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Interview

We Chat With Mark Meer About Finding A Character’s Voice, The Everlasting Love For Mass Effect And The Allure Of Tabletop RPGs

Our favourite interview on The Citadel

I stopped short of asking Mark Meer to say that WellPlayed is his favourite video game outlet on The Citadel, purely because I know it’s true and don’t need a sound bite to prove it. An acclaimed voice actor and veteran in the tabletop RPG scene, Mark is the Keeper of Arcane Lore for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu series, a frequent Bioware collaborator and collector of exceptionally cool memorabilia. Above all, though, Mark Meer is the voice behind male Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect Trilogy, a character that many of us have spent dozens of hours playing as, whether it be as a heroic keeper of intergalactic peace or dirtbag space cop.

Ahead of his appearance at PAX Aus 2024, I sat down with Mark to chat about his experiences with the Mass Effect series, the difficulty of voicing a character with two opposing moral standpoints, his love for TTRPGs and heaps more.

We had a great chat that, if you would prefer to watch and listen to, you can do so right here:

WellPlayed: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to have a chat with me, I really greatly appreciate that. I was looking forward to seeing all of your wonderful bits and pieces behind you. I’ve seen a couple of your other interviews and your RPG appearances, and you’ve got quite the collection. What’s the standout piece for you? For me, on the left-hand side, maybe the more Lord of the Rings-oriented ones, but what stands out to you the most from your collection?

Mark Meer: I do have a number of Lord of the Rings weapons on the wall, including that Morgul Blade, which I actually managed to get at the WETA Workshop itself when I was in New Zealand in 2018. But I would say the crown jewel is probably the handmade Necronomicon that I’ve got. Here we are. So this I actually got as a 10th anniversary gift for my wife. We were married on Halloween, so apropos. This was made by an artist by the name of Jason McKittrick, and it was actually used in an off-Broadway production of an adaptation of The Hound, which is a Lovecraft story. And, of course, they could have simply done the pages that it was meant to be open to, but he actually did the entire book, so it’s pretty great. 

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WP: I mean, you can just kick back and flick through and read just whenever you like, of course. 

MM: Of course, I don’t read Latin myself, and I suspect it’s probably just stuff about Aqueducts. Who knows, but yes, it’s my favourite piece.

WP: I should kick off with a video game or board game-related question, but as you’re an Edmonton native, are you a hockey fan, or are you just having to deal with all of the crazy hockey fans that have kind of descended upon Edmonton at the moment? 

MM: I’m afraid I’m a classic nerd, so comic books and horror movies and role-playing games and video games are the sort of things I’m interested in. Sports has never really been something that held my attention, but you know you live in Canada, and by osmosis, you know a few things about hockey, so I wish the Oilers were the best. I think if they don’t win tonight it’s all over so. [editor’s note: the Oilers won that night but lost the Stanley Cup]

WP: Shifting gears back into what the people are here for now. Your career has obviously spanned across a great many series but you’re probably most well known for the voice of Commander Shepard. Throughout the Mass Effect Trilogy, players can either take the heroic approach and they can go Paragon, or they can be a bit of a space bastard and go Renegade. How did you find the process of finding the different voices for the same character, just on differing sides of the morality scale? 

MM: Well, of course, that was a challenge that both Jennifer Hale, who plays the female Commander Shepard, and I faced because very few people will tend to play pure Paragon or pure Renegade. They’re going to be making choices from either side. In the recording process, we would tend to go through and record the entire Renegade path or the entire Paragon path first in a given scene, then go back and do the other path. However, one thing that we really had to watch out for was having wild mood swings if someone was going back and forth in between. So, a couple of times, we did have to re-record scenes because we needed to even things out because the Renegade and the Paragon sounded too different. You have to make it so that someone could theoretically choose a Renegade line and then choose a Paragon line for the next response without there being a wild mood swing. 

Knowing that Mark and April are friends makes these scenes even better

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WP: Is that style of recording something you would be happy to revisit, or was it a bit of an arduous task that you’re happy to be on the other side of?

MM: No, not at all. I mean, let’s face it, we do get paid by the hour generally, so the more dialogue there is, the more we’ll be in the booth. So I was certainly up for the challenge, and it was a real honour to get to blaze the trail, as it were, because Shepherd was one of the first fully voiced protagonists in an RPG and while it may be an easier job if you’re playing a villain NPC or a side character who only has one emotional path or they have a set character, as opposed to a character like Shepherd, which is entirely moulded by player choice.

Shepherd could be anything from a complete Boy Scout to a borderline psychopath, still saving the galaxy, sure, but not being very nice about it. So yeah, that was a challenge. Early in the process, we sort of came up with what is the core of Sheperd, whether Renegade or Paragon, and that is a military officer who’s used to giving orders under pressure and maybe not necessarily showing that much emotion in the given scene, so that does help justify the path that we’re taking in terms of not having wild mood swings. 

There’s is the final line of the Citadel DLC, which is, “Hell of a ride, Shepard”, and Shepard just responds, “The best,” and that was literally the final line that I recorded in everything that I ever did Mass Effect.

WP: In that process, what kind of context are you given for each scene? Are we talking about a full movie script or between takes requests? Without context, I can imagine it would be difficult, particularly in scenes where you’re knocking out a reporter, if you choose the Renegade option. I also understand you’re friends with the poor reporter as well?

MM: Yes, April Bannigan and her brother Jacob Bannigan, who was the Best Man at my wedding, so yes, I’ve known them both for many years. Yeah, we certainly had fun with the relationship that Sheperd and Khalisah al-Jilani have in the video game. 

In all of our recording sessions, our directors were invaluable in giving us context. I did most of my recording up here in Edmonton, so I worked with Shauna Perry on the first game and then Caroline Livingstone and then later Suzanne Hanka a bit on the third game. They were the ones that gave us context with what’s happening in each situation where we are in the greater narrative.

[More context is given] in scenes with lots of action or where you needed to really figure out where the characters were in the space. For example, shouting over a chasm or in a giant warehouse, and there are some boxes in between you and the group on the other side. So, on occasion, we would be given very simple animatics to look at scenes with lots of action or where there were going to be explosions to speak over. When I say simple animatics, it was often just an orange rectangle to show you the various areas like “that’s you, these blue rectangles are the other guys and here’s a rough look at the room that you’re in,” so yes, the context that came to us through our directors was invaluable.

WP: I have to ask, have you ever received a discount for endorsing something as Shepard?

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MM: In the spirit of that joke, of course, I am always willing to endorse whatever as Commander Shepard, it would be against the spirit of the entire thing if I said no. Certainly, at conventions, fans have had me record, “This is my favourite telephone voice message on The Citadel,” and that sort of thing. Of course, at these conventions, sometimes they do give me something from their booth for saying that their booth is my favourite booth on The Citadel. That’s always appreciated because, as you can see, I’m a nerd and a collector myself.

WP: Speaking of particular voice lines from across the trilogy, is there a voice line or a few voice lines that stick out to you as your favourite? “I should go” sticks out as a favourite to me.

MM: I do like that one in particular because it was in no way intended to be a catchphrase, but Jennifer and I said it enough times that it made it the de facto catchphrase. Writing just “I should go” on people’s merch is fun. There’s also a line that’s not actually in the games, but I write on fan stuff as much as I write anything that was actually in the games, and that is “We’ll bang, okay?” Which is from the mans1ay3r YouTube videos. I was a fan of mans1ay3r back in the Skyrim days so I was very excited when somebody told me he did a Mass Effect one. I say probably second after “I should go” is “We’ll bang, okay?” is what I end up writing on things.

There are a lot of great lines from those games. A favourite renegade line would be “That was for Thane, you son of a bitch” and also “I’ll relinquish one bullet, where do you want it?” that’s from a scene where people are trying to divest some of their weapons something happens. Then there’s is the final line of the Citadel DLC, which is, “Hell of a ride, Shepard”, and Shepard just responds, “The best,” and that was literally the final line that I recorded in everything that I ever did Mass Effect. The Citadel DLC itself had a lot of killer lines and poignant lines, but also hilarious lines, like making the joke about “I should go” in the Citadel. Lots of great stuff, so it’s hard to pick when there are literally tens of thousands of lines that I said.

WP: The original game was released in 2007, and then Mass Effect 3 wrapped everything up in 2012, but the games are still played and loved today, over ten years later. What do you think gives the series such incredible staying power, and why do you think it resonated with so many people? 

MM: Bioware did such a great job in creating the world. If you wanted to, you could spend your entire Mass Effect experience just reading Codex entries. I have the advantage of being in on it from before the recording process, literally on the ground floor, because before I was cast as Commander Shepard, I was brought in when everything was still in the concept art stage, and the narrative hadn’t been nailed down. I was brought in to essentially do a presentation on what a typical member of every alien race might sound like. This was just at the spitballing stage, so it was a lot of “maybe like this, maybe like that?” and some of my suggestions they took. I’m the reason that the Salarians all kind of speak with the cadence of Steve Buscemi. In fact, I think the very first thing that I laid down was a Salarian bartender. He had that sort of clipped [dialogue], specifically Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs as Mr. Pink. 

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It wasn’t rocket science. I thought [the Volus] wear a sort of mask apparatus, they should have a wheezing sound in between everything they say. Something, again, that was very obvious was that the Krogans should probably be big and gruff and have deep voices. There was some stuff that I’d suggested that didn’t end up being followed because of other practical concerns. The Turians, specifically because of the structure of their mouths, I pitched that they should have a little clicking sound when they talk or at the end of sentences. This was before Garrus was going to be a main character in the game, so it was decided that it would get old very quickly because we have a Turian, so they ended up just going with a filter for a Turian. There were some alien races that I got to play most. For example, anytime you see a Vorcha, it’s me. I think I’m most of the Hanar as well, including Blasto, of course, who is, in some ways, my favourite character, no offence, Shepard. 

WP: Did you have to do Vorcha lines at the end of the day? I would imagine it’s quite taxing.

MM: We would usually do any Vorcha stuff at the end of the week, just to give your voice a whole weekend to recover because there was no particular technique, I was just screeching as loud as I could with a mouth half full of water.

Pictured: Mark in a sound booth with a mouth full of water

WP: You’re a frequent collaborator with Bioware, and they do have a game coming up in Dragon Age: The Veilguard, so can we expect to maybe hear your voice in the mix there?

MM: I am not in that game, but I look very much forward to playing it. I have been in a lot of the other Dragon Age games. Such significant roles as Lyrium Merchant and Red Templar. 

But I did actually get to play a few memorable characters in the franchise. In Dragon Age 2, I am a prostitute named Jethann, and he works at The Pearl, which is a bordello. And I have it on good authority that everyone sleeps with Jethann. I was just at Game Con Canada last weekend and I did make the joke that Jethann has slept with more people than Commander Shepard, which is actually quite an achievement. 

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WP: Many will know you as Commander Shepard, but you’re also Chaosium’s Keeper of Arcane Law for their Call of Cthulhu series. What draws you to tabletop role-playing games? 

MM: It’s probably my origin as a person who pretends for a living. I was playing role-playing games long before I did any acting whatsoever. I went to school in a very small town on the Canadian prairies, so we did not have drama. We didn’t have art in high school. There was no drama program, no art. I’d been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was in the fifth grade, so I think it was 10 years old when I started playing. So it was the first experience I had of doing voices in front of an audience or improvising, really, because when you were a Dungeon Master, as I was, any plan that you have goes out the window once it meets the player characters. So you have to improvise the narrative on the fly. I do a lot of theatrical improv now, but unlike a lot of people, I did not do it in school at all. Dungeons & Dragons was my creative outlet.

WP: It’s not a fitting question to ask a tabletop fan, but do you have a preference between being a player or a Dungeon Master?

MM: I started playing when I was quite young and with some older kids. So I was very into it at the point where they started to get out of it; some people moved away, and others started going on dates instead of spending weekends playing role-playing games. Because I was younger, I hadn’t grown out, and still haven’t grown out of it now. But I certainly wasn’t ready to lay it down then, so I realized that the only way I could keep playing D&D was to learn how to be a DM and then teach other people how to play Dungeons & Dragons. And that would be the only D&D playing that I would get. So I was a forever DM for quite a while until one of my players eventually said, “I’d like to run a campaign”. And I was very grateful for that. 

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of game mastering and DMing, but for a number of years, I was just doing drop in games. I do a lot of travel for theater and work with improv companies a lot,  and the Venn diagram of improvisers and nerds is sometimes just a circle. So often, with the local improv troupe, there would be somebody who had a regular D&D game, and so I would drop into those and either NPC or just bring in a character for a night.

So, it had been a while since I got to scratch the DM itch. And in fact, to scratch that, I started an improv show called Improvise Dungeons & Dragons at Rapid Fire Theater here in Edmonton. And it is what it sounds like, which is basically having people as the PCs in full costume with all their props and weapons and everything like that. I would be in some neutral black robe as the Dungeon Master, doing everything a Dungeon Master does, which is play all of the monsters and anyone else that they run into. That was a lot of fun. I started that back in 2010 and then subsequently got to do that at festivals over in England, in Dad’s Garage Theater in Atlanta, and at conventions like Dragon Con. 

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I’ve always been the guy who buys the [D&D] books to read them just for his own pleasure. During the 3.5 era, I was buying everything Ravenloft-related, all the Gazatteers and third-party stuff, anything I could get my hands on. I’m not sure if I got anything for fourth, but when fifth came out, I got right in on the ground floor, bought all the books and got back into DMing and it has been fun.

A very long answer to your question is: these days, I’m even Steven. I’ve been able to do plenty of both recently. Usually, whatever I’m pining for is what I’ve got to do the least. If I’m stuck being the DM for a long time, I really want to play, and if I’m just being a player for a long time, I’ll want to run a campaign again. 

I see the obsession with Ravenloft. Just take a look at Strahd

WP: When you are playing, do you have a preferred race or class? 

MM: I almost exclusively play spellcasters, given a choice. Usually, if I’m creating my own character, I want to have spells. Whether that’s wizard, warlock, sorcerer, or cleric, I know these days everybody’s got spells, but yeah, I like the casters. 

WP: You’ll be heading down to PAX Aus this year, which has a healthy choice of video and tabletop gaming. During these sorts of conventions, which side of the fence do you typically seem to lean towards? 

MM: It usually depends on the organizers because they’re the ones who usually decide my schedule. But when left to my own devices, I’d probably like to split my time between them. I’d also be seeing if there are any comics anywhere; see if anyone brought some long boxes into the dealer room. I’m also a collector of stuff. I enjoy cosplay and LARP and that sort of thing, so I’m often hunting around in the dealer room to see if there are any unique props or things like that that I can pick up for my collection. 

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WP: Tabletop RPGs are your bread and butter, but have you ever ventured into social deduction games like Werewolf or Secret Hitler? Perhaps you’ve tried the Australian-developed game called Blood on the Clock Tower?

MM: Yes, I certainly played Mafia and Werewolf at parties and things like that. And there are RPGs out there that really break the mould. Particularly, I’ve enjoyed Alice is Missing, if you haven’t had a chance to play that, I highly recommend it. It’s a phenomenal game. You play a lot of it using your phone, just like you’re getting texts from each other. I’ve had a couple of chances to play it on the streams. 

Oh, and the Call of Cthulhu, of course. 

WP: What is it that draws you to Call of Cthulhu? Is it just that myth or something about the gameplay? 

MM: Well, yes, the mythos also is the lore, of course. But also the fact that Dungeons & Dragons is basically a power fantasy. You’re the hero, you’ve got lots of powers and cool fantasy pets. In Call of Cthulhu, you’re basically just meat for the mill. You’re a victim in a horror movie, and the best that you can hope for is to escape without going too insane. So where a lot of RPGs are a power fantasy, it’s a powerless fantasy. 

WP: We certainly look forward to seeing you when you come down for PAX Aus later this year. Thank you so much for taking the time to have a chat with me Mark.

MM: Thanks, Adam.

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Mark Meer will be a special guest at PAX Aus 2024, running from October 11-13 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Written By Adam Ryan

Adam's undying love for all things PlayStation can only be rivalled by his obsession with vacuuming. Whether it's a Dyson or a DualShock in hand you can guarantee he has a passion for it. PSN: TheVacuumVandal XBL: VacuumVandal Steam: TheVacuumVandal

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