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Interview: Master Chief's voice on a more personal story

by Steve Watts, shacknews.com, Aug 13, 2012 8:00AM PDT

After three games of stoic silence, Master Chief is finally getting ready to speak. Halo 4 has been pitched as a more personal story for the character; while he'll still be "a man of few words," the voice actor behind the iconic Microsoft mascot is excited to dive into a meatier role.

"This is where I always hoped we would go with Halo," actor Steve Downes told Shacknews. "So when they said that the idea on Halo 4 was in many ways Master Chief's story, and his relationship with Cortana, and with the other people he comes in contact with, I was real excited that we were going to go a little deeper in that regard. We did a lot more in the studio this time than I've ever done before with him."

More studio time meant a few changes for Downes. While his performances in prior games took place over a few days in a Chicago studio, where he works as a radio DJ, this one took him to Los Angeles. "We did several sessions; we did a couple of sessions in Los Angeles, in addition to here in Chicago," he said. "So it was by a factor of ten, more studio time to get this right."

But the more striking change may have been working directly with voice actor Jen Taylor, who plays Cortana. In all of the prior games the two characters recorded their parts separately. "In fact, we had never met until about a year ago in Seattle for HaloFest. This year as we were working together, for me it made John so much more real and the relationship with Cortana was so much more real."

To Downes, that relationship is central to the character. He says he's played the role as if emotion is confusing for him. Cortana has been his confidant, and this game sees her facing an existential crisis from data corruption. In a way, Master Chief will be facing the possibility of his friend's death. "All along, he's been trying to sort out what his relationship is with this AI," Downes says. "He doesn't really know where to put these feelings that he has for her, so there's a lot of that in this game."

Meanwhile, Master Chief might eventually face a similar crisis of his own. While Halo 4 is the beginning of the Reclaimer Trilogy, ensuring another three games at least, sometimes franchises fade away. Asked how he would end the story if he had complete creative control, Downes suggested that it should come with finality. "That would be the end for him, rather than riding off into the sunset," he said. "If that was it, then that should be it. He should die a hero's death. If it were up to me, that's the way I would finish it."

Of course, it's really not up to Downes at all. He joked that future plot developments are "on a need to know basis, and I don't need to know." Even getting an advanced copy of the script for Halo 4 wasn't the norm for his work on prior games. "It's not really unusual, especially for gaming voiceover, to not see the script until you just get into the studio," he said. "So this time I really wanted to live with it for a while, and they accommodated me on that. So it was great to internalize it days or weeks before going in to do it."

Halo 4 is due on November 6, when we'll see just how personal this story is.

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