December 2, 2022

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Digitally first class

From ‘Horizon’ to ‘Tiny Tina’s,’ Ashly Burch is everywhere and there’s a reason for that.

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Then there’s Burch. What other woman is starring in two blockbuster video game releases in the span of two months, while also acting and writing on a major sitcom about video gaming? Who else pioneered video game humor on YouTube, has written for games and co-wrote a book of video game analysis?

Burch is the polygon polymath. She’s the voice actor behind Aloy, the star of the PlayStation smash hit action RPG series Horizon and one of Borderlands’ most beloved characters, Tiny Tina, who gets the titular treatment in the franchise’s newest installment “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.” She burst into the gaming collective’s mind in 2008 with the comedy YouTube series “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” and is now once again in front of the camera on the Apple TV Plus game dev sitcom, “Mythic Quest” (while also being a staff writer on the show).

She’s become so quietly omnipresent in the industry that here’s a quick rundown of gaming franchises for which she’s performed voice-over work: Minecraft, Fortnite, Final Fantasy, The Last of Us, Fallout, Tomb Raider, Persona, Dota, Marvel’s Avengers, Saints Row, Team Fortress and The Outer Worlds.

If you don’t watch “Mythic Quest” or her YouTube videos, it’s unlikely you could pick Burch out of a lineup. But no other creative these days impacts such a broad swath of the gaming world in as many different ways.

Ashly can’t recall her introduction to the video gaming world, because games were omnipresent in her life before she could form memories.

“There’s a home movie of me that I found a few years ago, where I’m preverbal and just holding an NES controller that’s not connected to anything and just sort of waddling around with it,” says Burch.

Growing up in Phoenix, Ashly’s mother (a Thai immigrant), pushed computer games on Ashly and her older brother, Anthony, from an early age. It was her mildly overprotective parents’ attempt to keep the pair developing hand-eye coordination while staying away from danger.

Gaming quickly became the bonding activity for the siblings and continued to be a thread that tied them together even after Ashly went away to study film at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Anthony began writing for the gaming news site, Destructoid.

When Anthony later bought a camera with the idea of shooting a documentary about indie game developers, he needed a way to test it out, and Ashly was around and willing to help. Thus began the siblings’ ahead-of-its-time foray into the world of video game sketch comedy via the web series “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” in 2008.

The series had the siblings playing exaggerated versions of themselves, with Ashly, who’d previously only acted in school plays, as a zany, over-caffeinated version of herself and Anthony playing the ever-exasperated straight man. Each episode tackled a different video game title with varying levels of extreme absurdity and critical analysis.

“The landscape was not inundated,” says Ashly. “It was pretty niche to do video game comedy. So I think our timing was really advantageous.”

Unknown to Ashly at the time, “Hey Ash” would become a developing ground for her skill set, including her first real writing opportunity. While she’d written personal fanfiction, she struggled with internalized misogyny and the idea that she couldn’t be a writer as a girl until that point.

“Hey Ash’s” sense of humor caught the attention of former Gearbox Software creative director Mikey Neumann, who hired Anthony to be the lead writer for 2012’s “Borderlands 2.” It was Ashly’s big break too, as one of the first characters he wrote for the game was Tiny Tina. A cartoonish version of Ash from the web series, Tina is a 13-year-old explosives expert who hides her grief with zany wackiness. The lead writer of “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands,” Sam Winkler, describes Tina as: “What if you had a golden retriever that only ate marshmallows cereal and was raised on the Internet?”

Anthony used Ashly’s character as a template for Tiny Tina’s character, as she seemed at home in the over-the-top setting of Borderlands.

“I was writing for [Ashly],” Anthony says. “Like I told everybody I wasn’t, but in my head I was like ‘Ash is the perfect person to play this.’ She was one of the first characters I wrote, even for my writing audition for Gearbox. … I knew that Ash can — just with her voice — get a lot of really crazy silly emotion and comedy into these lines that would otherwise be kind of hard to do in a way that didn’t come off as like super anime or super irritating.”

After Anthony petitioned Gearbox to audition Ashly for the role, she landed the part, launching her career as a voice-over actor. Despite being a supporting character, Tina spawned her own acclaimed “Borderlands 2” expansion, “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep,” where Tina serves as the game master for a Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop game that turns into an amazingly touching exploration of childhood grief thanks to the writing and Ashly’s ability to bring both humor and pathos to the character.

Ashly quickly started booking more and more voice-over work, but also found herself expanding the writing side of her brain. She and Anthony co-wrote a book analyzing “Metal Gear Solid” — a game the siblings both love and have many criticisms about — for Boss Fight Books. “Hey Ash” also caught the attention of “Adventure Time” head writer Kent Osborne, who brought Ashly onto the show as a writer. She remained there for three years, even winning an Emmy in 2017 as part of the staff.

The next level up for Ashly came in the form of the 2015 choice-driven graphic adventure game “Life is Strange.” She voiced Chloe, the rebellious best friend of the teenage protagonist and a much straighter role than Tiny Tina. Ashly’s portrayal earned her the 2015 Golden Joystick Award for best performance. She would go on to write for the game’s prequel, “Life is Strange: Before the Storm.” With a significant, serious role under her belt, Ashly was ready to make the jump from comedic relief to world savior.

Guerrilla Games brought in Ashly to portray Aloy, the protagonist for their post-apocalyptic, sci-fi action RPG, “Horizon Zero Dawn.” At this point, it was just for the 2015 E3 debut trailer, as the game was still years away from completion, but the creative team knew they’d found their heroine.

“When we recorded Ash, in preliminary versions, we just knew we had it,” says “Horizon Zero Dawn” writer Ben McCaw. “She has a lot of nuance. She sounds young … but also a little bit wise beyond her years, which is what we really needed. She had some tenderness, even about the machines.”

The Horizon team quickly found Ashly to be the “ultimate pro” capable of banging out literally thousands of lines in one sitting while also getting the personal emotion of key scenes. Ashly’s writing background also set her apart and enriched the creative process.

“One of the things I love about working with Ash is it gives you the confidence to write a short line,” McCaw says. “It’s actually very difficult to write a very short line as a writer, because you’re always worried that you’re not going to get across whatever it is you’re trying to get across. But Ash can get it across in one word.”

Ashly became even more involved in the creative process for “Horizon Zero Dawn’s” DLC, “The Frozen Wilds,” where she helped shape Aloy’s character by asking questions about her motivations or evolution that would sometimes send the crew sheepishly back to the drawing board.

“I think a place that showrunners come from a lot more — we cast the person and then that helps us decide the notion of the character. And I think games are still kind of figuring out, how to do that collaboration,” Ashly says. “And so that’s what’s so nice about working with [McCaw and Winkler] is that they get that and they want the actor to bring something that helps inform the writing, and then it becomes something that’s sort of circular and symbiotic, where each influences the other.”

Her turn as Aloy nabbed her another Golden Joystick Award for best performance in 2017 and solidified her as one of the signature voices of the PlayStation gaming empire. However, the sequel, “Horizon Forbidden West,” presented it own array of challenges, as the covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in Guerrilla’s initial plan use motion capture stages. But Ashly was able to record many of her lines in her makeshift home studio in Los Angeles, and when actors were finally allowed back onto the stage with safety precautions, Ashly blew the team away with her professionalism, even helping her peers through the awkwardness and discomfort inherent in mocap acting.

“Mythic Quest” debuted in 2020, so by that time Burch had already made the leap from voice actor to in-front-of-the-camera actor. The Apple TV Plus sitcom created by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” stars Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and writer/executive producer Megan Ganz is a workplace comedy set in the video game studio of the fictional massive multiplayer online game, “Mythic Quest.” If it seems like the ideal vehicle for Ashly, the showrunners agree.

“We were specifically looking for writer/performers who had experience in the gaming world,” Ganz says. “Ashly’s web series came up in our search, and it was clear she had great comedic timing. We later learned she was a talented voice actor and hardcore gamer, so it couldn’t be a more perfect fit.”

Ashly plays Rachel, a fairly self-righteous game tester who develops a relationship with her fellow tester Dana (Imani Hakim). Over the course of show’s first two seasons, Ashly’s been able to explore the neurosis of the characters’ “will they or won’t they” dynamic and find Rachel’s motivation beyond Dana.

“Rachel is much more anxious and also a lot less observant or self-aware,” Ashly says. “She’s one of my dumber characters, probably. It’s fun to play someone that’s not very smart, but thinks that they are.”

The show has given Burch another focal point for developing her acting as well.

“What’s kind of great actually is I’m not often in romances,” she says. “There’s not a lot of romance in games. So there is something sort of nice about it being like a sweet storyline that is really about these two people and how their relationship evolves. It’s very different and a lot lower stakes than someone like Aloy who is literally trying to save the world.”

The Wonderlands and beyond

Burch is now coming full circle by returning to her voice-over roots on “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands,” where she narrates a tabletop adventure alongside comedy stars like Wanda Sykes and Andy Samberg.

Most of the “Wonderlands” creative team were fans of Borderlands and Tiny Tina long before they began working at Gearbox, so they felt pressure to make sure the character stayed true. Thankfully, Ashly was there to guide them.

“A lot of those Tina-isms we tend not to write those into the scripts themselves,” says Winkler. “When we give her a line, and she decided one part is spoken like an erudite princess or like [Winkler imitates a monster voice], we don’t put that on the script. She’s tossing that out in the middle of the sessions.”

For Ashly’s part, she adores returning to Tiny Tina even after so much success in other realms.

“I don’t get to play characters like her very often,” she says. “I think there’s a freedom and like a fun, weird, wacky quality to her. It’s a muscle, I don’t always get to exercise in voice-over. I can be loose and I can be improv-y and I can be weird in a way that other characters don’t necessarily afford.”

While Ashly isn’t sure what comes next in her career, that’s nothing new. Most of her opportunities have unexpectedly arisen as the result of not pigeonholing herself and being open to whatever comes her way. Just don’t expect her to abandon her voice-over work anytime soon after getting a taste of glory outside of games.

“Honestly, one of the wonderful things about voice-over is that there really are no limitations in terms of age or appearance,” Ashly says. “I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to have the career that I’ve had where I can play a really energetic, wacky, 13-year-old and then a very awesome, strong savior of the world. It’s an opportunity that on-camera [work] doesn’t necessarily provide.”

Whatever’s next, the people she’s worked with have little doubt Ashly will crush it. She is a polygon polymath after all.

“Ashly is astounding. She is a genius in like every way,” Winkler says. “Working with her elevates the script in so many ways. On one hand, it puts a lot of pressure on me because I want to hand her the best possible stuff, but it also reminds me that I can hand it to her and it’s going to be great no matter what. And that is why she’s blowing up. That is why she’s everywhere.”

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