Sunday, March 13, 2016

How voice acting made all the difference with two Mass Effect characters

A lot has been said about the different voice acting choices made by Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard in Mass Effect, and Jennifer Hale, who voices the female Shepard. I like them both, but I wanted to share my thoughts on some other voice acting in the series. Specifically, I would like to share two occasions where a character who looks bland on paper became much more interesting thanks to the way the voice actor portrayed the character.

When I first read about a Zaeed Massani, a new DLC squad member in Mass Effect 2, I was not impressed. It sounded like his whole character was defined by being the galaxy's best bounty hunter, so I immediately wrote him off as a Boba Fett ripoff. The picture they provided didn't help much: scarred, tattooed, and wearing asymmetrical armor, his design was a mess. When I met the character in the game, he made a bad first impression. Shepard comes across Zaeed beating up his previous target, so it seemed like the game was trying too hard to make him look cool. When Zaeed immediately offered to join my party, without any sort of recruitment quest, I was even more let down. If Zaeed were worth having, I thought, he wouldn't be so easy to recruit.

Then I started talking to him.
Zaeed is voiced by the late Robin Sachs, who gives the character a cynical growl in a sort of Australian accent. Sachs' delivery could have been full of typical macho bravado, but instead Sachs gave Zaeed a sort of dark humor in everything he says. Most of Zaeed's dialog outside of missions has to do with telling stories about his past, and I quickly came to enjoy Shepard's visits to his quarters to hear the next round of tales. Even as Zaeed describes terrible things that have happened to him and the dangerous missions he has gone on, there is the sense that he's amused to have survived it all.

I tend to think of Shepard's crew as a family, and Zaeed became a sort of strange uncle, with his wild tales and well-intentioned but occasionally-disturbing advice.

Then along came Mass Effect 3, and I went through it again. This time the character in question was James Vega. There didn't seem to be much to Vega besides his identity as a marine. Early pictures showed him as a generically muscular guy. Fans were already making fun of him by giving him hilarious names (based on a MST3K sketch). I learned that Vega's role would be to catch up players who were not familiar with the previous games on the story, and so I decided that I did not need him, since I had played each preceding Mass Effect game several times by that point. Vega is introduced early in the game, and soon he and Shepard have a conversation where they talk while sparring. It felt forced, as Shepard was shown having a familiarity with Vega that I, as the player, did not share.

Then I started talking to him.

James Vega is voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr., a name I recognized even though I was not familiar with his previous work. I wondered what this Hollywood actor was doing in a sci-fi roleplaying game. But the more I spoke to Vega, the less I cared who his voice actor was. While Vega definitely fills the role of the brawny soldier on the squad, he comes across as so sincere and kind of dopey that I started to warm to him. I decided that, since Mass Effect 3 does not have a krogan squad member, Vega was the honorary krogan on my squad. Things get even better when Steve Cortez, the Normandy's shuttle pilot, starts flirting with Vega. Their friendship and Vega's unawareness that Cortez is flirting with him are gold.

Both of these characters could have come across as generic and boring, but thanks to some great choices by their voice actors, they became among my favorites in the Mass Effect series!

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