Interview: Talking Halo with the Chief himself, Steve Downes

What if we told you Halo nearly lost the voice of Master Chief? Would you believe us?

We recently had the chance to talk the Chief himself, long-time voice actor Steve Downes, about the transition from Bungie to 343 Industries and just how close he was to not returning for Halo 4.

[Gamezone]: You mentioned in a recent IGN podcast that during the transition period of Bungie to 343, you were worried about not returning as the voice of Master Chief. Can you talk about that further?

[Steve Downes]: It’s not that I was worried, it’s more the realization that nothing in this business is guaranteed, and because a whole new crew had taken over the franchise meant there was no guarantee that Jen [Cortana] and I would continue in our roles. Hell, Bungie was considering replacing me after Halo: Combat Evolved with a celebrity voice, but in the end they concluded, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” With 343, nothing was ever said to me specifically, but I believe they were definitely considering other options in who would voice the Chief.  When I did my first “demo” session for Halo 4 in early 2012, I knew it was really an audition to see if I could carry the additional emotional weight that John was going to endure. I knew my future as the voice of Master Chief was on the line that day. I left it all in the studio and fortunately, it all worked out.

[GZ]: Following up with the first question, how close do you think (or know) you were to not returning to the role of Master Chief?

[SD]: I don’t know, really, but I think pretty close. Then again, this could all just be actor’s paranoia. I think at the end of the day, it was the fans who demanded it. Long-time fans of the franchise have a large emotional investment in John and Cortana, and who these characters are. To change the characters voices would beg the question, “Why?”

Steve Downes

[GZ]: When you were officially brought back for Halo 4, did 343 have any new expectations or roles for you? Was it a more strenuous process? And did you ever feel like you were on the “hot seat?”

[SD]: Yes I think their expectations were high, and rightfully so. A whole lot of blood sweat and tears (not to mention, money!) had already been poured in to this project, and it was important for me to step up and do my part. Once I got passed that little “demo” session, I felt they were satisfied that I could do the job, and were committed to me, so I didn’t feel I was in the hot seat, other than the pressure of delivering the best work I could do. I’m ALWAYS in that hot seat! But the sessions were definitely more strenuous.They were also a lot more fun and ultimately, more satisfying

[GZ]: Similarly, did you feel any additional pressure working with a new developer, or was it business as usual?

[SD]: It was definitely not business as usual. I think everybody felt the pressure. The expectations among the fans were high to deliver a product worthy of the Halo franchise. In my opinion, we absolutely succeeded.

[GZ]: What was different about working with a new developer, especially one that wasn’t (then) prominent in the industry?

[SD]: I got to work much closer with the writers and director than ever before. We discussed storylines and plot twists. I got to see some of the rough cuts of the cinematics. Most importantly, Jen Taylor [Cortana] and I got to work together for the first time. It made the experience so much more rewarding.

Master Chief

[GZ]: Can you compare and contrast your time with Bungie and 343?

[SD]: It’s a bit like apples and oranges. Bungie is a great company and I owe them everything in terms of my involvement with Halo. Working with 343 has been extremely rewarding because it was a deeper experience for me. 

[GZ]: Looking forward, Halo 5 has been highly teased and many expect it to release this fall. I know you can’t go too in-depth with this, but where are you with your process in the development cycle? How much of the game has been voiced? Have you even gone in yet?

[SD]: I think you may be ahead of yourself on Halo 5. I wouldn’t expect anything until 2015. What you can look forward to this year is an anniversary edition of Halo 2.

[GZ]: Last question: this will be your sixth Halo game. Simply, how does that feel?

[SD]: Surprising, mind blowing, exciting. Enriching, humbling. The most rewarding experience of my voice acting career. I’m a living breathing example of ‘you never know what waits for you around the corner.’ I think the most rewarding part of the experience has been all the fans I’ve met over the past 13 years. Their dedication, knowledge and respect for the Halo universe is really what drives me, and I believe everyone involved in the making of Halo to do the best work we possibly can. Something wonderful and adventurous has been created here, and there is so much more story to be told. I can’t wait to get back there.