I Serve at the Pleasure of President Bartlet: Celebrity Voices in ‘Mass Effect 2’

Yes, I’m blogging about Mass Effect 2 again. And I probably will next week too. I played through the whole game in four days, mostly in one very long Friday session of about 12 hours. I love this game, and I think it does a lot of interesting things, some of them maybe even ground breaking. Casting famous actors in lead roles is not by any means ground breaking and, indeed, might in some cases be seen as more of a publicity stunt than an artistic choice. Or maybe just a way for game developers to hang out with their favorite sci-fi celebs (I’m looking at you, Halo ODST using the cast of Firefly). Of course I have no idea how much publicity-minded planning played into casting Mass Effect 2, but I do know that some of those decisions had strong effects on how I experienced and even played the game.

There are a ton of sci-fi film and TV stars in Mass Effect 2, and I think they all do fine work. I’m concentrating here on those performances that made a difference for me in how I played the game or at least how I perceived it’s story. I know that one should take each performance on its own merits and not let past, unrelated efforts influence my impression of the piece at hand, but come on, that’s not how people work for the most part. Many stars are stars precisely because they bring along some good will and associations with them from role to role. Daniel Day Lewis manages to disappear completely into his characters, but he’s a rare talent. George Clooney, on the other hand (who I like a lot), knows how to expertly exploit his own range and tweak the overall feeling of a cool, confident, leading man to match the needs of his current film. When you cast him in a movie, you do so knowing that he brings a lot of presence to the characters that a director then doesn’t have to work quite so hard to establish.

Tricia Helfer as EDI

She’s the cylon spy that you lust to hate from Battlestar Galactica, and, yes, she was also in Halo ODST, but here she’s playing more to stereotype as an artificial intelligence. The big difference is that this time she’s not an AI in a super model’s body and she’s probably, maybe a good guy. Everyone in the Mass Effect universe has strong suspicions about artificial intelligences, especially after the wars with the robotic geth. Helfer’s associations with the nefarious Six from BSG lingered in my mind. Hers was a voice of temptation to disaster that I’d learned to distrust, and thus, it was all the easier for me to empathize with fears that giving EDI so much sway over the ship might have very bad consequences.

Seth Green as Joker

He was in the first game, and there I found Green’s performance more distracting than helpful. For me, Dr. Evil’s son and that kid from Can’t Hardly Wait didn’t belong on a starship, and while I know it’s not fair, the thoughts and memories were in my head as I played. Plus, I was wondering what an episode of Robot Chicken about Mass Effect might be like. I actually think that he does a great job in Mass Effect 2, where he’s both funnier and yet more of a real character than he was in the first Mass Effect. Green’s fame worked against my acceptance of him in the first game even though the character was well tailored to his celebrity persona. Here’s a case where I think that the actor’s ability was able to transcend my other associations with him, especially as the game goes on and he’s given some more dramatic material to work with.

Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man

This was the huge one for me. I love The West Wing, especially during the Sorkin years, and Martin Sheen’s turn as President Bartlet is forever imprinted on my brain as the proper way for a modern American President to be — brilliant, quick witted, passionate, and driven by a profound moral center. His one vice was a habit of sneaking cigarettes when under stress. His is the voice of reasoned but impassioned leadership, and clearly, The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2 draws on this portrayal.

The Illusive Man is not someone that I wanted to trust as a player. He works from the shadows with a vague agenda and answers to no one. I’d read the prequel book, and I knew he was capable of some really nasty stuff, but then he comes on screen sounding all reasonable and presidential. It’s like he’s debating policy with Sam and Leo and Josh and Toby again, and I cannot deny that he is always right. Let the Illusive Man be the Illusive Man, I’m sure that he’s thought about this more than I have. He’s got a Nobel Prize in economics for goodness sake! And you know it’s serious because he keeps smoking that cigarette, which President Bartlet only ever did when things were deadly serious.

I grant that my reaction is almost certainly atypical. Most gamers aren’t the huge West Wing fanatics that I am, but that’s why it’s such great bit of casting. Martin Sheen is an excellent actor and does terrific work as the Illusive Man, work that any player can appreciate without having any idea what else he might have done. But for those familiar with his portrayal of Bartlet, the character has added and possibly unearned gravitas. I found myself giving him more of the benefit of the doubt and sticking up for him more than I would have otherwise. I think because, based on words and actions alone, he’s up to some dubious shit. For me, it’s the perfect example of casting to type for great effect, and it’s why you pay extra for star power.

So if the mysterious Gillian from the Mass Effect: Ascension novel ever does show up in a game, I hope they cast Dakota Fanning. She’s got some serious creepy little girl cred even if she is all grown up now.

Keythe Farley as Thane Krios

Okay, Farley’s not famous at all although he’s done a lot of voice work, and I didn’t recognize his voice. In fact, I mistook him for actor James Remar who plays Dexter’s father Harry on the television show Dexter. This had the interesting side-effect of me transferring much of Harry Morgan’s world weariness and expertise onto the world weary expert assassin, Thane Krios. So maybe all developers really need to do is cast talented mimics in these roles, and they can get the same effect for half the cost. Something to think about…