Steve Downes is the 'Halo' master

Kato asked him to do it again.

The job wasn't always so intense. The earliest game voices, first heard around 1980, were computer-generated. Two of the most memorable examples were Chicago-born: "Berzerk," with its robot warning "Intruder alert, intruder alert," was made by Chicago's Stern Electronics. And the booming growl in the arcade classic "Sinistar," imploring players to "Run, run, run," was radio personality John Doremus, his recorded lines run through a computer modulator. As technology improved, human voices became more common, but voices in video games remained a gimmick, often badly-acted by the game-makers themselves.

Which is exactly what Marty O'Donnell found in the early '90s when he visited the creators of the PC blockbuster "Myst." He owned a Chicago recording studio, had written jingles for Flintstones Vitamins. But by 2000, he was designing sound for "Riven," the "Myst" sequel, and had started work on "Halo," for which he wrote the score and hired a cast of voice-over actors.

"You could see where the quality was going," he said. "Some actors didn't want to know why they had to, say, feel sad or act happy, but more and more some wanted to know what was happening, what the exposition was." Jennifer Hale, best known for playing the heroine in the "Mass Effect" series, said: "I had done animation before, but I didn't really understand the (video game) medium. I found it baffling. I also found it incredibly demanding — inventing the environment, the game, everything, in my head. It was like doing a one-man show for hours." But as each new iteration of the Xbox and PlayStation offered greater possibilities, voice acting in games become a burgeoning niche.

Today, the profession has standardized a bit: Though the Screen Actors Guild, which represents voice-over talent in games, says about 80 percent of games use nonunion actors, the largest developers (including Microsoft) mostly hire union artists. Many split their time between traditional TV animation and video game animation.

For actors, "it's all about variety if you want to pay your mortgage," Hale said. Asked if the job pays well, Joan Sparks, of the Chicago-based Stewart Talent Agency, said, "There are no residuals for actors who voice games, so you would have to do this a lot to make a living at it." Though voice-over performers are increasingly asked to do motion-capture work — their body movements recorded by developers and digitally translated into their character's movements (which pays an additional wage) — union scale is $809.30 for a four-hour recording session.

In-demand voice-over talent is payed above scale, but considering the success of the industry itself — "Halo 3" alone, released in 2007, made $300 million within its first few days on sale — fees are a touchy subject.

Lev Chapelsky, who co-founded the Los Angeles-based Blindlight, which provides production services to video game designers, said although well-known film and TV actors increasingly do lend their voices to games — Samuel L. Jackson, Susan Sarandon and Daniel Craig among them — "it's still an uphill fight for us to get them a lot of the time. Still, you never want an actor in a game to be bigger than the game. 'Halo' has to be about 'Halo.'"

Within video game voice acting, Downes is unique. He is not an actor and doesn't claim to be. He says he doesn't have a range of voices for developers to choose from; aside from lending his voice to a handful of obscure titles, his game work has been limited to the "Halo" franchise. O'Donnell said that when "Halo" became a monster success, Bungie toyed with the idea of using a "Tom Cruise-caliber name for the role, but eventually decided fans would see it as a sell-out." So Downes remains.

In fact, Josh Holmes, 343 Industries' creative director for the "Halo" franchise, said: "Players identify with Steve in such a way that he's like a mascot for the entire Xbox, so important to the franchise that (gamers) can't invest without him now. During development, we had people play the game. They were asked to comment on what they were feeling. We consistently got: 'Where's Master Chief's voice?' We had to say, 'We haven't recorded it yet.'"

For years, Downes said, he would get called in on a moment's notice to reprise his signature role. For each new "Halo" game, he would spend a day or two in a studio. These days, there's more warning, more discussion, more everything. On "Halo 4," he spent roughly six months shuttling between Chicago recording studios and 343 Industries' studios on the West Coast. "It used to be that we would ask someone like Steve to say this line 'heroically' or something," said Frank O'Connor, the franchise's development director, "but now we ask him to dig deep. As acting gets more and more central to games, you do start to realize that we have modeled this franchise around a character who, because we never see his face, is really defined by Steve's voice."

So Downes is taking acting lessons, and, recently, for the first time, he and Taylor have been in the same room during a recording, delivering their lines to each other. (Until just before, they had never met in person.)

The first "Halo" had 3,000 lines of dialogue. The newest game has 13,000 lines.

One of which is: "That's Earth."

"Steve," Kato said, his voice filling the studio on that August day, "Steve, here's where you are. You are hanging on the outside of a spaceship and crashing to Earth …" Downes nodded solemnly, as though picturing what that would feel like.

He said "That's Earth" a dozen times, each reading given with a different shading. When he finished, there was silence on the other end of the conference call. Downes stuck his hands in his pockets and waited. Then he realized something and broke the quiet. His voice rose with disappointment, "Wait, are we done?"

Kato breathed a sigh. "Yes, we have come to the end of work on 'Halo 4.'"

"Should we have some kind of a ceremony?" Downes asked, only half-kidding. Instead there were rounds of "thanks" and "see you next time" and "getting better every time" — then the line to Seattle went dead.

A few weeks later, Downes told me he's already "somewhat in preparation" for the inevitable "Halo 5." In the meantime, he plans to bask, anonymously.

"For me, growing up, you had Superman, Batman, these mythic figures. Now, when I'm out in the world and hear someone talk about 'Halo' or I spot Master Chief staring at me from a store window, I smile. For a different generation, he is that heroic figure. I would be lying if I didn't say I get the temptation to nudge a stranger and say, 'Hey. See that guy in the green helmet? Guess what?'"

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

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