Video games are my escape. I love dense universes packed with characters I care about and premises I can get behind. Being the science geek that I am, I squee with enjoyment when a game is built on the foundation of something plausible and runs with it, like the post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Last of Us or the space opera trilogy Mass Effect. It turns out that the people who make those sciencey games can be just as big of nerds as we can!
Recently, I was fortunate enough to speak with the very talented actress Jennifer Hale, “the most prolific female video game voice actor,” about how curiosity and a love of learning drew her to her notable science fiction roles. Hale is famously the voice of the female Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy (FemShep forever!), quantum physicist Rosalind Lutece in Bioshock Infinite, and dozens of other video game characters. What follows is our conversation about how she was drawn to these roles and how an enthusiasm for science informs her work (lightly edited for length and clarity).
Nerdist: Some of the recent games you’ve been in, especially Mass Effect and BioShock Infinite, seem to be on the more science side of science fiction. Does an enthusiasm for science draw you towards these roles?
Jennifer Hale: I’ve always loved science, but the truth is that I’m lucky to have the work that I do and I’m happy to have it. I seem to be suited for those roles. I used to read a lot as a kid. I had no friends, I hung out with my dog and I read all the time, so you can guess how popular I was. I used to always ask a million questions. My dad is a microbiologist and my mom was an academic, so I was raised around a lot of academics.
But I love science because I love the possibility of what can be.
N: Does that sense of wonder help you get behind games in the realm of possibility like Mass Effect?
JH: I like all that science because it just raises the level. In Bioshock [Infinite] I used to get caught up in listening to Ken [Levine] talking about the quantum physics aspects of the whole thing—I could have done that all day. I don’t know a tenth of what he knows but I could still listen and ask questions all day. I think the thing that resonates the most is the thing that is unnamable and unquantifiable, which is when people walk up to me or any of us on the team and say, “This changed my life.” That to me is the measure of success right there.
N: Do you get genuinely curious about the science featured in the games you work on?
JH: Totally. I do have to have an understanding of it in order to communicate it clearly. I do like to at least sketch some kind of comprehension to speak with some kind of authenticity. We [on the team] have a passion for it and we get it. If you get someone who’s not, they may give a good performance, but they’re not going to have that visceral connection that we do. It won’t resonate in the same way.
N: Has there been some concept in the games you’ve worked on that piqued your curiosity enough for you to go home and research it afterwards?
JH: Oh, yeah. Working on Bioshock Infinite I wanted to go home and pull out all this stuff on string theory and wave-particle theory. I have it at home, but getting through it is such a dense endeavor. Just being around the people that we work with; there’s no one who is not bright. It just doesn’t happen! I’ve been to a few conventions now and everyone there is extraordinarily bright. It’s amazing. And the thing that I like to say to people if I’m on a panel or something is, “I want to know you are going to do… you are the future, and what has the game sparked in you to do the next thing?” That’s what I want to know.
N: I think a lot of your fans would love to hear that… that you try so hard to be authentic in your roles.
JH: That’s always been my Achilles heel—how much I care. I’ve always been the biggest dork in the room because I care so freakin’ much. It makes me massively uncool but I don’t care. That’s the one thing that I don’t care about!
With games, it’s extraordinarily rare that I would ever get to see the script ahead of time. We go in and it’s basically a cold reading. You can maybe scan it but they control the screen you read from, and you don’t get to read ahead. You just read that line, establish comprehension and move on. And comprehension is the thing for me that leads to connection, because if there’s a line there and I’m guessing at what I think it might be, then I’m not able to commit a thousand percent. Having a basic knowledge of many subjects has come in quite handy, being a dork. That has helped fill in the blanks.
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.