Over the summer I played hell of Mass Effect. (What do you think I was doing when I wasn’t writing reviews?) And I learned a lot of things by comparing changes across multiple complete playthroughs of all three games.
I already knew that Jennifer Hale is good at what she does. (Except English accents coughinfinitecough.) Her deliveries are packed with nuance; she’s energetic, she’s quirky, she can make bad lines unironically funny with just the right twist of prosody. As the female protagonist in Mass Effect she takes a moral stance with her readings, infusing them with the horror, the judgement, the rage that the situation suggests. Jennifer Hale is Shepard.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
Shepard is not a single character. Shepard can exist anywhere on the scale between lawful good and chaotic evil. Theoretically. Granted, a chaotic evil Shepard might not survive all three games. But that’s an option you have. You, the player, are Shepard; the voice actor should only be the conduit through which you speak—not the determiner.
My first playthrough was as a female soldier, mostly paragon with the occasional renegade choice. Sometimes the renegade choice makes more sense. Sometimes it’s more fun. But sometimes, when the line came out tinged with Hale’s perception of the situation, it would feel like my character was having a psychotic break. More than once I shouted at the screen, No! That’s not how I meant that at all! when a vague prompt turned into a seriously dick move. I should feel free to choose my options without compromising a cohesive personality. It should enrich who I am as a character. But her hyperbolic readings were like a punishment for going astray. Over time my mostly paragon, occasional renegade Shepard was cornered into straight paragon.
It worked the other way too. My second playthrough was a female infiltrator, mostly renegade, occasional paragon. And I just couldn’t bring her to romance anyone. You can’t reconcile being an unapologetic hardass and telling Thane, in a soft and gentle tone, that you love him. What? Where did that even come from? Haven’t I just been listening to you talk about your doomed culture and how you’re stuck on an old relationship? But whatever.
I had tried several times to start a game as male Shepard and never got very far. Compared to Hale, I found Meer bland and impersonal. Where is the craft? I wondered. Where is the emotion? But after a full paragon and renegade playthrough each, both with the voice of Jennifer Hale—let me tell you. Mark Meer was freeing.
His performance isn’t bland; it’s calculated. It’s not impersonal, but cautious, analytical. The emotion is there, but it’s subtle, and therein lies the craft. With Meer I found an opportunity to finally play the Shepard I really wanted: middle of the road.
Which is exactly what he was aiming for in his approach to this role, according to the man himself. Knowing that a player had two or three differing options for each choice, he specifically intended to keep all his lines at “an even keel.” Without an overabundance of tonal color, I was actually able to role-play a character. (Vanguard this time, if you’re curious. The other best choice I have ever made in this series.) I was able to make choices based on his backstory, the psychology I imagined might spring from it, rather than which option was red and which was blue. And whether I want to go full paragon, or full renegade, or somewhere in between, I know that with him, it will all hang together.
So while I love Hale’s performance for a certain type of Shepard, and especially love playing as a kickass lady (and making out with sexy dude aliens, okay, let’s be honest), I am now guilty of the greatest transgression in the history of the Mass Effect series.
I think Mark Meer does it better.
The featured image is from here. I’m sorry it’s not smarmier.