Ellen McLain, the voice behind the murderous artificial intelligence GLaDOS from the Portal series, and her husband, John Patrick Lowrie, who voices The Sniper from the game Team Fortress 2, are nothing if not adorable.
The celebrity of the characters they portray may not be readily apparent for the minority of Americans who don’t play video games. But the games they have worked on have won multiple British Academy Awards (the UK Academy Awards have a video game category), sold out 10,000-seat stadium esports events in under an hour, and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars annually for at least one of their publishers. Ellen and John, and their decade-spanning body of work, are at the epicenter of the video game voice acting universe. During a recent recording session at a dimly lit Seattle studio, the couple gave me a demonstration of how they work.
“Killing you and giving you good advice aren’t mutually exclusive,” Ellen said, quoting her favorite GLaDOS line, in which the evil AI advises the player how to most comfortably die.
Ellen had first shown me GLaDOS in her most basic, emotionless artificial intelligence form, before the “morality-core,” as the game’s story has it, is removed. For that, Ellen’s face had gone blank, arms stiff by her sides, as she robotically intoned “Welcome to Aperture Science.” But when she became evil-revealed GLaDOS, her face turned sinister. Her voice took on a sort of snarky malevolence. For both variations of GLaDOS, Ellen wiped away the dash Nashville, her home town, that still lingered somewhere in the background of her natural speaking voice.
On the other microphone, John, Ellen’s husband of 28 years, wrangled a natural, kingly baritone into the gravelly outback accent of the Team Fortress 2 Sniper. “Boom. Headshot,” he said. A minute later he’d gone full cockney as Dota 2’s monster butcher, Pudge: “Fresh meat! Fresh meat!”
Ellen and John, both 62, are arguably the original voice actor celebrities in a medium that has long been stingy in knighting any of its creative personnel with recognition. Some of the games they are in, like Half-Life 2 and Portal, are canonized in the medium. Portal is also uniquely distinguished for having the most famous lyric-based song in gamedom, “Still Alive,” sung by Ellen herself. Both John and Ellen also portray some of the most popular heroes in Valve’s Dota 2. Ellen voices two characters, and John seven. Dota 2 has some 10 million unique players logging in every month.
At the 2013 International, a massive Dota 2 competition with players from all over the world competing for millions of dollars, they sat at a table and signed autographs for fans—or at least for as many as they could.
“People were lined up for hours to meet us,” Ellen told me. In fact, there were so many people that by the end of the day, they simply had not been able to get through the entire line.
Neither John nor Ellen focused on acting in the beginning of their careers, and certainly not voice acting for video games. John was a musician and he’d spent much of his twenties touring America as one half of the jazz fusion group The Keith-Lowrie Duet, which opened for acts like Buddy Rich.
When John was 31, he had the opportunity to play in the pit orchestra of the European tour of a Broadway show: Show Boat. Unable to help but notice that the actors were making more money than he was, John auditioned to understudy for the role of Captain Andy, and ultimately had to go on stage in Palermo, Sicily. “That was my first paid acting gig,” he told me, “telling jokes to a bunch of Sicilians who didn’t speak English. It was great.”
The star of that production of Show Boat, portraying Magnolia, was Ellen. “John was in the orchestra and I was the ingénue,” Ellen said with one of her instantaneous, head-back laughs. Originally intending to be an opera singer after training at The New England Conservatory in Boston, Ellen quickly took to acting in musical theater in New York simply to make a living.
“John convinced the producers that he could play Captain Andy,” Ellen said, recalling that European tour, “and then go off stage and play the banjo, which is what he was playing in the pit. It was a bogus idea. But he convinced them, because he needed the money.”
This was where the two first met, in Arnhem, Holland in 1984, when the Broadway star became fascinated by the penniless musician playing banjo in the orchestra pit.
“I fell desperately in love with him,” she said.
Ellen as Jeanette in The Full Monty, Village Theatre. Photo courtesy Ellen McLain
Even with his understudy gig, Ellen was making triple the money John was. She bought him a down coat when the weather turned cold—he had only brought an old tweed jacket from America. She bought him a pair of shoes to replace the plastic ones he wore to meet the requirement of wearing black in the orchestra pit. She bought him some long johns.
John inevitably became what Ellen calls her “unpaid roommate” in her hotel room. The only problem was that both John and Ellen were engaged to marry other people.
Ellen had made a promise to her fiancé back in New York to only tour Europe for three months, and she kept it. “I actually had a gig lined up” (back in New York) “which I was ready to ditch, because I was so in love with John. But John had a girlfriend back in Indiana. And, technically, we were both engaged to these people.”
Ellen returned to New York where she was living with her fiancé. “I didn’t keep John a secret,” she said. “We weren’t married, so all’s fair in love and war.”
Before long, Ellen had broken up with her fiancé, and John with his. They got married, and John moved in with Ellen in New York.
“Nobody was really happy about it, because I think John and I really loved our fiancés. But not like we loved each other.”
They were living “basically in Spanish Harlem.” One morning, after they woke up to find that their car had been set on fire during the night, they decided they’d had enough of New York. The ultimate nail in the New York coffin came later, when John was cast in a European tour of West Side Story, and Ellen was not cast in that production.
“John turned the gig down, for me,” Ellen said, “because we didn’t want to be separated for that long of a time.”
They left New York, and spent two years in Indiana. John worked toward a PhD in music before deciding that wasn’t right for him, while Ellen taught private voice lessons. They were going broke. What they needed was to find a more modest theater town that was big enough to find work in, but wasn’t always sending its productions on tours.
They had no contacts in Seattle, and they also had no employable skills in anything other than performance. So the former stars of Broadway and the European stage had to resort to manual labor: packing fish eggs at a local caviar processing facility for $6 an hour.
“We wore rubber boots,” Ellen told me. “The skilled labor was packing the good fish eggs for the Japanese market to eat. We were packing fish eggs for bait, because we were unskilled. That was our first gig out here.”
Acting gigs came in almost immediately at Seattle’s biggest theaters, The Paramount and The 5th Avenue. Ellen and John were only packing fish eggs for “about a week or two.”
Nowadays, John does some TV commercial voiceover gigs, and some voice work for Valve that he couldn’t elaborate on. I saw John perform two roles in Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Seattle Children’s Theater, where he played both a rich man and a pauper, sang songs, played a guitar, and acted opposite a fairly creepy animatronic cat puppet. John said playing those two roles required 110 costume changes a week.
At the same time, Ellen was in a supporting role in a production of Mary Poppins, lecturing for the Seattle Opera Guild, and giving voice lessons to young folks. She sings every Sunday at a church as the paid soprano section leader. “I do believe in a divine power,” she said, “but I have that job because it pays money.”
“A computer game to me meant, like, Tetris.”
Ellen freely admits that GLaDOS is what she is most known for. But she doesn’t think this one role overshadows all the other work she has trained for and done so painstakingly in her life. She doesn’t feel embittered toward it.
“I could do GLaDOS forever,” Ellen said.
Of this conflation of character and performer, Ellen’s close association with GLaDOS is actually very appropriate, as Ellen herself had an impact on the development of the character she is most closely identified with.
Valve brought Ellen in for her first gaming voiceover gig in 2004 at Pure Audio, the same recording studio where I witnessed her and John demonstrating their characters. She was originally asked to portray the public voice of the Overwatch in
Half-Life 2, one of gaming’s most lauded releases. Ellen portrayed an oppressive, omnipresent public address system
“When I got there,” she said, “they told me it was for a computer game. A computer game to me, meant, like, Tetris. But I did what they told me to do.”
Originally, GLaDOS was inspired by a generic text-to-speech program which Ellen was simply asked to imitate. Getting the rights to use the actual program in Portal didn’t make economic sense, since using the text-to-speech program would have required Valve to give up a percentage of every sale of Portal to the text-to-speech developer.
The puzzles in the game had already been designed: Portal was based on a project developed by a team of students at the video game college DigiPen titled Narbacular Drop. Valve hired those student developers.
But Portal’s story involving GLaDoS’ increasing self-awareness and malignancy in the latter part of the game had not yet been written. It was Ellen herself who inspired Portal writer Erik Wolpaw, along with his writing partners Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton, to let the deadpan sarcasm, the steady stream of passive-aggressive insults and simmering lunacy of the GLaDOS character to completely boil over.
“The first session we didn’t really have the last third of the game written or thought out yet,” Wolpaw told me. “So we weren’t sure exactly where it was going to go. Even in the first session it quickly became apparent that Ellen was good, and understood the material. In some ways, her first session and seeing how she handled even this mimicry part, and was able to make that her own, inspired us somewhat where we could possibly go with the later part of the game.”
Even the iconic ending of
Portal, in which GLaDOS mockingly croons to the player that she’s “Still Alive”
“We really just got lucky,” Wolpaw said, “because as the role expanded and got more complicated, she was able to rise to it. And then it turns out that she’s a trained operatic soprano, so at some point we were like, ‘oh, that would be great, let’s throw her a song she can sing.’”
“I thought it was a great leap of faith to have a song written,” Ellen told me, “they never heard me sing until they got me in to the studio to record ‘Still Alive.’ So a great show of faith on Valve’s part. When I said that I was a singer they believed me.”
Ellen was brought in only after the puzzles in the original Portal had been designed and after some of it had been written, but the uniqueness of her persona became so totally fused with the spirit of the game that for Portal 2 her voice was required at each step throughout the entire creative process to lend inspiration to the creative team as they moved forward. The developers refused to proceed without Ellen, who had become their muse and lucky charm.
“For Portal 2 it was very different,” she remembered. “From the very beginning of the process they had me come in. I was recording over a period of ten months. Because, as I was told, the creative artists on the project didn’t want to deal with a stand-in voice, they wanted to have my voice the whole time. Because they felt that it affected their work, and what they created. And if they developed it to some computer-generated voice then everything changed when they heard my voice.”
Ellen’s Portal performance ultimately won her a DICE Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, the game industry’s version of an Academy Award. Portal 1 and 2 have sold more copies than the two best selling albums of 2014, Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the Frozen soundtrack, combined. In Portal 2, she played opposite J.K. Simmons and The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant and won Spike TV’s VGX Award for Best Performance by a Human Female. Ellen was commissioned by Guillermo del Toro to reprise the GLaDOS voice for PacificRim, and by NASA to play “NOTGLaDOS” for a snarky video on the difference between fission and fusion.
There’s a little in-joke that Valve plays on every single person who calls their offices. The computer voice that answers the line is, in fact, Ellen. But her voice is digitally altered, not as GLaDOS, but to sound like a generic computer-generated telephone operator.
The thing is, Ellen has never played the Portal games herself. She has tried to pick up a controller, albeit “unsuccessfully”; she calls herself “definitely kind of a luddite.”
“I watch John play,” she added.
John is something of a casual gamer. His favorite titles are Myst and Civilization. He became involved with video game voice acting some time before Ellen, in the early 90s in Seattle, when game developers were still raw and untutored in their interactions with actors.
“When these kids first started up their game companies,” John told me, “none of them had any idea what to do with actors. I mean, no clue what an actor’s work was. How it worked, anything. So you’d just get a string of lines. You didn’t know who you were talking to. You didn’t know why you were talking. You didn’t know where you were, what you wanted, anything. I’d say, ‘Okay, In order to act these I have to know—am I yelling it?’ The writer wasn’t even there. They’d have to call up the writer. It was just a couple of tech guys.”
The tech guys would phone up the writers and ask, “What’s happening in the game?”
“They’d talk, and I’d be in the booth,” John remembered. “I wouldn’t hear what’s going on. So one time I got to this line, where I said, ‘Goodbye, son.’ So I said, ‘What’s happening here?’”
John would watch the tech guys through the sound booth glass as they called the writer. The tech guys flipped the intercom switch, and said to John: “‘Okay this is where the game forks. Your son is either going to go down and get some bread and be right back, or he’s going to go through this time warp and go to another universe and you’re never going to see him again. So could you deliver the line so it could work either way?’”
“When you have people talking to each other, it’s just me talking, in my own voice, to myself.”
What happened, John told me, is that the people who worked at these companies worked enough with actors and actors started giving feedback. “There just started being a learning curve. When every actor that you ever work with says. ‘Where am I? Who am I talking too?’ You get the idea: ‘Oh, I see! That’s how acting works! They need to know this stuff!’ So once they got that into their brains everything went a lot more smoothly.”
So by the early 2000s developers were proactively offering this information right out of the gate with a game’s writer and producer generally directing the actors at the recording studio. "They get a lot better acting because of it,” John said. “People know what the heck they’re trying to portray.”
Interestingly, Valve asked John to play all of the male citizens and resistance members in Half-Life 2 in his own natural speaking voice, without any attempt to distinguish them. So they all sound just like him. At certain points in the game, “when you have people talking to each other, it’s just me talking, in my own voice, to myself.”
Recently, as I sat with John and Ellen in the living room of their Seattle condo, drinking their earl grey tea, Ellen dropped a bombshell. She'd made it clear that in contrast to John, who writes and composes music, she is not a “creative artist.” She is solely an “interpretive artist.” But there was an exception.
“I have written one song,” she told me. “‘GLaDOS’ Song.’”
She said she wrote most of the song in her head while she was in the bathtub, and then worked out the details while taking a long walk. John worked out the guitar accompaniment, and they recorded it in their living room.
Apparently, Ellen and John offered the song to Valve for use as an Easter egg for Portal 2, but it was never utilized. No one had heard it except for a few of their friends, whom they had sent it to on holiday cards.
“You were in my dreams, while I slept forever,” it goes. “Now that I’m awake/ I hope you will find me/ If you want a cake, I’ll bake/ Did you bring the eggs?/ I’ll mix in the sugar for you/ Don’t say goodbye/ Sweet, don’t say goodbye."
Ellen was a bit embarrassed by the living-room quality of the recording when I asked if they would ever release the track. But after finding time at a local recording studio, Ellen and John recorded “GLaDOS’ Song” afresh to include here:
Sometimes non-gamers question Ellen and John’s contributions to a medium that supposedly influenced the weak of mind toward acts of bloodshed.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” John said, “art is an expression of human behavior. It is a reflection. It is not something that causes human behavior. It is a response. And a video game is a piece of art, just like a painting or a movie or anything else.”
When they aren’t working, which seems infrequent, John and Ellen go urban hiking. They also see a lot of movies. John told me since they write it off on their taxes as actors he knows they spend between $1000 and $2000 on movie tickets each year. “It will be cheaper this year,” Ellen said, “because we’re both seniors.”
They go to the symphony. They are season pass holders at the opera. Ellen reads history, and John writes “till 4, 5, 6, in the morning, [and] then get up when I’m done sleeping.” He is currently working on a dystopian novel in which a Muslim lesbian has found a way to go to an alternate universe. Previously he wrote
Dancing with Eternity, a sci-fi novel with Amazon customer reviews hijacked by zealous Sniper fans who have composed the reviews of John’s book in the personae of other characters from Team Fortress 2. (
Despite the density of their careers, John and Ellen are both heavily associated with very specific game characters, GLaDOS and the Sniper (and, increasingly for John, Pudge from Dota 2), but rather than feeling typecast they seem to rejoice in it.
People have written to the pair, requesting messages for fans whose “lives at one point or another were looking very grim,” John said. “The fact that the voice of the Sniper cares about them, really helps them out. You know, gives them a boost. And we really get a lot out of it too.”
Some of those who have received a bit of friendliness from these game actors during bleak times have written back, indicating that such seemingly small acts of kindness helped “turn their lives around. Some of them corresponding with John or Ellen regularly.
They go to fan conventions to speak or sign autographs where Ellen not infrequently breaks out into “Still Alive” or “Want You Gone” with John accompanying on the banjo or guitar. They feel like a grandma and grandpa at the conventions and are treated as such.
“Everybody hugs us,” Ellen said. “We get lots of hugs.”