“Dragon Age was basically one of my favourite video games, even before I got cast,” Allegra Clark, the voice of Josephine in Dragon Age: Inquisition tells me. “It was a big, very fun deal for me. I've played the games to death. I still am replaying Inquisition to this day. And I am so stoked to actually get to revisit the Mass Effect trilogy, because I knew the rumours have been floating around, but I didn't know for sure that they were making it. I'm gonna stream the hell out of it. I'm so excited.”
Clark’s enthusiasm for BioWare and her passion for her work with the studio is clear throughout the interview, constantly disappearing down rabbit holes about her romance choices, her Inquisitor’s personality, her Paragon and Renegade preferences, and her irritation at Jacob volunteering himself to go into the vents during the suicide mission.
Ahead of the launch of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, I spoke to several figures from BioWare juggernauts Dragon Age and Mass Effect, to get a clearer idea of how those iconic team dynamics we associate with the two titles were created. Alongside Clark (who also voiced Nakmor Kesh in Mass Effect: Andromeda), I also caught up with Jon Curry (Dragon Age’s Zevran and one of Inquisition’s Inquisitors), Alix Wilton Regan (Mass Effect 3’s Trainor and another Inquisitor), Nick Boulton (Dragon Age II’s Hawke and Andromeda’s Reyes), Courtenay Taylor (Mass Effect’s Jack), and Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect’s FemShep).
A huge theme of these interviews, naturally, was BioWare themselves. As well as general praise for the support, the working environment, and the success of the finished product, many singled out individual directors by name, and credited BioWare’s focussed approach with getting the best out of them. Hale even claimed they were “the unsung heroes,” that underpinned the whole Mass Effect trilogy.
“Ginny McSwain had extensive acting chops and experience as an actor prior to becoming a voice director,” Curry tells me, recalling his time recording Zevran. “She was bringing just volumes and volumes and years of work. The nuances that she would use to feed me the lines leading into each situation fully informs my performance. So it would be as if I had the luxury of working with some of the other Dragon Age leads. I love ensembles, there's nothing better than an ensemble group record. And it's sometimes done in animation, but I've never done it in games, actually ever.
“She's also providing the context of the scene because of course, I don't have the whole script - the whole script would be larger than a Bible. Usually there's almost always a BioWare writer on the line with us, usually up in Canada, when we're recording. So you'll have the director, me and one or two BioWare head honchos up there supervising. That's the way that's the way it worked on Inquisition too. There’s a really collaborative vibe.”
Boulton’s time leading Dragon Age II was similar, though as he was based in the UK, he worked with a different team. This consistency across the recording process is likely why the calibre of performance is so high across both trilogies. “The team of writers of BioWare are extraordinary,” he says. “So they keep you on track pretty well. The key was having Caroline Livingston, who was directing most of it - all of it, in fact. She would be there to give context notes, and also keep me on the straight and narrow, as far as characterization went. So we were led through very well by the BioWare team.”
Since BioWare directed its cast across Dragon Age and Mass Effect so personally, that meant the cast got to project a lot of themselves into the game. Courtenay Taylor describes Jack as being “a very comfortable pair of old stinky sneakers to step into,” and explains that her connection to Jack’s story was a core way she was able to bring it to life. “[Jack has] a pretty familiar psychology that I had. She was very reminiscent of how I was, to some degree, in high school. She’s putting up a barrier to get people to prove themselves, so you have to run the gauntlet in order to get the good stuff. When you've been abused as badly as she has, then psychologically one of the tracks you can take is ‘I will not allow myself to be vulnerable’. And that really resonated with me.”
Taylor also says that this guard Jack puts up meant that, ironically, many of the players found it easier to connect with her. “I got really great feedback from a lot of people about struggles that they had had in their personal lives,” she says.
“I think [Jack’s change between Mass Effect 2 & 3] is a smaller story, but it's a big story for a lot of people. I have a lot of friends who had addiction problems. And quite a few of my friends give back by going back to the community that they've come out of, and finding people that need help. At its core, that's a big, important through line for Jack - every one of us is worthy of love. And it doesn't matter how difficult you are or how troubled you are or what has happened to you or what someone has done to you. You are worthy of loving and being loved.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Allegra Clark, who used a major tragedy in her own life as motivation for the siege of Haven in Dragon Age: Inquisition. “I think the first time you really start to get to know [Josephine] as a person is when she talks about Haven after the attack. That conversation she has about the first people to jump in and protect people being the workers, and how she's just watching everything be destroyed. I was actually thinking about 9/11, as a New Yorker. So that was a very personal moment for me. But it was those little moments where she starts to open up and blossom that you get to see her as a person.”
While all were full of praise for BioWare’s writing and working environment, the love of actually playing the game was exclusive to Clark. Most others admitted they had never played at all; Curry confessed he had no idea if Zevran was even alive, while Wilton Regan said her only experience of the game was watching Trainor and FemShep’s romance scenes on YouTube. That doesn’t mean the cast can’t express their passion in other ways, though, as Jennifer Hale proves when we discussed the first time she saw FemShep on the box art.
“I was at GameStop at midnight for the release of Mass Effect 3,” she recalls. “I was there with Casey Hudson [Mass Effect 3’s director], and Alli Hillis, Kimberly Brooks and Courtenay Taylor [Liara, Ashley, and Jack], and somebody dropped [Mass Effect 3’s FemShep box] on my table. Casey Hudson is a really private guy, but I get all possessed. I grabbed [the box] and it’s like I’m John Cusack in Say Anything. I hold it up over my head, I stand on top of the table, and I scream over to Casey ‘Casey Hudson, thank you!’”
At the time, FemShep had barely featured in the marketing at all across Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, and didn’t even have a default face the way the male version did until the third one. Despite this, FemShep is adored by the fanbase, and whenever a discussion of a Mass Effect movie or series comes back around, many contend that FemShep is the canon Shep, despite the fact that stats indicate that more players do play as the male version. This passion amongst the fans has not gone unnoticed by Hale, who clearly shares this love for her character. “I have enormous gratitude that I get to be FemShep,” she says.
“This community is such an incredible community. There's so much passion and commitment from the fans and involvement in this game. It all starts with the writers, and it's an extraordinary community to be a part of - it's a tremendous honour. I deeply mean that. To be able to do the things culturally, that this game did? To have these amazing experiences? I've wanted to save the world since I was four, and I got to save the universe. How cool is that? I don't know if there are enough words for what this means to me. Grateful seems trite, because people say it all the time. But I am grateful to my bones for this. I love every minute of it. And if they ever wanted to do more, I would be there with bells on.”
As for the companions, it’s fitting that Wilton Regan only watched the romance scenes, since they’re not just an integral part of making the dynamics between BioWare characters feel real, but also a core reason the games are so special to so many people - especially queer players.
“I think Trainor was revolutionary in what she was doing at the time,” Wilton Regan says. “What was so different about Trainor was she wasn't romanceable for either gender, you had to be playing as FemShep to choose a lesbian love option . And that was so brave of them to do at the time. But it brought us leaps and bounds forwards, because having that inclusivity then makes it just easier for the next game, and for the game today. And now it's a standard - you should be representative of all sexualities if there are romance options in your games, and increasingly major games pretty much always have some sort of gay, bisexual, lesbian or heterosexual choice. It might not be as fluid as all of the spectrum of sexual choices, but you've got a strong variety in comparison to where it was 20 years ago, for example.”
This idea of breaking boundaries is something Boulton touched on too, recalling how different Dragon Age II’s attitudes to sexuality and gender were in comparison to the other games he had worked on. “[Dragon Age II] is a hugely inclusive game,” he says. “It's the first game that I was involved in which was so aware of what you would call the spectrum of gender, and non binary [people]. It was so inclusive to everybody of all persuasions, so that you could identify however, and you could create the story that you wanted, create the world that you wanted to inhabit, and it was beautifully inclusive in that way. And that to me was very refreshing. It is literally fantastic escapism into a world full of incredibly colourful characters, fantastic storylines.”
For Clark though, those boundaries were much more personal. “When I was told I had booked Josephine, I was just like, ‘I'm a companion in a BioWare game, and a romanceable companion at that’,” Clark says. “I recognised going in that people were going to connect really hard to this character. People are going to have entire playthroughs that are based around romancing Josephine. She helped me explore my own bisexuality, and that is always the thing that that warms my heart the most when people come to me about my LGBTQ+ characters, and say ‘they helped me understand parts of my own identity’. I actually wasn't out of the closet publicly, or even to parts of my family when I started recording Inquisition. So it was interesting, getting to tell essentially part of my story as well. Before even being able to say to the world ‘hi, I'm bi’ - though all the signs were there. I was in a relationship with another woman at the time. It’s like ‘oh my God, they were roommates!”
Taylor also saw something personal in her own performance, especially since there weren’t a lot of women like Jack in popular media when Mass Effect 2 launched. “There was a huge amount of love for her because gender/appearance wise, she is something that I felt at that time had not been explored. And I know that some of the things were cut, but in what we originally recorded [Jack was pansexual], and in 2008 or 2009, there weren’t a tonne of conversations about being pansexual,” she says.
“She was a counterpoint to a lot of the other female characters. She was sort of the far end of the spectrum. You've got Miranda who's beautiful and pulled together, but that only serves a certain population. And there are a lot of people that identify as women who could relate to having these feelings and these emotions - she's not gender specific. To me, she's angry. And I don't know that there had been, at that time, a female character who was so not typically female, who was capable of such a range of emotions. She ended up being the permission to a whole group of people who don't identify with that kind of woman. Because in entertainment, where did that bald girl with a flat chest who was pansexual go? Where do you fit in? And that really resonated with me. If you don't relate to Miranda, Jack can be a really nice option.”
Part of representing groups that don’t often get representation in video games is that your character gets to become a role model, and that’s something Wilton Regan and Taylor have particularly fond experiences of. “It’s quite flattering and quite lovely to think about,” Wilton Regan says. “I've had a lot of lesbians who are coming out of the closet or coming to terms with their sexuality, who've come up to me and said that playing FemShep and romancing Trainor was a really big part of that. And lots of bisexual women as well. There's something just very beautiful about the idea that BioWare has put so much faith and trust in me over the years with these really pivotal roles, and these big, beautiful characters. I feel very humbled by that. Very, very humbled.”
Meanwhile, Taylor wasn’t even sure people would like Jack, so finding out how deeply people related to her was a huge surprise, and she suspects that’s because Mass Effect allows her to be angry without being written off as a stereotypical, hysterical woman. “People didn't like her when the trailer came out, and I was like, ‘Oh God, everyone's gonna hate her!” Taylor laughs. “I was really surprised to be at a convention and have someone come up and say, ‘Can I introduce you to my nieces? They're six and eight, and they love you’. I’m glad they have a good female role model in Jack.”
Across the Mass Effect and Dragon Age trilogies, there are literally hundreds of different combinations of squadmate and companion configurations you can take out into battle with you, with dozens and dozens having unique interactions depending on the squadmates selected together and the missions you take them on. That’s on top of the interactions they have back on the Normandy in Mass Effect, and in the various hubs of Dragon Age too. It’s a key part of what makes BioWare games so special, and it’s clear that this dynamic has been a core building block since the start. You can experience many of these dynamics - well, half of them, anyway - in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, which is out now.