Becoming Master Chief

James Parkinson
James Parkinson
Becoming Master Chief

For 20 years, Steve Downes has portrayed Master Chief, appearing in each mainline game of the Halo series to date. In this episode, Steve shares the story of his time voicing John-117, from Combat Evolved to Halo Infinite. Downes details his process to get into character, drawing on the Halo backstory, and tapping into Master Chief’s emotions.

 TRANSCRIPT

JAMES PARKINSON: Halo - it’s one of the biggest game franchises in the world. Its extensive lore has inspired multiple games, books, graphic novels, merchandise, anime, and a live-action TV series. It all began with Halo: Combat Evolved, released as a launch title for the Xbox in 2001. And for two decades, one man has been at the centre of it all.

STEVE DOWNES: My name is Steve Downes, I am and have been for the last 20 years, the voice of Master Chief in the Xbox series Halo.

JAMES PARKINSON: Steve was a radio announcer when a phone call in 2000 saw him cast as the Spartan super soldier himself, John-117.

STEVE DOWNES: As with any actor's approach to any character, you want to really understand who he is. And once you can get a focus on that, ideally, the rest of it falls into place.

JAMES PARKINSON: Combat Evolved was just another gig when Steve was offered the role of Master Chief, but it changed the face of his career as Halo became a huge global success.

JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.

JAMES PARKINSON: For Steve Downes, his path to voice acting was a natural extension of his radio career. And like many people in radio, it starts with a love for music.

STEVE DOWNES: Well, it all started with the Beatles, let's blame it on them. And that was where my fascination with rock and roll really took flight. And I wanted to be a rock and roll star, I wanted to be in a band. And The Beatles, you know, our first awareness of them was on Ed Sullivan. So I was 13 years old when that happened, and immediately went out and talked my mum into buying me an electric guitar, and off I went, and just fell head-over-heels for rock and roll and playing music and that sort of thing. And fast forward to my college years and still playing in bands and all that, and at some point, you know, then realising I had to start making some career choices. And by that time I was a drummer, and being a drummer in a rock band didn't seem like maybe the wisest career choice a person could make. But I wanted to do something that kept me close to the music, and so I kind of thought maybe being in the production end of music, that appealed to me. And the closest thing I could get to that, in terms of getting some sort of educational background, was getting into radio and television. And started working at the college radio station, and I just never looked back at that point. I fell in love with radio, it kept me close to the music, and for the next 44 years, that's how I earned a living. And I often say that I never worked a day in my life, because it was never really work. It was just always a joy to be involved with it, from a music perspective, from an entertainment perspective, and it was the joy of my life for many years.

James Parkinson: When did you start to discover your voice, I guess, as a broadcaster?

STEVE DOWNES: I remember it very specifically. I was taking, you know, the introductory class to radio, Radio 101. And part of that was you had to create sort of a mock radio show and make commercials, and give newscasts, and all that stuff, as part of your grade. And I remember clearly, my teacher at the time - his name was Steve Dordy - listening to my little production that I made, and gave me some slight bit of encouragement. I mean, it was literally something like, “you know, you might be good at this”. And it might have been strictly that but you know, when you're 19 or 20 years old, and your academic career had been average at best, and mediocre, to have somebody in authority tell you that you might actually be good at something was all I needed. And man, I just took off from there. And not only did I love doing it, but now somebody was saying, “you might actually have an aptitude for it”. So it was very clear at that point that that's what I wanted to pursue. And it speaks to the influence that teachers have on their students, and that's not to be minimised in any way.

James Parkinson: Did you always have quite a deep voice as a young man?

STEVE DOWNES: I never thought of myself as having a deep voice. You know, I think my dad had a bit of a baritone delivery, but I never thought of myself that way, I was never conscious of it, I guess, until radio. And going back to the birth of FM radio when you had the sort of the stoned out FM jock, “We’re gonna play this next song from a band that you may have heard of”, you know, that was sort of the stereotype of the delivery. And I would do that, you know, and eventually it sort of became my speaking voice, really. But I was never consciously aware of it until, I suppose, well into my radio career that maybe I sounded a little different than other people.

JAMES PARKINSON: It was Steve’s voice that caught the ear of Marty O’Donnell, the audio director and composer at Bungie. But before Halo, Steve’s first entry into voice acting for video games was the 1999 PC game, Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator. He played a character named Gunnar.

STEVE DOWNES: Yes, that was a game that Bungie had developed. And it was a very simple sort of game, you know, and I had a minor part in it. But Marty O'Donnell, who did the casting for it, and would later do the casting and the music for Halo, used to listen to me on the radio in Chicago, and got a hold of me through my agent and just asked me to come in to read for this character in this game, and that's where the whole thing started.

STEVE DOWNES: I didn't really know anything about the video game world other than, you know, Mario Bros., and some of the obvious things, but I wasn't a gamer myself so I wasn't really familiar with the world.

STEVE DOWNES: But it is a different approach. You know, it's called voice acting, and you are acting, and so it was fun. I mean, I enjoyed it a lot. You sort of flex a different muscle, from a creative standpoint. I really enjoyed doing it, it was a lot of fun. I didn't have any sort of conscious awareness that it was going to lead to  anything, but I certainly enjoyed doing it.

JAMES PARKINSON: About a year later, Marty O’Donnell called again - this time for a brand new game in development at Bungie - Halo: Combat Evolved - and Steve would be voicing the main character. In hindsight, Halo was a big step up, but at the time, it was no different for Steve than the previous acting job.

STEVE DOWNES: You know, when I went into the studio to record for that, I probably had the same feeling I did when I went in the first time for the little PC game. I didn't really have an awareness that this was a step up. I don't think I thought of it that way, it was just another opportunity. What was interesting to me, was the story of Halo and the story of Master Chief and all that, and that excited me because I'm a bit of a science fiction fan anyway. And when Marty was describing the Halo universe and, and Master Chief's role in it, that was pretty - you know, that stimulated me, and it was exciting to be able to, “oh, this will be fun”, you know, like playing a character in a science fiction movie. And that's really how I approached it.

JAMES PARKINSON: Master Chief is a character of few words, but Steve’s recording sessions still took a few day’s work.

STEVE DOWNES: I think I may have done about three days, with, you know, two or three hours each one of which would be, you know, what I call the death sessions, where basically you going in for two or three hours and screaming bloody murder, because you know, the player has killed your character in some way. And you’ve got to create all these different effects for various stages of death, by misadventure. But the other two were basically just voice sessions. And even though the Chief didn't have a lot of lines, we had to make sure that it was exactly the way they wanted it. And I think maybe because it was only my second foray into doing video games, you know, there was a bit of a learning curve that I had to overcome, and so we got there. But yeah, that was about it.

JAMES PARKINSON: When Steve came on board during the development of Halo, he didn’t have any visual imagery to go off to interpret the character of Master Chief. Instead, Marty O’Donnell just gave him some basic direction.

STEVE DOWNES: So it was really the conversation with Marty and I, and Marty describing who the character was, how he came to be, what his role was in this game, and in this world. And then the big takeaway was, he said, “you know, think of him as a Clint Eastwood type character”. He said, “Think of Clint Eastwood, when he was doing all the old spaghetti westerns”, you know, For A Few Dollars More, and Fistful of Dollars. And you know, the character that he played there also did not speak much. But when he did, somebody was usually about to die.

Fistful of Dollars scene: “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said the man with a pistol’s a deadman. Let’s see if that’s true.”

STEVE DOWNES: So that's kind of who Master Chief is, for all intents and purposes. And so that was my focus, going into record then. And then we would work on some lines and refine it a little bit until, you know, we got it right where Marty wanted it, and then it went from there. But that was my initial sort of inspiration, if you will.

James Parkinson: What’s it been like working with Marty, as a voice acting director and someone who has shaped how these games sound, both from voice casting, as well as the music as well?

STEVE DOWNES: Well, I owe Marty everything. The thing about Marty was, he wasn't overly restrictive. He wasn't hovering over me like some people can be, you know, he let me breathe a little bit. He took what was essentially my approach and then refined it, and maybe pushed it in a, you know, this direction or that direction to help get it exactly to where he wanted it to be. But it felt like a collaborative effort, and I felt like I had some participation in it. Rather than just executing direction or executing demands. I felt like I had some role in determining, you know, how this character was going to sound.

JAMES PARKINSON: On the surface, some might say Master Chief is a little two-dimensional. But there’s a whole backstory to the character that Steve tries to bring out in his performance. And it starts with getting into the right frame of mind - and pulling on a special pair of footwear.

STEVE DOWNES: Just the act of putting those on, and how they feel around your feet and what memories they may bring, helps me to lock into character.

JAMES PARKINSON: That's coming up after the break.

[AD BREAK]

JAMES PARKINSON: The character of Master Chief was initially written and designed very intentionally to allow the player to embody the role of the hero through the game. He was given very few speaking lines and his full body armour and helmet obscured his identity, which Steve Downes says was a smart move.

STEVE DOWNES: I've always felt that Bungie’s initial approach to having the character be faceless was a bit of a stroke of genius, because I think it - when you look into the helmet of Master Chief what do you see? You literally see yourself, you see the reflection in his visor, you see the reflection - if you were literally looking into the helmet of Master Chief you would see your own reflection. And the point is that you get to be Master Chief when you're playing the game. You know, not only are, you know, taking the shots for him and all that, but hopefully, if we did our job right, you're inside his helmet and you become him, or he becomes you. And I think that by not having a face, you can project your own personality and face, if you will, into the character.

JAMES PARKINSON: But that was also a challenge for Steve, who had to bring the character to life, through his voice alone. And although Bungie’s original intent is still valid, Master Chief was also given a detailed backstory. The tie-in novel to Combat Evolved, called Halo: The Fall of Reach was published about two weeks before the launch of the game. The book was written by Eric Nylund and details Master Chief’s origins. Bungie were actually hesitant about the novel going ahead, believing it would detract from their whole faceless protagonist approach. In the end, it all evened out and added more weight to the Halo story.

STEVE DOWNES: As with any actors approach to any character, you want to really understand who he is, and the big benefit that I had with Halo, not so much in Halo 1 and 2, but after that, was the rich source material that sprung out of the game. I'm talking about the books and the comic books, and you know, the stuff that fleshed out the Halo story. And they were tremendously helpful to me, by the time we got around to Halo 3, and going forward, because you could really, you know, they expanded the story much beyond what the game could offer. And that helped me a lot in really understanding who this character was and how he came to be. And once you can get a focus on that, ideally, the rest of it falls into place. So that's what I was trying to do with Master Chief, was to get an understanding of you know, why he didn't speak much, you know what was that about? And you know, what was his relationship with Cortana? And how did that come to be? And what was his relationship with Dr. Halsey? And you know, to begin to understand who this guy is, and then keep that in mind when you're sort of lending your vocals to it, is to be able to give the right inflection and the right temperament.

JAMES PARKINSON: As the novels established, Master Chief - also known as John 117 - was raised as a soldier from childhood.

[Halo 4 Prologue cutscene]

Interrogator: "You kidnapped them."

Dr. Halsey: "Children's minds are more easily accepting of indoctrination, their bodies more adaptable to augmentation. The result was the ultimate soldier."

JAMES PARKINSON: As a teenager, he went through an extensive augmentation procedure to dramatically enhance his physical and mental attributes. So, while on one hand he’s kind of this blank character type that gives the player more freedom to project themselves into the game, there’s also so much more nuance in his backstory, which is considered canon in the Halo universe. For someone who was conscripted into the military as a child and moulded into a super soldier, there’s real trauma and pain in his past.

[Halo 4 Prologue cutscene]

Interrogator: "Records show Spartans routinely exhibited mildly sociopathic tendencies, difficulty with socialisation. Further…"

Dr. Halsey: "The records show efficient behaviour operating in hazardous situations. I supplied the tools to maintain that efficiency."

JAMES PARKINSON: And even though the games don’t really explore much of that themselves, it’s still a part of Master Chief that Steve is acutely aware of.

STEVE DOWNES: You know, exactly. You hit on it, there's pain underneath that. His emotions were sort of bred out of him, right? And so the emotional quality of Master Chief was always something that was just under the surface. And I would approach that as if I'm trying not to be emotional, to keep that in check. Because my interpretation was, and is, that Master Chief always feels like if his emotions got the best of him, it would be a liability to him. And it could be fatal, either to him or to the people who are depending on him. So he's constantly trying to keep that down. And I think there's also an element where he doesn't fully understand it, he doesn't really understand why he feels an emotional tug, about, you know, a particular character or the death of one of his soldiers or whatever, it's a confusing emotion to him. And so, you know, there's always that, “I can't let that out, because if I do, I'm not going to be able to perform my duties the way I've been trained to”. So that's sort of what I'm thinking of when I'm doing his character.

JAMES PARKINSON: For most actors, getting into the right mindset to portray their character effectively is really important. Some have a routine they go through to help themselves get into character, and Steve is no different.

STEVE DOWNES: Especially because, you know, the recordings for Master Chief, you know, the work of doing his voice is not something I do every day, you know, it comes about - it used to come about every three to four years. And now with Halo infinite, it's been over five years since the last game. So there's a significant amount of downtime between sessions. So you know, when I get the call, leading up to that session, you start to submerge yourself back into that world. And then once there, try to get yourself into character, to play this iconic super soldier. In this case, somebody that I've had the pleasure of knowing for over 20 years now. So there is the process, and I remember having a vocal coach a long time ago tell me, for any voice acting you may be doing, you use all the tools at your command, because unlike regular stage or film acting, there's nothing physical you can use. You can't use your body, you know, in a physical way to help convey who your character is, right? All you have is your voice. So you know, whatever else you can bring to the party to help you get there, do so. And she said, if it's a matter of a piece of clothing, or jewellery, or anything that helps you, in some abstract way, lock into that character, then use it. And in my case, it was an old pair of cowboy boots that I had, and that I happened to be wearing on the day that we did the very first Halo session. And so that became my thing, and I only use them now, I only wear them if I'm going in to record for Master Chief. They serve no other purpose. But that helps me - and it may sound strange, but I think any actor who's listening knows what I'm talking about. It’s that just the act of putting those on and how they feel around your feet, and what memories they may bring, helps me to lock into character. And so for me, that's what it is. It's a funky old pair of, you know, 25 year old cowboy boots that helps to get me where I need to be.

JAMES PARKINSON: As the Halo series of games have progressed, particularly with 343 Industries taking over development from Bungie, the story has been given a little more depth. For the original Halo trilogy, Steve’s recording sessions were all done alone. But with Halo 4, he was able to act alongside his co-star Jen Taylor, who plays the AI Cortana, because the story required a more emotional interaction between their two characters.

STEVE DOWNES: And that was tremendous - you know, when people asked me, “What's my favourite game?”, it’s Halo 4. Mainly because the experience of recording it was a totally unique experience that, you know, I got to work with Jen who is a tremendous actor, and we got to be in the studio together, doing these lines together. And it was just a great experience and one that I will always treasure. But that's literally the one and only time I've been able to work with another actor, in terms of Halo.

[Halo 4 cutscene]

Cortana: "I’m not coming with you this time."

Master Chief: "What?"

STEVE DOWNES: And it was a great decision on 343’s part to do it that way, and that's exactly why, especially in the scenes towards the end of the game where Cortana is becoming rampant and starting to come unraveled, basically.

[Halo 4 cutscene]

Master Chief: "It was my job to take care of you."

Cortana: "We were supposed to take care of each other. And we did."

Master Chief: "Cortana, please."

STEVE DOWNES: It was a great help, to me, certainly, and I think to Jen as well, that we could interact with each other in person. And I always remember, when we - I didn't know Jen that well, personally or professionally, before those sessions. We had met, I think a couple of months earlier, for the 10th anniversary of Combat Evolved, that was the first time we'd ever actually even met. And so it wasn't like we were old pals or anything, and we're in the studio recording the last, you know, the end of Halo 4, and so it was a very emotional scene for both of us. And I remember saying to Jen, before we started recording, I said, “Look, if I reach out for you and grab your hand, you know, understand it's just helping me to get a, you know, I don't want you to freak out or anything or pull away because we'll will break character”. But it's just like, “Oh, yeah, that's cool, it's fine”. So it comes to that point where we're leading up to that scene, and by this time now, I am so tunnel-vision that I completely forget where I am, and who's in the room with me. And I don't reach out for her, I don't reach for her hand. And the scene’s over and I look up and she’s standing there holding her hand out and is like, “Wow, dude, you left me hanging, I’m right here”. And but I was just so wrapped up in what I was doing at that point that I completely forgot that that was something that I might have done. But you know, that was a case where the physical presence of the other actor in the room was a great benefit to me, certainly.

JAMES PARKINSON: For Microsoft, Halo has become its marquee franchise, and Master Chief its mascot. It’s the kind of console exclusive that drives people to purchase an Xbox, just to play Halo. And for me, the moment that really solidified this was the launch of Halo 2 in 2004. The anticipation for the sequel was massive, and it was the first time I recall a game receiving the kind of marketing and promotion that was usually reserved for blockbuster films. This level of popularity for Halo was something that Steve could never have imagined.

STEVE DOWNES: It's been fascinating to me, and I think probably after Halo 2 was actually my first real awareness that I had somehow, you know, gotten this tiger by the tail, in terms of an acting job, that this was way beyond anything that I ever thought it was going to be. When I recorded for Combat Evolved, I had no sense that there was going to be a sequel, and quite honestly, I don't think anybody at Bungie did either. But it certainly became that, and to watch that happen over time. I remember - this had been a good year after Combat Evolved came out. And I was visiting a friend - it was with my girlfriend at the time, and we were down visiting her brother in Florida. And I was walking through the room, he had a couple of kids, and they were playing Halo. And I had completely forgotten about my experience with it, 100%. To the extent that, you know, when I saw them playing the game, it jogged my memory. And I was like, “you know, I think I voiced a character in that game”. It was the first time I'd ever seen it, you know, since working on it. And the kids were like, “Oh, really? Well, what character did you do?”. And I said, “you know, I can't remember his name. But I think he was the main guy in the game”. And they said, “Master Chief?”. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, that's right, it was Master Chief”. So, half an hour later, there's a line outside my friend's door of 30 or 40 kids from the neighbourhood, all carrying an Xbox, or a copy of the game, wanting me to sign it. And I was flabbergasted. It was just, you know, I couldn't believe it. And my girlfriend and I went down to the local mall and went into the local, you know, I don't know if it was a GameStop or whatever, some place that sold video games, and they had a big life-size cut-out of Master Chief in the doorway there. And that was my first real inclination that this was something much, much bigger than I had ever dreamed it would be.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Halo universe continues to expand across all kinds of media, and sometimes that means someone else gets to step into Master Chief’s boots. In Halo Legends, the anime short films released in 2010, David Wald portrayed the Chief. For the 2012 live-action web series Forward Unto Dawn, Alex Puccinelli provided the voice. And in the upcoming Halo TV series, Pablo Schreiber will take on the role, both in costume and voice. But for the Halo games, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Steve Downes as Spartan 117.

STEVE DOWNES: There were two instances where I almost didn't do it. And one of them was after Combat Evolved, when that became such a huge success. And I didn't know this at the time - Marty told me this years later. They were looking at re-casting all of the voice actors, because at that point they were starting to use celebrities in video games, you know, to voice the characters to help, you know, increase the profile of the game. And Bungie was no exception. Fortunately for me, at some point somebody said, “Well, you know, if it ain't broke, why are we fixing it?”. And they decided just to keep it as it was. They ended up introducing some new characters and did use some celebrity people in it, but they thought, you know, “the people like Master Chief the way he is, they like Cortana the way she is, why are we changing it?”. And they didn't. When Bungie finally got out of the Halo business and walked away from it - now it's being handled by a whole new group of people, for the most part - and 343 did want to make a change, and they had the same, you know, they were going to put their mark on it. And they had recast - they weren't thinking about it, they had done it - recast the voice of Master Chief, and they recast the voice of Cortana. But when they went to beta test the game, people didn't like it. “That doesn't sound like Master Chief, that is not, that doesn't sound like Cortana, that's not what's in my head. I don't know who that is, but I don't like it”. They came back to us, you know, a little bit of hat in hand, and we ended up recording, you know, what became Halo 4. So there were two instances where it almost slipped away from me, but fortunately it didn't. And you know, we've wrapped - at least my part of Halo Infinite - a few months ago, and I was sad to do the last session, you know, because, who knows when I'll have the chance again? But I mean, that's how much I still enjoy doing it.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Xbox team have stated that Halo will continue in some form, beyond Halo Infinite, the next entry in the series. But whatever direction they take, Steve will always carry his experience of being Master Chief.

James Parkinson: How do you reflect on your time as Master Chief so far? And what does it mean to you to be part of the Halo franchise, and playing this character now for 20 years?

STEVE DOWNES: You know, James, it's very, very humbling, first of all. The fulfilment of a childhood dream. You know, I always say, “Be careful what you wish for”, because you're more than likely going to get it. And that's certainly been my case, and I'm not that unusual, you know, a little boy growing up in the 60s, and you know, who didn't want to be Batman or Superman? You know, all those kinds of fantasies that we would have as little boys growing up. And here, much later in my life, I got to play a superhero. It’s just a dream that I can't believe actually happened to me. And so it's been a lot of fun. And then the other part of it is, being able to talk to the fans of the game, and have the Chief in particular, and how much the game or Master Chief meant to them. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard somebody tell me that Master Chief, in some way, helped them get through a difficult period in their life. And boy, there's nothing more rewarding than that. You know, when you can walk away and feel like, you know, you do this job and in a little studio, and you're reading these lines, and whatever. And then on the other end of that, somewhere down the line, you're helping somebody in some way. And that's a tremendously rewarding experience. And if it wasn't for the gaming conventions, that allows us as voice actors to be able to interact with fans in a very meaningful and intimate way, I would never know that. And you know, as most acting jobs and certainly most voice acting jobs, you don't get much feedback. The only feedback you get from a voice acting job is a residual check. And if you get a lot of those, then you know, you were doing your job. But you don't get that in video games. So what you do get, hopefully, if you're connected to something as successful as Halo has been, is the feedback from the fans. And that's been a tremendously rewarding experience. And like I said, a humbling experience.

JAMES PARKINSON: A huge thank you to Steve Downes for being so generous with his time and sharing his story with us. You can follow him on Twitter at ‘SteveDownes117’, and find out when he’s going to be at a gaming convention near you. He’s also on Cameo, if you’d like a personalised message from the Master Chief himself.

CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. And if you’re enjoying the show, please help us out by sharing Gameplay on social media and help us to spread the word and reach new listeners. Transcripts and further reading can be found on our website, gameplay.co. Until next time, thanks for listening.


References:

Follow Steve Downes on Twitter

Steve Downes on Cameo

Steve Downes on YouTube



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