If you've played any Bioware RPGs, chances are you've heard the voice of Mark Meer. He's an unsung hero of voice acting, and until recently he was often only credited with 'Additional Voices' though he finally took on a leading role as the male voice of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series.
With Mass Effect 2 nearly upon us, we at RPGSite decided it would be an ideal time to sit down with Mark and talk about his work on the series and gaming in general!
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RPGSite: Hi Mark, thanks for your time. How are you today?
Mark Meer: Good, thanks.
RPGSite: We are just a few weeks removed from the holidays, so did you enjoy the season?
Mark: I did, thanks for asking. My wife got me a PS3, knowing full well it would result in me spending even more time playing video games. That's love, man.
RPGSite: I was talking to some friends earlier about our favourite Christmas memories, so just out of curiosity are there any memories of Christmas past that stand out for you?
Mark: Probably the year I got the AT-AT Imperial Walker I'd been asking for, complete with a bellyful of Snowtroopers. I've still got the AT-AT, but it's missing the cockpit cover...
RPGSite: We are here primarily to discuss your voice acting, but you are also a live performer, appearing in and hosting various improv shows. How did that first get started?
Mark: I got my start in acting through improv, specifically Theatresports. I was in my first year of Science at University when I discovered improvised comedy - my high school didn't have a drama or music program, and Dungeons & Dragons was about as close as I'd ever come to acting. I quickly learned that I preferred performing to looking at petri dishes. I was very fortunate to be mentored by members of the Canadian comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie, who suggested training with Edmonton's Rapid Fire Theatre, and here I am today.
RPGSite: You are here in London for one of those live shows – have you ever performed in the UK before and if so how do the audiences compare to those across the pond?
Mark: I'm performing with my troupe Die-Nasty, and yes, we've been here several times. I've noticed that audiences over here don't seem to understand obscure references to Canadian politics - very odd.
RPGSite: For this particular show you will be performing without sleep for 50 straight hours. It sounds crazy but it is not the first time you have done such a show, so how many times have you done it before?
Mark: The show I'm doing in London is called the Improvathon, a 50-hour improv comedy marathon based on Die-Nasty's own "Soap-A-Thon" which we perform annually in Canada. I was actually the first performer to ever complete the whole thing without sleep. Counting the shows we've done in England, I think this will be my sixteenth time all the way through.
RPGSite: What is the thinking behind these marathon productions – why do it at all?
Mark: Well, pretty much the same reason you'd spend countless hours playing an RPG. Because it's fun! The Improvathon is one of my favourite things to do. Unlike short-form improv, this format involves a continuous narrative, so it's great to take your character through a three-day journey, while at the same time entertaining the audience. The sleep deprivation is also a big part of it. As an improvisor, any planning or forethought goes out the window, and you find yourself reacting completely in the moment with what our director calls your "lizard brain", the bit we mammals inherited from the dinosaurs. I've heard it described as "like being on acid, legally".
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RPGSite: How and when did you first make the leap from improv acting to voice acting? Did you find it a difficult transition or did you take to it straight away?
Mark: I think my first voice work would have been with CBC Radio, performing sketch comedy that I also wrote. It was a pretty smooth transition, as I've always enjoyed doing voices (even back in my aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons days). Since then, in addition to my voice work with BioWare, I've worked on cartoons, acted as the station-identification voice for Canada's Family Channel, and have been a cast member and writer on several seasons of CBC's national radio sketch comedy program The Irrelevant Show, the latest of which we're in the middle of recording.
RPGSite: You do seem to have a particularly strong relationship with BioWare, as you have appeared in several of their games over the years. When did you first become involved with them and why have you stuck with them for so long?
Mark: My first work for BioWare was a single line at the end of Baldur's Gate 2, which I still recall - "There is no need for concern. The fate of this fool is sealed." I was a mysterious hooded wizard, standing around plotting with some other equally-mysterious hooded wizards. BioWare seemed to like me, because they kept calling me. I stuck with them because they also kept paying me.
RPGSite: It looked like you had found a niche for yourself, providing Additional Voices for their many games, when you were suddenly cast as the lead character in the Mass Effect series. Could you tell us a little about how you got the role?
Mark: It's true, I never expected to be cast as the lead in Mass Effect. When the game was first announced, I assumed I'd be getting some work as random aliens. In fact, I did some early work on the game determining how the various alien races in the M.E. universe would sound. When I was asked to audition for Shepard, I really wasn't holding out any hope and was assuming the part would go to someone from L.A.... I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.
RPGSite: Were you surprised by how popular the first game was upon its release?
Mark: Happy, but not surprised. Having seen a fair bit of the game before its release and being a fan of RPG's myself, I knew it would be a hit.
RPGSite: Is it difficult to keep track of where you are when recording a game like Mass Effect, when there are several different possible options for practically every situation?
Mark: That's where I rely on my director, Caroline Livingstone - she keeps everything straight.
RPGSite: Do you have any creative input when it comes to how a line is written or directed, or is it just a matter of reading your lines and going home?
Mark: It's a true collaboration - Mac Walters, the lead writer, would sometimes sit in on recording sessions, so we could get dialogue changes cleared right away.
RPGSite: Have you ever played the original Mass Effect, perhaps as the female Shepard to hear how someone else approached the role - and if so, are you good, neutral or evil?
Mark: When I play RPG's, I generally play evil on my first go-through, then switch to good for the second so I can feel like I'm redeeming myself and making amends to all those poor folks I screwed over for quick cash the first time around. I'll take this opportunity to say I'm honored to be working alongside the female Shepard, Jennifer Hale - she's easily one of the best voice talents in North America. Playing Mass Effect was a unique experience for me because I was privy to so many details of the plot. I'd start a mission, and then suddenly recall all the possible outcomes. In some ways it's more fun for me to play a game like Jade Empire or Dragon Age, where I can bump into myself as a random character, without such an in-depth knowledge of what's going to happen next. That said, I look very forward to playing ME2.
RPGSite: It is known that at the start of Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard goes through some really big - and shocking - changes. Was there any talk about changing your approach to the character as a result?
Mark: True, Shepard's been through some changes, but at heart he's still the same selfless, noble hero he's always been... or the same ruthless, violent bastard he's always been, depending on your individual gaming experience.
RPGSite: Do you think it will be necessary for someone wanting to play Mass Effect 2 to have played the original game first or is it designed in such a way that anyone will be able to pick it up and play?
Mark: It will of course be a richer experience if you've played ME1, but BioWare's done a great job of bringing new players up to speed.
RPGSite: The sequel is reported to be far larger than the original game, so we can only assume that means an increase in dialogue. How big was your script for the second game compared to that of the first and how much longer did it take to record?
Mark: Those reports are correct. I spent most of last summer recording my ME2 dialogue - it's HUGE. I'd estimate I spent at least twice as much time in the booth as I did for the first game.
RPGSite: Do you have a favourite moment or line in the whole series so far?
Mark: Hard to pick... Shepard's interactions with obsessive fan Conrad Verner and reporter Khalisah Al-Jilani are a lot of fun, and they're voiced by my friends Jeff Page and April Banigan, so I quite enjoyed that. I'm a huge fan of Lance Henriksen, so getting to work with him as Admiral Hackett in the first game was a blast. I met him in person in Atlanta at DragonCon in 2008, and it was good to have an "in". We had a nice chat about voice work. I'm also a Battlestar Galactica fan, so it gave me a real "nerd-boner" working with the voices of fellow Canadians Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer on the new game. Nothing sexual there, by the way... and if there was, I was talking about Michael Hogan.
RPGSite: Did you know that some of your lines - such as "Goodnight, Manuel" and "It's just a big stupid jellyfish" - have become online hits, quoted by fans on a regular basis?
Mark: Yes, and I'm thrilled, though I really thought "I have to go" would take off. I think it's practically Shepard's catch-phrase.
RPGSite: With BioWare openly talking about how they consider the games to be a trilogy, is it safe to assume we can expect you back for Mass Effect 3? If so, did they sign you up one game at a time or were you on board for all three on day one?
Mark: Assume nothing, but yes, I have a contract. For a trilogy...
RPGSite: Without spoiling anything, has anyone spoken to you about where the greater series plot will go in a third game, or are you as in the dark as the rest of us?
Mark: In the dark, I'm afraid. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it for the safety of my friends and family.
RPGSite: Another BioWare title you worked on recently was the newly released Dragon Age: Origins, providing your traditional Additional Voices. Are there characters among them that stand out for you and gamers should keep an eye out for?
Mark: Let's see... I'm a few random townspeople, dwarves, and so on... I'm the Athras, the Dalish elf who suspects his wife may be a werewolf, and I play several of the werewolves you can actually speak to - the one who takes you to see Swiftrunner and the Lady of the Forest near the end of the Nature of the Beast quest, and also the werewolf guarding the wounded elves after the battle (assuming you side with the lycanthropes). I also voiced a number of the demons and Darkspawn for some upcoming Dragon Age DLC.
RPGSite: There is one BioWare title that had no voice acting whatsoever but the fans (read: I) demand to know – would you have been up for working on Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood if given the chance?
Mark: I'm afraid I don't have any particular attachment to Sonic, but if BioWare's willing to pay me, I'm generally willing to show up for work.
RPGSite: Why do you think BioWare have found so much success with their RPGs?
Mark: BioWare does a fantastic job of creating fully-realized universes for their games, and innovations like the Mass Effect dialogue system keep raising the bar for a fully immersive, interactive experience. Plus, there's all the sex - thanks, FOX News!
RPGSite: There has been a lot of debate about the ‘Crisis of Authorship’ in RPGs and whether companies such as BioWare risk no longer telling a story by placing so much control in the hands of the player. What are your thoughts - do you feel a game can tell an effective story without it being on a set course?
Mark: That's the challenge when creating franchises like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but I think it's more of a case of creating a flexible plot structure where the player is actually an active partner in telling the story - in determining how it unfolds. Control in the hands of the player can actually be a positive thing.
RPGSite: Just before we wrap up, it sounds like you are something of a gamer yourself, so are there any games that you are particularly looking forward to in the coming year?
Mark: I am indeed a gamer (one who tends to lean towards RPG's), as well as being a general all-round geek. I guess the (non-BioWare) games I'm looking forward to the most in 2010 are Fallout: New Vegas and DCU Online. As a side note, I'm also looking very forward to the Mass Effect action figures - can't wait until Shepard's on my shelf next to Doctor Doom and the Balrog...
RPGSite: And that is just about it. Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
Mark: I have to go.
RPGSite: Haha. Thanks again for your time, Mark, we truly appreciate it.
Once more, thanks to Mark for answering our questions and don't forget to buy your tickets for the London Improvathon, live from 22nd to 24th January! Plus, stay tuned to RPGSite for more on Mass Effect 2 - we've got the game in our hands now, and are hard at work on our full review!