With the Mass Effect series in a state of revitalized fandom thanks to the Legendary Edition remasters, and the future in an uncertain limbo, seemingly hinting at some kind of return to the series’ original Milky Way setting, Commander Shepard is on a lot of people’s minds now. But for voice actor Mark Meer, Shepard has been a fixture in his life since he scored the gig as the male version of Mass Effect’s protagonist. So while some are waxing nostalgic about the series or excitedly speculating about the future, for Meer, it’s never really stopped. Because he never left.
Meer’s work with Mass Effect developer BioWare began long before the studio had its sights set on the stars. His beginnings with the studio were like most actors. He auditioned for roles in earlier projects like Baldur’s Gate II, which led to him also being cast for work in Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire. The roles were often small, mostly monsters and antagonists, but it served as a foundation for Meer to work with the studio long before his breakout role as Shepard.
“I was cast in Baldur’s Gate II for one line in the final cutscene of the game,” Meer tells Fanbyte in a Zoom call. “And so yes, you did have to play the entire game just to see my one line. But BioWare kept hiring me after that and I worked on pretty much every subsequent BioWare project in some capacity or other.”
When it came to voicing the male version of one of BioWare’s most iconic protagonists in Mass Effect, Meer didn’t start his work within BioWare’s science fiction universe as its leading man. Instead, he was helping to define the sound of all of its alien races.
“This is in the very, very early stages of the game. The concept art stages,” Meer says. “I was brought in because I’d been working with BioWare for a number of years and usually playing monsters or antagonists and things like that in a lot of the Dungeons and Dragons games they did. And so they brought me in to essentially develop how baseline aliens would sound. So what a baseline Krogan might sound like, a baseline Salarian, et cetera.”
Defining the low grunts of a Krogan and the lightning-fast, nasally tone of the Salarian eventually led to Meer being asked to audition for the role of Shepard. At the time, Mass Effect was still an unproven IP, but one that BioWare was hoping to spin into a trilogy. Meer says a lot of those early conversations were predicated on how the game was received once it launched, but he signed on knowing he was potentially being brought on for a years-long commitment.
“I had heard rumblings that yes, if this does well, they’d like to do more,” Meer says. “And you know, I had been working on the first game, I think it was well over a year that I’d been working on it. So during that process, I heard ‘yeah, there are some plans for future games,’ and of course, it all mattered on how it was received. And as it turned out, it was very well received.”
Meer says there was a moment before the game launched that signaled to him that Mass Effect was going to be big. But it wasn’t anything as glamorous as a trailer that got fans excited or positive previews. It was when he was wearing an N7 shirt before launch and someone recognized it.
“I was wearing it and didn’t think anyone would know what it was,” Meer recalls. “But a friend of mine, another actor as a matter of fact, when I was down in the States, asked ‘how did you get that Mass Effect shirt?’ And I was like, ‘oh, you know about this?’ And they said they were eagerly anticipating it. So that sort of thing clued me in.”
While reviews and awards are one thing, Meer says there were a few instances where the reception to Mass Effect hit him hard, and they were more mundane than winning a Best RPG award at Spike Video Game Awards. These included moments like the first time he saw a cosplayer dressed as Commander Shepard in a high-quality N7 armor, or when he received his first Commander Shepard action figure. But while the ground swelled underneath BioWare’s science-fiction world, not every time Mass Effect was brought into the limelight was for the positive.
The now infamous Fox News scandal between BioWare and the network in 2008 is widely considered a major touchstone of the Mass Effect franchise’s life. While not quite the shitstorm of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy that would follow four years later, the first game being held up by the network as, what Meer recounts as a “pornographic alien sex simulator,” was one of the first instances of the series being the subject of a major controversy. Though, Meer jokes it worked out, as it put the game in front of large swaths of people who likely wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise.
“Well, they say no publicity is bad publicity, and certainly there are lots of people who would have never heard of Mass Effect if not for Fox News just really making sure they did,” Meer says. “Of course, they were accusing Mass Effect of being sort of a pornographic alien sex simulator. It wasn’t quite what it was, but you know, they didn’t let that stand in the way of their reporting. So they did really draw attention to it, I guess. I think anyone reasonable could see, ‘oh no, none of these claims are true.’ So, I think myself and most of the people involved with that kind of laughed that off. But again, I think it might have had a net positive effect. Who knows?”
Heading into Mass Effect 2, Meer says he felt more prepared for the undertaking of voicing a protagonist who was modular, and felt like BioWare as a company was better equipped technically to handle the lift, as well.
“BioWare moved from paper scripts into tablets and, you know that helped save a few forests,” Meer says. “I know because when we were recording the first game, at the end of the day, just my dialogue, like Shepard’s dialogue and the additional characters I did, there would be a huge pile of paper in the recycling bin. So moving from paper scripts to tablets and screens I think really helped. That was certainly something we learned in between.”
By the time he was recording for Mass Effect 2, Meer wasn’t just the voice of Shepard, he was also playing two entire species within BioWare’s world: the Vorcha and the Hanar. He ended up voicing the Hanar by a bit of happenstance, as the jellyfish-like species spoke telepathically in early iterations of the Mass Effect script. Instead of hearing a voice, you would hear them speaking in your own thoughts. This meant when the player would hear Hanar talk, the dialogue is spoken in Shepard’s voice. While the concept didn’t make the final cut in the lore of the Mass Effect universe, Meer says remnants of the performance under that pretense can likely be heard in some of his delivery.
“As I recall, they essentially abandoned that. But I still ended up doing the Hanar like that,” Meer says. “Some of the original Hanar voices I did were a lot closer to Shepard because you were hearing what Shepard was supposed to be hearing in his own voice.”
Conversely, Meer describes his performance as the Vorcha, which largely consists of shrieks and hisses, as something that “really wasn’t a technique at all.” BioWare enjoyed his interpretation, but the studio was hesitant to ask any other actors to emulate it.
“I filled my mouth half full of water and I just shrieked as loud as possible in the booth,” Meer says. “And you know, that probably tore up my vocal cords a fair bit. In fact, any Vorcha dialogue would be done at the end of the week. You know, last thing on a Friday, so that I would have an entire weekend to recover. Thankfully, there’s not too much Vorcha dialogue in the entire game.”
The Vorcha sessions became so taxing that Meer would often resort to remedies like lemon ginger tea to soothe his throat, but says it was female Shepard voice actor Jennifer Hale who told him that hot water without anything added was the way to go. Though he also took lozenges to help recover, as well.
As the cast of characters grew in Mass Effect 2, so too did the cast of actors behind them. Meer says the cast didn’t have a lot of opportunities to record together in the booth, as many of the actors were based in different countries or continents than BioWare’s headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta. A lot of the bouncing off other actors’ performances was made possible by BioWare’s proprietary system called VEDA, which played dialogue back for actors to record with. But it was during this time when Meer says he started meeting more of the cast than he had during the original game’s run.
“I’ve been on I think some Skype calls and things like that, but I hadn’t actually physically been in the same room as a lot of my colleagues, including Jennifer [Hale],” Meer says. “Like, we didn’t meet until I want to say 2010? And again, it was almost always through conventions that you meet your castmates.”
Several members of Mass Effect’s cast were based in America, whereas Meer lived in Canada. But he met several of his costars on the convention circuit, which gave him new context as he bounced off their performances for Mass Effect 3.
“A lot of them knew each other because they all live in Los Angeles, and I certainly knew a lot of the actors in Mass Effect came from Canada, from Edmonton specifically, where BioWare is,” Meer says. “So I knew them through the theater community and other projects here in Canada. But again, of the main cast, most of these people I hadn’t met until we met them at conventions. And so, going into Mass Effect 3, you also had context that, for example, this isn’t just Jack, it’s Courtenay [Taylor, voice of Jack in Mass Effect 2 and 3].”
In the years since, Meer has taken part in panels both in-person and digital with his costars. The cast has reunited for many N7 Day streams, signings, and even some in-person improv shows at conventions like DragonCon in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I always enjoying hanging out with those folks, and DragonCon has been one where there have been several years where there’s more than one of us there,” Meer says. “So we’ll all have a little panel together and get to hang out and socialize as well. And at DragonCon, there’s improv shows that some of the cast and I have done together and those became almost an annual event.”
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As it began, so must it end. Meer describes going into those first recording sessions of Mass Effect 3 with a mix of emotions, both excitement to see it through, but also sadness to leave it behind.
“Well, of course, it was the culmination of everything we did. So it was exciting, and of course in some ways bittersweet, because it’s the final one,” Meer says. “But all stories have to have an ending. And so, of course, you want things to wrap up.”
Meer says the most emotional moments in recording the final game were in the goodbye scenes between Shepard and their crew, though recording the death of Captain Anderson, Shepard’s mentor and father figure, hit both him and Hale especially hard.
“Both Jennifer and I have gone on the record as saying that we cried during Anderson’s death scene because we both had Keith David’s performance to bounce off of as well, and he did a fantastic job,” Meer says. “A lot of the goodbye scenes with the various characters, and of course, by this point, by the time we were recording Mass Effect 3, I’d actually had the opportunity to meet some of my fellow cast members during Mass Effect and in the bulk of Mass Effect 2.”
But who is Commander Shepard, really? It depends on who you ask. This was even something that served as the basis for our review of the Legendary Edition remasters earlier this year. Meer may voice the male version of Shepard, but the character’s gender, appearance, ideals, interests, opinions, and story is often in the eye of the beholder. It’s something Meer has identified, and thinks is at the root of why the character persists nearly a decade after their story ended.
“Commander Shepard as a character has so much player agency involved, that one person’s Shepard might be radically different from the next person’s and they’re both Shepard,” Meer says. “Neither of them is more canon than the other. It’s like, your Shepard is your Shepard, and I think that’s why people connected so deeply with the character. It’s also what makes the character unique because, even I can’t say this is what Commander Shepard is like, because everybody’s got their own Shepard.”
Meer says that notion has stuck with him, to the point that it’s hard for him to envision Shepard as anyone other than the fans he’s met over the years. He’s even taken to greeting fans and engaging with the community with this in mind.
“I think about all of the fans that I’ve met at conventions dressed up as Commander Shepard, and yeah, they’re all Commander Shepard,” he says. “That’s why, whenever I do a post for Commander Shepard’s birthday, or N7 Day greetings, I’m usually saying hey, congratulating or saying hi ‘to all the Shepards out there,’ because they’re all Shepard.”
When we asked Hale the same question earlier this year during an interview with Fanbyte’s RPG podcast 99 Potions, she shared the same sentiment. When she imagined Shepard during recording sessions, she often pictured herself in the character’s N7 armor. But more broadly, she thought of Shepard as “an energy” more than a person who could be defined and presented to the player as one thing. For a lot of people, that was the case from day one. But some visions of male Shepard had to wait until Mass Effect 3 to be fully realized.
Mass Effect had a fraught relationship with queerness, especially pertaining to men seeking men. Male Shepard wasn’t able to express interest in male characters like he was able to flirt with and pursue women throughout the first two games. According to the behind-the-scenes report The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3, the studio ultimately made the decision to allow same-sex romances in the final game in the trilogy “after first making sure the voice actors were comfortable with the decision.” For Meer, this was a non-issue, as he and Kaidan Alenko voice actor Raphael Sbarge had already recorded voice lines in the first Mass Effect sessions for an unused gay romance between Shepard and the biotic lieutenant. Meer says it’s the job of the actor to portray the story they’re being presented with, and questions why anyone would take up the profession if they weren’t willing to commit to the role.
“We’re actors. We of course are called on to portray all manner of relationships,” Meer says. “So I don’t even think it was an issue. Like, it would boggle my mind that anyone would be like, ‘no, I’m not comfortable with doing this.’ It’s like, why are you an actor, then?”
While Meer’s performance for the Kaidan romance in Mass Effect wasn’t used in the base game, modders have since found and used the voice files in the game’s code to make the romantic route between the two playable, though not every line is voiced or addresses Shepard by male pronouns. Regardless, Meer says he’s “very glad” male Shepard was able to be overtly queer in Mass Effect 3, with an official option to pursue Kaidan as well as a new character, Steve Cortez.
Commander Shepard’s story has been over for nearly a decade now, but Meer has stayed part of the community by cosplaying his character at conventions, engaging with fan creations, or participating in a one-shot, table-top RPG called “Omniblades in the Dark” alongside Hale. As for why he’s been so involved all these years, Meer says it’s because the fans’ outpouring of passion never let up.
“I mean, it certainly was a huge moment in my life and career,” Meer says. “It’s something that I’m very proud of and, hey, who can turn down an outpouring of love from the fans? Because let’s face it, it’s not like I kept massive interest in Mass Effect alive during that period. It was the fans who did that.”
Long after Meer gave his final performance as Shepard in Mass Effect 3’s “Citadel” DLC, he says he’s never noticed a lull in the fan art, cosplay, or props coming out of the community. And while that has always given him something to come back to, he says he’s also passionate about the series himself. Even when he’s not the star, it’s something he wants to be a part of.
“I’m a fan too,” Meer says. “I like Mass Effect. If I wasn’t involved with this game, I’d probably be playing it anyway and still enjoying the lore. I’m in the Dragon Age games, but I’m not one of the lead characters or anything. I’m back to doing, you know, monsters and antagonists, and the occasional lyrium merchant. But I really like that game world, I like the lore, and I like the world that’s been built. In both those universes particularly, I find Mass Effect lore is so deep you could spend so much time reading codex entries. It’s a very engaging universe, so it’s been easy for it to keep my attention.”
With Legendary Edition bringing the series to a new audience, it’s unlikely that fervor is going to stop anytime soon. It’s been 15 years since Mass Effect launched, and Meer says he’s meeting fans who were probably too young to have played the game back then finding their way to Shepard’s story now.
“It continues to be universally positive,” Meer says. “It’s just there seemed to be more people. You know, I started doing conventions again with DragonCon on Labor Day Weekend, and I’ve done a bunch since, including Wales Comic Con in the UK that I just got back from. I’m meeting fans that obviously were probably way too young to play the game when it came out. But they’re Mass Effect fans now, and that’s really great. And of course, you have people who have been die-hard fans right from the beginning who are getting to relive it. And that’s also really gratifying.”
Mass Effect Monday!
— Mark Meer (@Mark_Meer) June 7, 2021
These days, Meer’s not voicing Shepard, but he’s still very busy. Alongside his cosplay and convention appearances, he’s part of The Black Dice Society, an official Dungeons & Dragons show that releases new episodes on YouTube weekly. He’s also part of Stitch of Fate, a Vampire the Masquerade actual play podcast. But he’s also open to returning to Mass Effect in some capacity, if BioWare will have him. Despite the apparent return to the Milky Way, Shepard’s role in the next game, if they appear at all, is unclear. Crucially, the character is dead in 75 percent of Mass Effect 3’s endings. But Meer says if there’s an opportunity to play the character again, he’s on board.
“I think it’s obvious that if BioWare decided ‘what we really want is to bring Commander Shepard back,’ I think both Jennifer and I would turn up,” Meer said. “I don’t think either of us would go, ‘no, not for me.’ If this next Mass Effect game is one that I get to play rather than participate in the making of, that’s also good.”
But if Shepard isn’t part of Mass Effect’s future, Meer does have one suggestion he’d like to put forth:
“I would say that the next Mass Effect game should have massive amounts of Vorcha and Hanar all over the place.”