Listen: Seattle Husband And Wife Find Fame Doing Voices For Video Games
Editor’s Note: This story works best as an audio experience, so we urge you to take a listen.
What if you poured your energy into becoming an opera singer, but then became famous for doing the voice of a computer in a blockbuster video game?
That’s the unexpected twist in Ellen McLain’s career. She’s performed countless roles in operas in Seattle and Tacoma and acted in many Seattle theaters.
But now the thing she’s most famous for is doing the voice of GLaDOS, the sweet-sounding but passive-aggressive computer in Valve’s hit video games Portal and Portal 2.
And her husband, John Patrick Lowrie, has had a similar career trajectory. He began as a guitar composer before switching to acting.
Now he’s most famous for video game roles such as the snarky Australian Sniper in Valve’s popular game, Team Fortress 2, and the cannibalistic Pudge the Butcher in Dota 2.
These games are blockbusters. If you’re 20 years old, you’ve probably played them. And if you're a gamer, you've probably spent more time listening to this Seattle couple than any of your high school teachers.
This is a story of unlikely fame for a couple now in their early 60s, who moved to Seattle from New York in 1989, when the video game industry was embryonic. Both moved here to pursue acting and singing roles, but patched together any work they could in the early years.
“You know, we just packed up a truck, packed up that old piano and we just moved out and our first gig here was packing fish eggs” at a salmon egg factory, McLain said.
But their careers on stage soon started to take off. Lowrie put together a voice demo (he says he’d been told since childhood that he sounded like Walter Cronkite) and landed work doing instructional videos and things for Boeing.
Then his agent sent him on video game auditions.
“The first video game I did was a thing called Spy Fox Breakfast Cereal,” Lowrie said.
But he wasn’t a snob about it.
“It was like, okay, cool,” Lowrie said. “It didn’t matter – it was a gig.”
In those days, the mid-1990s, game developers were not too sophisticated. Lowrie says they’d hand him some lines to read with absolutely no direction. One time he remembers his line was simply: `Goodbye, son.’
“And I said, why am I saying goodbye to him? What’s going on?” he said. “(They called) up the writer, and it was like, `Okay, okay, so what’s happening is – this is a place where the game branches, and your son is either going to go down to the store and be right back, or he’s going to step through this inter-dimensional gateway and go to another universe and you’re never going to see him again. So could you say it in a way that would work either way?’ So I said, `Goodbye, son.’ `Great, that’s great. That will work fine.’”
Lowrie says developers began to realize they needed to give more direction to the actors if they wanted sophisticated, cinematic games. Lowrie urged his wife to audition, but McLain was reluctant at first.
“I hear all the ads on the radio and I hear all the voiceover work and it’s male-dominated, and it’s still male dominated, and I thought `Ah, you know, why should I do this? I’d never get work,’” McLain said. “Well, never say never.”
She soon landed the role that would change her life when the creators of Portal asked her to audition for GLaDOS, which stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System.
“They told the actors who were auditioning to sound as much like this computer-generated voice as you possibly could,” McLain said.
In Portal, GLaDOS the computer has you do puzzles in the name of science. But you slowly start to discover she is not on your side. She keeps promising you cake if you’ll do what she says.
Finally, to win, you the gamer have to find GLaDOS and destroy her.
And even then, while the credits are rolling, GLaDOS taunts you with a song by Jonathan Coulton called “Still Alive.”
“Twenty-four hours after the game was released – 24 hours – we’d never gotten a fan email before, we got a fan email from Denmark saying people are in the streets of Copenhagen chanting, `The cake is a lie, the cake is a lie,’” Lowrie said. “And it’s like, `Oh my gosh, I’m married to a world famous person now.’”
Fame For Both
But Lowrie’s famous, too. He and McLain travel to gaming conventions, where Lowrie sells copies of his science fiction novel, Dancing with Eternity. Fans wait for hours for their autographs, and podcasters from as far away as India do gushing interviews.
For McLain and Lowrie, this is all a little bizarre. McLain doesn’t even play video games – she likes bridge.
But now they have this link to a younger generation and sometimes just for fun, they reveal their video game alter egos to random strangers.
“I’ll see say a 17-year-old boy walking down the street, and as I go by, I say, `We’re a lot alike, you and I. You tested me, I tested you. You killed me, I – oh, wait a minute – I guess I haven’t killed you yet. Well, food for thought.’ And I totally blow their mind,” McLain said with a laugh. That line is a famous one from Portal 2.
So how does it feel to have this be what you’re famous for?
“It’s miraculous to me,” McLain said.
Adds Lowrie: “Surreal.”