Ashly Burch, gaming icon and Mythic Quest star, has some thoughts

Burch talks with us about her work on Horizon, loving Zelda, toxicity in gaming, and why you always pet the dog

Ashly Burch, gaming icon and Mythic Quest star, has some thoughts
Photo: Storm Santos Graphic: Vicky Leta

This article is part of our new women in gaming series Makers Of Now.

Few people operating in the pop culture sphere have spent more of their careers celebrating gaming than Ashly Burch. As the co-star of breakout web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? (with her brother, Anthony) in the late 2000s, Burch came to national attention when she was still just a teenager, offering up sketch comedy takes on the games of the day that presaged (and helped set) many of the trends of modern online video.

Since then, Burch has branched out as both a performer and a creator, while never straying far from her love of gaming. That includes starring in numerous video games herself, including the Borderlands games, the Life Is Strange franchise, and most especially Sony’s Horizon games, where she voices no-nonsense protagonist Aloy. Meanwhile, in live-action she appears both in front of and behind the scenes on Apple’s gaming-focused comedy series Mythic Quest, where she’s both a writer, and one of the show’s stars. (She’s also serving as showrunner on that series’ planned spin-off Mere Mortals, although rules about promotion of projects during the WGA writers strike prevented her from discussing those roles.)

Burch spoke to us this week about her love of gaming, the challenges facing the hobby, her favorite games of the last few years, and—duh—what she’s been building and doing in The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom.

A.V. Club: You’ve been involved in so many aspects of gaming, on both the creation, and the fan side of things. What perspective has it given you?

Ashly Burch: I have so much respect for the Herculean amount of labor and effort that goes into making one of these experiences. I mean, from an indie game that’s 10 hours to, you know, Zelda, which is potentially a thousand-plus hours, depending on how you want to play it. It’s incredible. And also the fact that from when we started doing, Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? to now, the way that the industry has evolved and the technology has evolved is completely insane. And because of dipping my toe in different ponds, I feel like I’m connected to the fandom, I feel like I’m connected to the devs. And so I have this view of the culture writ large, which is, I think, by and large, very passionate and excited and playful. Even though there’s a lot of toxicity. I think that’s the vocal minority, because most of the people that I’ve interacted with are just excited fans. They just love games and they love the community around it. So it’s given me a lot of appreciation for the culture, for the people that make games. And I am just excited that I get to keep working in this space.

AVC: When we talk about toxicity in gaming, what does that mean to you?

AB: The reality is that, absolutely, there are mundane versions of toxicity in this industry. And there are really intense and horrible versions of toxicity. And if you’re a woman in the games space, or basically if you’re someone that isn’t a straight white, cis male, you’re going to experience some amount of toxicity, unfortunately. I feel like, because I’ve been a semi-visible woman on the internet since I was 18, I’m sort of used to it. Which isn’t to dismiss it! But I can brush it off a lot easier. I think that maybe lets me focus on the experiences I have with people that are a lot more positive, but also it helps me to see the huge impact that these games make on people in a really transformative and and positive way. Because both exist.

The unfortunate thing about fandom in general—it’s not something that’s specific to just games. We see it in any sort of space where there is a really passionate fandom. There is toxicity. But I find that—or maybe I just choose to focus on this—but more people are excited by and moved by the work people that work on games do. The folks that like to complain are just extremely loud.

There’s a spectrum. I get plenty of shitty tweets. I’ve had a couple of stalkers. So, you know, it’s not all great. But I’ve also had so many people that I’ve met at conventions or whatever that tell me that Chloe in Life Is Strange meant so much to them, or Aloy. These characters that I’ve gotten to play have made an impact. And unfortunately, you can’t choose what impact you make. You just make one. And then the fallout of that is sometimes good, sometimes bad.

AVC: Passion informs so much of gaming, both as a hobby, and an industry. How has that passion impacted your approach to working on, and talking about, games?

AB: I’ve always loved games. I’m still so excited to be part of this industry, like, I haven’t really—knock on wood—I haven’t really gotten jaded. As everyone in the universe knows, there’s a writers strike right now. And so Zelda came out at exactly the right time. And I have this childlike response to games still, that very few other things give me. The exploration, the discovery, the way that systems can collide, that make unexpected things happen. I just find it so magical. And there is something so specific about the experience of playing a character—as in me performing a character in a game, and then the player playing that character—there’s a level of intimacy and connection there that you don’t get with a medium like TV or a medium like film. In books, you literally get inside the character’s brain, and there’s a tremendous amount of intimacy there. I feel like games have something similar where you connect to the person because you are controlling them and guiding them through the narrative. I think the longer the medium exists, the more we explore how we can create systems that produce interesting gameplay, but also how games, as a way of delivering narrative, are so specific, and can do things that other mediums can’t do.

Horizon Forbidden West – Announcement Trailer | PS5

AVC: What’s it like to play a game you star in? What’s playing Horizon like at this point?

AB: It was really bizarre. I’ve played all of the iterations of Horizon, including the DLC, at this point. When I first picked up Zero Dawn, it was really bizarre. Because I’d played games that I was in before, but I was never a player character, in the way that Aloy is the player character in Horizon. And she talks a lot, to herself, which I actually do, as well, as a human being, so we have that in common. So it was a very bizarre experience, at first, to be like, “Ooh, I’m hearing myself a lot. That’s a lot of Ashly! That is just a face full of Ashly.”

And then, honestly, the world is so immersive, and the game is so fun, I just sort of forgot about it? Then occasionally I would key in at moments and be like, “Oh, hmm, if I knew the context of that better, I would have delivered that line this way instead of that way.” Or, “Oh, man, I really need to work on slowing down when I’m speaking.” Not in a self-flagellating way, but I find it interesting that, like, if an actor has ever edited something that they’re in, it gives you that sort of perspective of like, “Oh, right, okay, that’s what that was for. So in the future, maybe I should think about X, Y, or Z.” So at first it was really bizarre, and then I was able to just play the game and then occasionally self-critique in a way that I find actually quite helpful. I think maybe because I write, and I’ve directed now a few times, I can be a bit more … not dispassionate, but not as emotionally tossed around by whether or not I feel like my performance worked in a particular moment. So it’s part debrief for myself, and then part just enjoying the game now.

AVC: And then sometimes a scene is literally you talking to you, since you play multiple parts in the games.

AB: [Laughs] Those were fun. In those scenes, I actually just switched back and forth between Aloy and [her clone/sister] Beta and had a whole conversation with myself, which was pretty fun. Never done that before.

AVC: You brought up Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom. What’s been your favorite part so far?

AB: I really like the caves system, and the chasms, a ton. Which I was not expecting. I just assumed, “Oh, I want to spend more time in Hyrule.” You know, Breath Of The Wild was so beautiful, it’s just going to be fun to run around or ride a horse around Hyrule. Which it is! But as someone that likes roguelikes and extremely difficult games sometimes, the chasms are such a fun, scary, spooky experience that I wasn’t anticipating from this game. I’m really bad at being clever with the Ultrahand, but I do like occasionally making … like I saw someone tweet something that was, like “In the first game, finding Korok seeds was, ‘Oh, you lift this rock.’ And now it’s like, ‘Build me a Ford F-150.’” So sometimes I’m just building Ford F-150s and rolling around. The thing that I realized about this version of Zelda is, I just love exploring the world and just experiencing random things, more than I even enjoy the main storyline. So I mostly just run around Hyrule or run around the chasms and see if anything surprises me. Which often, it does.

AVC: I spent two hours down there last night just building monster trucks and crashing them off of cliffs.

AB: [Laughs] So fun!

AVC: With “Hey Ash,” you were way out in front of a lot of trends in building entertainment around gaming. When you look at the landscape now, how has it changed?

AB: It’s changed astronomically. The fact the games have been accepted into the larger popular culture is still really bizarre to me. I was talking to someone about how, in my head, games are still niche, because that’s how I always experienced them when I was a kid. It was like finding a unicorn if you found someone else that played Final Fantasy or something when you were a kid. And now, I was walking my dog and I saw this gaggle of kids and they all have Minecraft shirts or Zelda shirts, you know what I mean? That shit just didn’t exist when I was younger. Also, in terms of TV and film, obviously there were game adaptations before, but the sheer breadth of them now is bananas. It’s affirming that this thing that I love, and I’ve always loved, has been accepted in a wider context. I also hope that people are getting a broader view of what games are, and what they can be. I remember when I first started voice acting, and I would tell people that’s what I did, no one had a basis for it. They were like, “Like Mario? Like, you go ‘Yahoo?’” That reality is a lot more visible to people outside of the industry now. Which is pretty astonishing, because, again, the fact that there would be a Metal Gear Solid project being made with Oscar Isaac as the lead is not something that I ever would have thought would exist, you know? It’s changed just so dramatically, in a way that I think is exciting.

AVC: How about in terms of YouTube, or streaming? Do you have any favorites there?

AB: People Make Games is a YouTube channel that’s sort of like investigative journalism for games, which there isn’t a ton of. I really, really appreciate that channel, because they’ve done a lot of interesting deep dives into different topics that I haven’t seen other outlets dive into. I’m also a big McElroy brother fan, on the complete opposite spectrum, so, like, Monster Factory is one of my favorite things. And that is again, such a games-specific … like, what a fucking specific comedy show, which is just two brothers making horrifying creatures in character design modes in games and then doing silly shit with them. You can’t do that anywhere else. That is just a game-specific thing.

The main way I find more sort of chill games, is Wholesome Games, which has a TikTok, and I think they actually have a direct livestream thing that they do, where they basically just highlight cozy games. I like games that are basically low cortisol-producing, more calming, which I like to oscillate between extremely punishing games and very, very chill ones.

AVC: Of the games you didn’t work on, what were your favorites in 2022? And what about this year so far?

AB: I really liked Cult Of The Lamb. Stray was fun because I could play it with my partner. He’s not super, super a huge gamer. He’ll play some stuff with me, but he loves cats. So that was a good one. I really liked Citizen Sleeper, a lot. I thought that was such a great narrative game. It had just enough gameplay to not feel like it was just a visual novel, but it still did storytelling in a way that was really fun. Let’s say those for now. And then, this year: I feel like the only thing that exists in my heart at the moment is Zelda.

AVC: Same!

AB: Oh, you know, I liked Dredge a lot. This is such a strangely specific thing to me, but I really love fishing in games. I can’t explain to you why, if a game has a fishing mechanic. I get really excited about it, and I don’t know what it is. And I also like the Call Of Cthulhu, sort of Lovecraftian environment. So that sounded like my fucking ideal game. I think it falls off a little bit after the first handful of hours, but I still really enjoyed it. It had the same sort of thing to me that Zelda does, where I sort of just like roaming around on my little boat. I found a dog, and there’s a small little quest where you can either give the dog to another character that you meet, or you can just keep the dog on your boat. And it doesn’t give you anything, it takes up space in your cargo, but I didn’t give a shit, because I was going to have this dog with me all the time. I don’t care. This dog’s going nowhere.

Dredge – Official Launch Trailer

AVC: Do you always pet the dog?

AB: Oh, of course. You’ve got to. You’ve got to pet the dog.

AVC: You’ve worked on projects with the Critical Role folks. What is it about tabletop gaming that’s caught people’s attention at this point? Why do we want to watch people play D&D?

AB: I think the main way that people are interacting with it, is through these mediums like Critical Role or like Dungeons And Daddies, which my brother is on, where you just like the personalities of the people. So it’s the fun of enjoying the folks that are playing, and the characters that they’re building. And then also you get a story on top of it. And I think there’s also the appeal of like, “Oh, this is improv.” So it checks a lot of different boxes. I know lots of people that listen to or watch tabletop streams slash podcasts, but don’t do it themselves, just because they like hanging out with the people that host those shows. Which I think is awesome.

AVC: You’ve performed and written on games, but you’ve never developed a game of your own. Is that an ambition?

AB: Yeah. I don’t know what I would do, besides write, because I don’t have any hard skills. My skills are quite, quite soft. But I think there’s something to me that’s really attractive and interesting about the idea of writing for a game, because of the way that you have to think about it. So many other mediums are writing first, or writing forward, and games are … not? Depending on what you’re doing. Sometimes the gameplay dictates the writing, and there’s something about that that I find really interesting.

Or the idea of dialog trees or branching narratives. I mean, it probably makes your brain melt, but it also sounds … fun? I say that so cautiously, because I’m remembering stories of the BioWare writers room during Mass Effect, that looked like a crazy person had gone in, concocting some sort of conspiracy theory because they had so many notecards with string everywhere. But I just think it would be so fun to be on a team. Because being in a writer’s room is the best when it’s going well, because it really does feel like there’s a bunch of smart people all trying to solve the puzzle. I feel like that has to just be an even more complicated puzzle when you’re talking about a game, and the narrative of the game.

AVC: Someone comes to you tomorrow with a billion dollars and says, “Make your dream game.” What’s the Ashly Burch dream game?

AB: Man. Oh, man. Um. Okay. [Laughs] This game would be so insane, and no one would play it but me. You would basically be a character on the Normandy [from Mass Effect]. But you wouldn’t go and do any of the sort of galaxy saving missions. You’d be like the cook on the Normandy or something. But you would still have, like, the ability to have relationships with different characters that can progress, there could be romances. Maybe you go for the white whale and try to romance the Commander Shepard equivalent. There would be some sort of cooking mechanic in there, because I love cooking games. Clearly there would be some sort of fishing mechanic. So you would basically be a support staff member on some sort of galaxy-saving mission. But all that shit would be kind of happening in the background. It would be a bit Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, but for Mass Effect.

AVC: I would play the hell out of that.

AB: Well, if anyone wants to make that game, let me know.

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