mass Effect had this very 70’s Buck Rogers vibe to it in places, which got a bit darker and more gritty as the games went on. What do you think about that?

Mark: I think they always had this plan for the series that it would have that hard edged realism, that it would be like 24 in space, that was always the intention. I think it just got a little more refined as the series went on. The graphics were a little more simple at the beginning so things didn’t look so dirty or beaten up, the skins didn’t have as much texture to them, from the outset that was the intention they’d wanted the series to be going.

mass_effect_group_shot_mcm_oct___12_by_kanikaniza-d5kjyp7MCM: When you first took on the role, did you have any idea how big the series would be by its conclusion?

Mark: I essentially knew that it was planned to be a trilogy, but there was no guarantee that we’d get to do a second or a third game. I’d worked for Bioware before; I’d been working with them since 1999 when I started on the Baldur’s Gate games and I knew they produced good games and quality is usually rewarded with success.

I didn’t have any idea how popular it would become. I do hear very flattering comparisons to Star Wars. I was just blown away by how ingrained in popular culture it became and how many people love it so deeply. Mass Effect fans especially have such a connection with their series. I’ll put them pound for pound with any fandom, even the super dedicated ones like the Firefly fans, the Browncoats as they’re called. They invest so much in the game, I think because of the relationships and the way they could become invested in the characters. I think the first time it really hit home for me how big the series was going to be was the first time someone walked past me at a con dressed as Commander Shepard.

MCM: Do you find that because before you get to play the games you’ve had to record every possible interaction, your enjoyment of the story is lessened? Do you feel that affects your investment in the characters?

Mark: I’ve previously described my experience playing Mass Effect as being like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, in that I know everything that’s happening. I don’t have a photographic memory but as I start to play a mission I’ll be like, “Ah yeah, it’s this one” and I’ll remember all the ways it can possibly end. In a sense it is like being Dr. Manhattan, I’m the puppet who can see the strings and is going through the motions as it were, but it’s really fun to see it all come together because it’s rare that I’ll have seen any visuals from the scene. I’ll occasionally see an animatic for when scenes had to be synchd up, but usually I’m just seeing text and don’t get to see it together until I see it in the game. That part is certainly rewarding, as well as bumping into some of my friends as aliens and going, “Oh hey, that’s Jeff.”

It’s a very unique experience, I know a lot of video game voice actors don’t actually play games themselves so I’m not sure how many other people share that experience with me. I know Jennifer doesn’t game so much because she’s busy doing action hero things like climbing mountains and things. I will say that it’s sometimes more fun for me to play a game like Dragon Age where I’m not necessarily privy to details of the plot. In Dragon Age it’s more like I’ll open a cave and accidentally discover myself as a bad guy, kill myself and move on. The fact is that with Mass Effect, because I was playing Commander Shepard, I knew pretty much everything about the plot going in. It does mean that in some ways it’s an odd experience to play the game going in.

MCM: Horrible question time, they’ve announced that there’s a new Mass Effect game in the works, have they asked you to be involved in any way?

Mark: I believe I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you even if I was. I would certainly like to be involved. I would point out that there are entire alien species that I am all of. I’m all of the Vorcha, all of the Hanar, many of the Volus, I was the Biotic God, so yeah, I’ll point that out.

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MCM: Where would you like to see the Mass Effect series go next?

Mark: Because the Mass Effect universe is so fully realised there’s almost infinite possibilities in terms of where they could go with it. They could do a more or less direct continuation forward with the story, you could jump back to the beginning, there’s just so many things fans would like to see. There’s the First Contact War between the Humans and Turians, you could have concurrent storylines running parallel to Shepard battling the Reaper threat, you could explore the backstory of other characters or even skip to ten thousand years in the future and have the adventures of Buzz Aldrin and his friends or something.

MCM: What do you think it is about Commander Shepard as a character that makes him such a fan favourite? Why do you think he stands out when compared to other characters in similar stories?

Mark: I think it’s the fact that Bioware actually put players into this character. It’s one of the first games where the player character in an RPG was fully voiced and where the players had so much input with their Commander Shepard’s personality and their background. That’s what I think let people really buy into it.

MCM: What’s next for you, now that Commander Shepard’s storyline is complete?

Mark: Next up I’m going to be working on the Baldur’s Gate games actually. I’ve already done voice work on Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition and I’m currently doing voices for Baldur’s Gate 2 Enhanced Edition. I’ll be doing a number of roles, my NPC from the first game Rasaad will be returning for that. I’m also working on a number of things in Canada too, The Irrelevant Show for CBC Radio, that’s a national sketch comedy show which has just been renewed for another season. Also I do a television show called Tiny Plastic Men which I’m a writer on, that’s about three guys who are prototype testers at a toy factory. Beyond that I’m working on a webseries called Versus Valerie, it’s a great series about a geeky girl who imagines her life through the lens of various fandoms. There’s a Star Wars episode, a Sherlock episode and a Star Trek episode. I show up in the Doctor Who episode, playing a character called The Doctor.

MCM: Do you have a favourite alien race to act?

Mark: The Vorcha were a lot of fun, there was lots of screaming, screeching and filling my mouth half with water to get their gurgling done, so they were always great to play, space orcs essentially. There was lots of just banging myself against the sides of the sound booth trying to get it right.

The Hanar are really interesting because they have that really weird way of speaking, “This one….. wishes to do things…..,” however Blasto was a real treat to perform. I come from a comedy background so getting to play comic relief characters like Blasto and Niftu Cal was really nice, we’d often save those for the end of the day after several hours of Shepard.

MCM: What inspirations did you draw from when creating Commander Shepard’s voice?

Mark: I’d say I drew from every action hero ever. Specifically I’d say some of the touchstones were Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Kiefer Sutherland too. I wasn’t doing an impression of then but I’d say that those sort of things informed my voice.

tumblr_m2t6tmC9XY1ru5hgmo1_r1_500MCM: Knowing how into costume making you are, and how long you’ve been working on video games with Bioware, have the two effected each other in any way? Which of them came first in your life?

Mark: This is my second costume of the day. I just now was wearing my full Commander Shepard armour at a big Mass Effect cosplay rally outside. That was built recently for me by a friend of mine who makes them, they’re very expensive suits of armour and he gave one to me for free. David Carpenter is his name and I have to make sure I promote him for that fantastic gift he gave me. I guess it’s always been something I’ve done, I used to be very into Halloween which is my wedding anniversary, so I have a big party every year. I didn’t start costuming at cons until probably about 2005, so I guess I’d already been working for Bioware at that point, but I’d always had very elaborate Halloween costumes and they were usually things like Bizzaro Superman or other things from comic books and pop culture.

MCM: Can we briefly talk about the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy? What was your take on it all?

Mark: I tend to think of it more as a misunderstanding that required clarification that I think the Extended Cut really did provide quite nicely. I will say now for the record that I had absolutely no problem with the original ending. It’s not really my place to say, “Well I think it should be this way.” My job is ultimately to bring the writers vision to life and I had no problem with that vision. That may have been because I understood things about the game and was privy to information that a fan wouldn’t necessarily be. There were a lot of people who jumped to the conclusion that because they saw the Mass Effect relays spark that all the Mass Effect relays were irreparably destroyed, that the galaxy was destroyed, that the whole armada was trapped on Earth, that Tali and Garrus were doomed to die because they couldn’t digest the food where they were on the planet where they crashed, and so on. I knew that wasn’t necessarily the case. I think the extended edition clarified a lot of those things and even more so Citadel, the final DLC, gave people that goodbye with all of their favourite characters. It’s my favourite piece of DLC so far in that it has such an incredible amount of fanservice, the amount of in-jokes, the amount of emotional closure in that, it was just so much fun to record.

When the game originally came out I think my favourite ending was the Destroy ending, because of course it was the one where we got the possibility that Shepard might still be alive. After the Extended Cut I think I’d say Control was my favourite ending, because Shepard becomes an immortal Reaper God and I got to voice that ending.

MCM: Have you had any particularly memorable fan encounters at conventions? Either particularly heart-warming experiences or slightly strange fans?

Mark: I have to say I’ve seen some very impressive costumes, props and weapons, somebody built a Reaper. As I said Mass Effect fans are just so passionate and creative, it’s amazing to be able to be a part of something like that.  

 

You can follow Mark Meer on Twitter at @Mark_Meer and learn more about his improv work here.

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