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An Interview with Steve Downes - Bringing Master Chief to Life

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I recently had the chance to sit down for a minute and speak with Steve Downes, better known in gaming circles as the voice of Master Chief. Steve has had a packed career, but he is most famous for his time voicing Spartan 117. In our brief sit-down we touched on how he's adjusted to life after Chief, the transition from Bungie to 343 studios, and a peek behind the curtain on voicing one of Halo 4's most memorable scenes.

Before we get started just wanted to say thank you to the wonderful guys and gals at GMX (Geek Media Expo) for affording me the opportunity to speak with Steve.

Matt Mueller: Hi Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. As you know, gamers are a pretty dedicated group of fans. With all of your experience in radio and commercials, while much different from games, they both carry a level of exposure with them. That said, as icons in gaming go, Master Chief is one of the most iconic in our medium, especially for this generation of players. Has there been any adapting to that level of fandom, and if so, how has that process gone?

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Steve Downes: You know Matt, strangely I have adapted well, and I’m not sure what that says about me (laughs). In a lot of ways this whole experience, from recording that voice, this game taking off the way it did, and everything else that's happened, is in a lot of ways a childhood fantasy. What kid growing up at one point in their life didn't picture themselves being Superman or Batman, flying through the air, you know all of that stuff, Spider-Man, etc. That is why mythic characters like that are developed and transcend time, I mean they go on forever. Why? Because we all put ourselves in that suit, we all want to anyway. Master Chief was a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy, and then being able to, in a small way represent that character outside the game, you know, is, what’s not to love? It just a blast to do.

MM: Master Chief is the character that I believe Steven Seagal thinks he is in his own mind. Chief could learn a thing or two from his running motion.

SD: [Laughs]

MM: In all seriousness though, did you really think it was going to hit big? I mean, we are on volume 5 now with I’m sure a Halo 6 on the way. You didn't see it coming?

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SD: Oh, I didn't know. I didn't see it coming, and to be honest with you, I don’t think Bungie saw it coming either, or anyone involved with the project for that matter had any concept it was going to be what it was. I don’t think they went into making the game thinking we are going to make a video game to end all video games. I mean really, back in 2000 or 2001 the whole industry was relatively new and Halo Combat Evolved was a game changer in and of itself, but I don’t think they saw it that day. I think what they saw, or envisioned was an idea of making this game, it will be really cool and maybe we’ll sell a couple of copies. I don’t think they had any idea it was going to be this larger than life thing that it has become over the years, and I certainly didn't have that idea. Believe me, it was news to me.

MM: It must be cool to have Gamestops around the country (and all over the world for that matter) have a huge stand-up of a character you voice every time a new Halo launches. One of the perks you don’t see coming, I imagine. Speaking of Bungie, how has it been working with 343? I know  the baton was passed with Halo 4.

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SD: The baton was passed and it has been in one way seamless, and in another way initially challenging because, in many ways I had to sort of reintroduce myself to the people who were now carrying the torch forward if you will. That can be odd initially, but I approached it like I knew what they were going to require from me or whoever was going to do it, was going to be something very different than what it had been. I understood that going in and there was no chip on my shoulder or anything like that, so it was very much a, I don’t want to say I auditioned for the role, but I approached it that way. I remember when we did the very first sort of tests on it. I mean nobody would say it at the time, but I knew the developers had a “can he do this?” kind of moment, and as I've said before, it is the direction I had hoped would eventually happen, so when the time came to actually be able to do it, well, I'll never forget that session, and we didn't even use it ultimately. Fortunately, they were happy, and I was happy, so it went on from there. That whole transition, at least from my perspective, was seamless, and yet like I said there was also a challenge there, and anytime there is a challenge, and if you’re up for it, it becomes a very exciting kind of thing to do.

MM: Kudos are in order by the way, because I just re-watched the (spoilers abound from this point on, so beware!) moment towards the end where we see what ultimately happens to Cortana, and that was truly a heartbreaking scene. Very well done.

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SD: It was, and it was also heartbreaking to do. When we did it, when we got to that point and it happened to be the last thing we did in production. Now, I did a lot of other pickups after that moment so it wasn't the very last session we did, but as far as Jen and I working together it was the last thing we did. I’ll never forget this, I told her going into that session that I may reach out for you physically while I’m doing this, so if I do, don’t freak out. The last thing I wanted her to do was go whoa! what are you doing! So I said if I reach for your hand it's because I need to go there emotionally, so she said that’s fine. So we start going over the scene and we get to that point, and I was, I was so into that moment, and she’s standing there literally holding her hand out in the studio waiting for me to take it, and I didn't. [Laughs] So when we got done with the scene she goes “dude, you left me hanging!” [Laughs]

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I got so there in that place that I couldn't, and when I thought about it later I realized that is probably what Master Chief was going through also. He was having to deal with this, he was about to lose, and it was becoming obvious that first of all he was in a situation that he could not control, and Master Chief is not used to being in situations that he cannot control, and the most important entity in his life was dying in front of him and he couldn't stop it. He was uncomfortable, I mean what he was feeling inside were feelings he didn't know how to process, and they made him vulnerable, and the one thing he isn't used to being is vulnerable, so I think that whole awkwardness that I was feeling, that Steve Downes was feeling, at the time I’m reading the Chief's lines, was appropriate to what the character was going through.

MM: Exactly, and it definitely came through

SD: And it did come through. Sorry Jen [laughs], left you hanging.

MM: Well thank you for taking the time to sit down with me, I truly appreciate it.

SD: My pleasure, I enjoyed it.

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