Following our original coverage of Deliver Us Mars, I had the opportunity to interview voice actors Ellise Chappell and Neil Newbon, who play Kathy Johanson and Isaac Johanson respectively, about their time developing the game. Here’s a look into their experience with the narrative, their characters and more.
Corvo: Both Kathy and Isaac are central to the narrative, and offer a lot in terms of development. What was your biggest hurdle to overcome in terms of getting into character?
Neil: The relationships between all the characters are very well observed and written which allows a lot of play and discovery for all of the actors when I was directing them and for myself when I was playing him. For me as an actor, I think the hardest part was developing and playing Isaac’s emotional fragility and restraint. One of the reasons I loved playing him was his hesitation and uncertainty. I’ve worked in games for over 13 years now on 120+ projects, and Isaac is a very unique character I was given. Despite the challenges of the story and intense emotional beats, none of it felt like a hurdle, it was just great work to engage with an amazing cast. It was a privilege to work so closely with the magnificent Ellise Chappell.
Ellise: Working in a Volume in a full mo-cap suit was challenging at times, because you have nothing to ground you in the environment of the game – you’re relying completely on your imagination. It was a challenge – but a fun challenge! It’s times like this where I feel so lucky to do what we get to do – actors in a space imagining that they’re IN space.
Corvo: One of Kathy’s closest friends is Ayla, her personal ASE drone that accompanies her throughout her journey. How does the relationship between Kathy and Ayla differ from that of her fellow Opera Team members?
Ellise: Kathy definitely has a special bond with AYLA, the robot has been a loyal constant for her, which is not something she’s experienced when it comes to the other relationships in her life. I imagined that Kathy grew up without any real friends her own age, so AYLA fills that gap – they are best friends, but AYLA also feels like a pet/animal companion at times too. As well as this, I think AYLA is important to Kathy because she serves as a tie and a reminder of Kathy’s father, who she hasn’t seen or heard from in years.
Corvo: For Isaac, he wasn’t just leaving Earth behind, but his family as well. What was it like to bring forward this emotion of loss in your character, and how do you feel it affected the narrative?
Neil: It was a very interesting and somewhat intense experience – I am a single co-parenting father in real-life – so the idea of abandoning a child is an imagined loss I felt very keenly. It is important for actors never to judge a character for what they do, simply to find the logic and truth of the moment and honour the characters’ decisions by living them truthfully. Judgement is the audience’s prerogative. By delving into the script and Isaac’s character (making my own choices for how he is as a person based on the script and what drives his needs, wants and objectives etc), I found some parallels in his love for Kathy as I do my own child. This of course made living through his scenes at times painful – luckily the script is so well written and I trusted both in my own and Raynor [Arkenbout, Narrative Director]’s vision of him, I felt we accomplished these intense beats without damaging the subtleties and nuances that make up the real and often complicated, family dynamics and decisions he makes. I managed, I feel, to stay true to him and not let what I would do in the situation infect the moments of his. It’s a real trip to live in the skin of a character that ultimately and despite his best intentions, is a bad father, and still motivate him through the story into those bad situations and outcomes. As a creative artist, however, these are usually the most rewarding scenes to play, to find the truth and real moments that really impact on a story. So this was an endeavour I entered into with a glad heart. It was one of the best stories and characters I have played to date due to his fragile complexity, with a stellar cast to play alongside with.
Corvo: An important aspect of Kathy’s character is her determination to ensure peaceful contact with the Outward colonists, which is in stark contrast to her crew mate Sarah Baker. What drives Kathy to pursue this path of non-violence given the circumstances?
Ellise: Kathy has an ulterior motive throughout mission Opera, which is to find and reconnect with her father. She’s been living with unanswered questions for years about him leaving her, so this is a very deep and personal motive, and one that she would never consider violence to fulfil. She wants to talk to him and bring him home, to Earth.
Corvo: Mars is brand new territory for the series, with a much different setting than that of the lunar environment of Deliver Us The Moon. What was your favorite aspect of this new frontier, whether it be narrative or visual?
Neil: Visually, I loved how they created Mars and the soundtrack that went along with it – it helped to capture this feeling of a desperate wild frontier. Narratively, the characters are all very much based in realism, their relationships and actions are complex and grey morally – each person has flaws and obstacles. I think it’s a bold step in games to present characters with whom you can have sympathy for, as well as hate. I’d say you can for all the characters in Deliver Us Mars, including even McArthur in some ways. There is no straightforward hero nor villain in this piece; just humans in extraordinary circumstances. Everyone, including Kathy you can argue, makes mistakes in the story, and its themes are about what it is to be human against a backdrop of a man-made disaster. It’s a spotlight on the microcosm of family interactions as well as the macro life of the human species and this planet, the only one we had ever called home, and our mistreatment of it. Ultimately it’s a story about mistakes, regret and redemption. It’s a family drama set to the epic backdrop of infinite space and evolution. It’s about how a family breaks, becomes isolated and their individual attempts to rebuild their bridges and find their way home.
Ellise: I was so taken by the narrative right from the beginning of the audition process. I thought the characters and their relationships were so interesting and complex – I was really excited to explore them. When playing the game, I was balled over by the landscapes – they were so beautifully desolate and you got a real sense of the huge scale. I found that the stakes of the drama matched the epic-ness of the landscapes.
Corvo: Not only is the Martian surface a marvel to look at, but also to explore. There is a lot of movement and interaction with the environment, what was the motion capture experience like for a game like this?
Neil: We focused on realistic motion for zero-g (based on research with NASA and ESA, as well as my own movement workshops with the actors) to get the feel of how to move through space as authentically as we could. We made an artistic choice to keep the rest of the movement on Mars as close to earth as possible. Although the planet has only a third of the gravity as Earth, it would have felt a bit too weird to have followed the movements literally, so some artistic license was made. We only captured the cinematics in the Volume. The Exploration of Mars was key framed by KeokeN for the gameplay side completely. Ellise did some walk and run cycles but they may have been minimally used in the game itself beyond cinematics.
Ellise: It was so much fun. The biggest challenge was actually achieving the look of anti-gravity for the journey to Mars. We rehearsed the movement a lot – it was definitely a challenge trying to multi-task, speaking the lines whilst keeping your body constantly moving in a light, anti-gravity way. However, thanks to our amazing performance director Neil Newbon (who also plays Isaac Johanson), I think it looks great!
Corvo: One of my favorite portions of the game was the detailed launch sequence before heading to Mars. What was it like stepping into the boots of an astronaut piloting such a vessel, and how would you get yourself into the mindset?
Neil: It was very very cool. We had all the 4 main actors for those sequences do the scenes from start to finish – indeed we shot all the scenes as a complete shot without breaking them up unless we had to for technical reasons (the separation if Isaac and young Kathy was a good example due to the size of the launch bay, and the fact I doubled up as one of Claire’s astronauts). Zero-G transitions were done in the scene using modified chairs and straps which I manually pulled, and with a lot of movement rehearsal to make it all seem weightless and effortless in that respect.
As Isaac is only seen in the ending voyage very much as a passenger for that, I got to really enjoy them as the performance director. It felt like a boyhood dream to see the sequences where I was observing the cast, and I still get excited remembering those shoot days. A real blast.
Ellise: While we were shooting p-cap, I would watch NASA live streams every morning with breakfast. I also went to see the astronaut Chris Hadfield give a talk at the Science Museum, which was so useful! Hearing him speak about how it feels to launch a rocket and to see Earth from that distance gave me so many ideas. He said that when you see Earth from space, you can’t help but speak in hushed tones – I loved that. I also watched a ton of space movies such as Interstellar, Moon, Gravity and The Martian. All of this helped me visualise what it might be like to be an astronaut/spend time in a rocket/space ship.
Corvo: One of the broader themes of the game is family, and the connections that can last even when we are millions of miles apart. What were some of your favorite moments that allowed you to express this feeling, and how were you able to bring those emotions into the game through voice acting?
Neil: We shot everything full performance with head mounted cameras in the Volume and in mo-cap suits. This allowed us to not only voice act, but feel every beat physically. When you are doing such a nuanced drama, it wouldn’t have worked with VO only. You have to get in there and feel the performances connecting each actor. You need to see the others’ eyes and work as an ensemble – Bryony Tebbutt, Danny Ashok, Nicole Tompkins, as well as Ellise and Luisa Guerreiro are all consummate professionals at the top of their game. They all developed and fleshed out their characters, really living their lives so well that the whole piece felt grounded and real – we couldn’t have found a better cast. We did, of course, go over the VO later in the booth as ADR, but both Raynor and I decided we would as far as possible double the actors up in the booth as well to make sure we had the proximity and real time feel to everyone’s performances.
I loved all my scenes with Ellise and Luisa Guerreiro (playing young Kathy in the Volume). We really bonded over our characters’ relationships to one another as well as with the strained relationship with Claire, brilliantly acted by the amazing Bryony Tebbutt. Isaac’s connection to them both is amazing in different ways and it was a joy to honour that and experience it with them all. The family scenes at the beginning and as flashbacks were also amazing, seeing the downward spiral of how their family fractured and how these once close and loving people became so isolated from one another and how they attempt to find their way home to one another.
Lastly, our final scene and the monologue I had at the end of the game moved me to tears. It is an uneasy and ever worrying future we face ourselves in the real world, and I feel this is truly echoed in the last speech and also in Kathy’s last line of the game which is ‘We can be better’. This game and my role was one I won’t ever forget and it’s an experience I am unbelievably lucky to have been a part of as well. A real gift, a story to the moon and beyond.
Ellise: I love the scene between Kathy and Claire after Kathy nearly dies whilst trying to fix a thruster on the ship. It says so much about their relationship – they’re sisters, they’re friends, and they also have a mother-daughter dynamic (a painful truth for Claire). There’s a lot of love between them but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface; unspoken heartache that inevitably rises to the surface. In this scene, the issue of their father comes fully out into the open and we really get to explore what he means to each of them. In terms of bringing these emotions into the game through voice acting, my approach was just to play it as truthfully as possible.
Corvo is a writer who loves to explore journalism through video games. Writing and editing reviews for triple-A games and indies alike, he finds his passion within expressing his experiences in a fair and accurate manner. Some of Corvo's favorite games are Destiny 2, Mass Effect, and Disco Elysium.