From Game Tester to TV’s Resident ‘Indoor Kid’: Inside Ashly Burch’s Lifelong ‘Quest’
To non-gamers, the most famous person on Mythic Quest, Rob McElhenney’s workplace comedy set at a gaming company, is probably its creator and star. Or maybe it’s F. Murray Abraham, the legendary character actor who plays the game’s head writer. But to gamers, it’s Ashly Burch. While her role as Rachel on the sitcom, where she’s also a writer, is a supporting one, in the gaming industry, Burch is a bona fide star. For the last few years, she’s both voiced and mo-capped Aloy in the hugely popular Horizon series, whose latest iteration, Horizon: Forbidden West, topped several Best of 2022 lists. Her career is a culmination of a longstanding passion for gaming, one that’s paying off as the industry goes mainstream.
When you were first hired to work on Mythic Quest, were you able to draw on your background in the gaming industry?
Yeah. My experience in the writers room was [as] the resident nerd. I never thought being an indoor kid was going to benefit me and my career to the extent that it has, but there was a lot of personal experience that I was able to bring.
We were always very deliberate and not wanting to be like, “Hey, look at these nerds! We wanted to feel these are the pitfalls of this industry and this type of workplace. And then also, here are the things that are really great about it, lovely, about it, inspiring about it. And at the end of the day, it’s a creative workplace.
You broke out with a YouTube show, Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’, where you played games and offered commentary about them. Does that help you connect with Rachel?
I think there’s an authenticity people can feel. You know, the testers are closest to the game. So having that affection for games in general [is beneficial]. I never had to worry about, like, “How do I hold the controller? How do I move the character?”
You’ve also voiced Tiny Tina in the Borderlands series, Chloe Price in Life is Strange, and Mel in The Last of Us Part II. How attached do you feel to them?
It’s impossible not to get attached. At least for me, you have to put some of yourself in the character. It’s not like a Horcrux [in the Harry Potter universe, an object that contains a piece of a witch or wizard’s soul] — you’re not putting it there and you’ll never get it back. But you assign certain things about yourself to that person. It’s very bizarre psychologically.
Do you find that fans feel some ownership over the characters, too?
It is inevitably a communal experience. I remember talking to Rob about when It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [which McElhenney also co-created] came out. And there’s just this thing — it’s yours until it isn’t. You put all the work in, and then when you release it, that really is for everyone else. You’re creating this for an audience.
Does that audience ever feel like engaging in gatekeeping the things they love?
I do think that there is an element of like, “This is mine, why are you messing with something that’s mine?” There’s like a sense of sort of very fierce ownership of the industry. And I think the reality is that this doesn’t belong to anyone. You know, it’s an entire artistic milieu. And it belongs to everyone.
Over your time in the industry, what do you feel have been the biggest positive shifts in gaming culture?
Absolutely that there have been more women and people of color in games, and in making games — characters and the developers behind it. When I started recording Horizon, there was not a huge breadth of female protagonists. And now we have so many franchises that are headed by women, by people of color. And that, to me, is really encouraging. I think on the developer side of things, that has also improved. I think more can be done to improve that, but the first female game character I can remember relating to was Meryl in Metal Gear Solid, and she still spends 80 percent of the game being damseled or possessed or kidnapped. To have characters like Aloy or Ellie or Abby [of The Last of Us], all of these women that are heading these games that are messy, and complex, and strong and strange, and interesting — it means a lot to me. And it makes me really happy that women that are coming up now get to have those experiences with those characters.
How do you feel about general audiences embracing gaming now?
I love it, honestly. That whole debate that went on for so long of, “Are games art?” I’m like, ”Why are we even talking about this? Obviously, yes.” And so many of us have been tired of endlessly defending this medium, and telling people that I voice-act, and they go, “Like Mario? Like, ‘It’s-a-me?’ ” So it’s a nice thing that finally people are like, “Oh, these are good. They’re kind of like movies.” Yeah, they’ve been good for a long time. They’ve been important for a long time. So it makes me happy.
What games are you most excited for in 2023?
The next Zelda, I’m so excited for Tears of Kingdom. I cannot wait. I’m going to be really busy, but I’m going to find time somehow to play it. I just loved Breath of the Wild so much. And then there is an indie game coming out that is called Venba where you play as an Indian mom who emigrated to Canada with her family in the 1980s. I love cooking games and I love narrative games, so this is perfect for me. It seems like it’s a cooking game about family history. You’re cooking Indian dishes, which I think is so cool. The archetype is really lovely. I’m really excited about that too.
This story is part of Gaming Levels Up, a special section that celebrates the proliferation of video games throughout our entire culture. A version also appears in the Jan. 2023 issue of the magazine.