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Steve Downes is the 'Halo' master

Local DJ plays Master Chief in 'Halo 4' video game, out Tuesday

Christopher Borrelli

3:19 PM PST, November 5, 2012

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Steve Downes leads a double life.

He has killed. Oh, yes. He has crushed and blown stuff up (and been blown up).

You could even say he has conquered worlds. By day he is Steve Downes, classic rock DJ, the soothing sandpaper voice of the highly-rated Chicago morning radio show on The Drive, WDRV, obligated to play Jethro Tull and Deep Purple until the end of time. But that is not what has led him to kill. He has killed because, every few years, when Microsoft comes calling, he slides quietly back into his role as the growling voice of Master Chief, the uber-warrior space hero of the blockbuster “Halo” video game franchise, among the most iconic figures in gaming history.

Sometimes Downes slips and mentions this on air, but mostly it's an open secret. He has been living this dual existence for more than decade. He became the voice of Master Chief because Bungie, the video game developer that created the "Halo" franchise before being bought by Microsoft in 2000, was initially based in Chicago, in the River North neighborhood. Downes said that when the game makers approached him with the role, they explained the character this way: "He's a super-soldier, a man of few words, a lone wolf, a guy in a spacesuit. You never see his face behind his reflective helmet visor. Think spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood. But in space."

The original "Halo" game was released just before the 2001 holiday season. It was one of the first titles for Microsoft's then-new Xbox home gaming console. Later that winter Downes was visiting a friend in Florida:

"I walked through the TV room in his house and his kids were playing Xbox. I asked what the game was and they said 'Halo,' so I said I voiced a character in that game, and they said, 'Yeah, like who?' I couldn't remember the name, so I said, 'Pretty much the main guy.' They said, 'What, like Master Chief?' And I said, 'Oh, right, that's the name.' They put down their controllers. Within 30 minutes there were literally a dozen kids at the door with their copy of 'Halo,' asking me to sign boxes. I had no idea anybody was playing it. Later we drove by a GameStop in West Palm Beach and, it was like, 'Oh, OK, now I see what the fuss is.'"

There was never anything particularly fresh about the sci-fi premise: Master Chief must hold off alien scourges bent on decimating the galaxy. But the game play was unusually visceral, the overall experience cinematic. For once, video game characters were demanding a degree of emotional investment. The first "Halo" game, released the same day as the original Xbox, became the console's killer app, its must-have title. For a while it drove the popularity of the system itself. Eventually, 24 million consoles were sold and the "Halo" franchise spawned eight successful sequels. In the past decade, 48 million "Halo" games have been sold. "Halo 4," the latest, arrives Tuesday. There have been "Halo" novels, action figures, hoodies; a "Halo" feature film has been in development for years (among the directors to show interest is Steven Spielberg).

And though the player sees almost the entire "Halo" universe through Master Chief's eyes, Downes doesn't get many lines. More talkative is Cortana, his hologram sidekick, voiced by Jen Taylor, a Seattle-based actress who, like many of the voice-over actors in the "Halo" games, has Chicago roots. She studied theater at Northwestern University (and since 1999 has also been the voice of Princess Peach in Nintendo's Super Mario games). Indeed, Bungie filled the original "Halo" with Chicago talent, much of which remains involved: Voice-over actor Tim Dadabo plays the role of Guilty Spark, an annoyingly chipper, C-3PO-ish artificial intelligence, and Pete Stacker, best known as the announcer in Bud Light's "Real Men of Genius" campaign, plays Capt. Keyes.

And that's just "Halo."

Chicago — partly because of its acting pool, partly because of its early place in the development of arcade games (a business that sprung somewhat from the loins of the Chicago pinball machine industry) — has an unusually rich history of providing video game voices. The popular "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" series has featured several Chicago actors, including Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan. James Vincent Meredith, another Steppenwolf ensemble member, voices Prophet in the "Crysis" series. Going farther back: Actor Tim Kitzrow has been the announcer of the "NBA Jam" games ("Boomshakalaka!") for 20 years; and Hernan Sanchez, a Chicago club DJ, is the fight referee of the "Mortal Kombat" series ("Finish him!").

All of which may seem trivial.

Except that the job of the video game voice actor, and the increasing pains that developers take to match cinematic games with believable performances, mirrors the growing ambitions of the industry. The profession even has its own stars now, most of whom are based in Hollywood. Nolan North, 42, is the Johnny Depp of this scene, his rough-hemmed action-hero voice a ubiquitous gaming presence. He voices lead characters in the "Assassin's Creed," "Call of Duty" and "Uncharted" series.

"People ask me if I always wanted to voice video games, but video games didn't have voices when I was a kid!" he said. "And since I've been doing it (about a decade), the job has gone from nonunion actors to union actors, from voice acting only to occasionally a combination of voice and motion-capture performance and even face-capture acting. And it's happened at the same time that the general IQ of the typical gamer has gone up. They increasingly demand smarter, more thoughtful productions now. When I started, this job wasn't taken seriously at all. It was a stepping stone to real animation. Maybe it still is. But I would never not do this now, and I'm not alone."

As Downes told me: "The reality is, if Microsoft were casting 'Halo' now, they'd just hire Clint Eastwood."

Steve Downes is no Clint Eastwood.

Or Master Chief. He is 62, lives in Park Ridge, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He is relatively short, of modest build, sandy haired, with glasses and a conservative appearance. Late in August, when I met him at the Chicago Recording Company on East Ohio Street, where he was recording a few additional lines of dialogue for "Halo 4," he stood in the recording booth, fists at his side, concentrating. He wore headphones, leaned into the microphone before him. A pair of sound engineers sat on the other side of the glass. Patched though on the phone from Seattle was Ken Kato, audio producer of "Halo 4" — the first "Halo" title entirely developed by 343 Industries, the Microsoft-founded game-maker that became the steward of the "Halo" franchise after Bungie split from Microsoft in 2007. A final game was due. Kato's voice was tight with stress.

"This is our last chance to get what we need, Steve," he said, his voice coming over the speakers.

"It's been crunch time for the past year," Downes said.

"It's been a death march," Kato corrected. "I can't wait for it to end and so does my family."

Downes chuckled and went back to reading his dialogue. The scene was between him and Cortana: She was explaining that she was put into service eight years ago and he is astonished. Kato later pointed out the irony of their scenes: Cortana is coming to terms with being a computer, Master Chief is trying to be warmer. Downes listened to Cortana's lines, recorded by Taylor in an earlier session, then replied, "Eight years." He said it first as a question, then as an astonishment, a puzzlement, an exclamation and an aside.

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