'Horizon Zero Dawn' Star Ashly Burch on Her Voice Acting Heroes and Playing Aloy

'Horizon Zero Dawn' Star Ashly Burch on Her Voice Acting Heroes and Playing Aloy

Ashly Burch, the voice of Aloy, won a Golden Joystick Award for her role as Chloe in 'Life is Strange' Glixel/Larry Busacca

She got her start on a hilarious web series and now portrays one of the most beloved new characters in games

She got her start on a hilarious web series and now portrays one of the most beloved new characters in games

For years, Ashly Burch and her brother uploaded silly two-minute comedy adaptations of their favorite video games. The series is called Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? and it solidified the Burches as the most lovable gaming family on the planet. Things are good when you have a dad who’s willing to participate in your Kerbel Space Program sketch. But over the past few years, Ashly started to make a name for herself as a voice actor, with notable roles in Saints Row, Mortal Kombat X, and Borderlands. In 2015, she made her dramatic debut as Chloe – the Kool Aid-dyed Arcadia rebel at the heart of Life is Strange. That performance earned her a Golden Joystick and plenty of hype entering Horizon Zero Dawn.

Burch plays Aloy, a futuristic cavewoman and Horizon’s central protagonist. It’s the biggest role of her career – a lot of studio time goes into a massive open-world – but more importantly, Ashly doesn’t underestimate what it means to be 26 years old and trusted with a brand new franchise and an elusive, complicated female lead. We caught up with her and talked about that responsibility, as well as Sailor Moon and her admiration of Mass Effect voice actress Jennifer Hale.

I think we all expected Horizon Zero Dawn to be a good game, but I don’t think people were expecting to be blown away by the story. Has that been nice for you to see?
Yeah, I’ve been working on the game for about two years and I loved the story. All the gameplay stuff I saw looked amazing, too, but the story is my part, you know what I mean? It’s hard to have an objective perspective on things because I’m so submerged in being Aloy, but it’s been nice to see people are responding to it as well.

Everyone loved Life is Strange two years ago, and you had an acclaimed role in that playing Chloe. You’ve been around the industry for a while now, but do you think your performance in Life is Strange has opened up doors for you? Is that how it works in voice acting?
I think it does. I can’t point to something specific and say "I got that because of Chloe." But I’ll book new work and tell me they really loved me in whatever thing I did. But it contributes to my larger body of work and my range, because I did mostly comedy in my career. My best-known role before Chloe was Tiny Tina [from Borderlands]. I think it definitely puts my range on people’s radars.

Ten years ago, I don’t think a character like Chloe would exist in gaming.
Totally, I was thinking about it the other day. I can’t believe I got to play Chloe and now I’m Aloy. It’s an insane career that I’ve been able to have.

What are some other voice roles that you haven’t done that you’ve enjoyed over the past few years? When you’re playing a game, do you notice performances in the way an actor would watching a movie?
Absolutely. Jennifer Hale as Commander Shepard [from the Mass Effect series] is a performance I think about a lot. The casting in that game in general is fantastic, with Mordin and Keythe Farley as Thane. It seems obvious to say The Last of Us, but The Last of Us. Ashley Johnson is fantastic. But yeah, I thought about Jen Hale’s Shepard a lot when I was recording Horizon. Being the lead role in a game, I don’t think you think about how much content and how much work that takes.

How tightknit is the voice acting community? Do you guys all hang out?
Yeah, it’s pretty small. I met Jen like two or three years ago. I’ve actually met a ton of the Mass Effect cast, which is nuts. When I played it I was in college, I had no idea that I would ever meet any of them. Everyone is really sweet. I’ve not come across any egos or anything like that.

The idea that emotions are a sign of weakness is a narrative that is destructive to men and women, and I don’t want to see it in male characters [either].

From the looks of it, Horizon is primed to be a success. What’s it like to give a voice to a character that will end up being really important to a lot of people? Is there a responsibility that comes with that?
Yes, holy hell. When I auditioned for Horizon initially, I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big game or such an important game. But as soon as I realized that this was a beautiful, massive open-world game that Sony is really putting their weight behind… and that most open-world games give you a choice between a gender, and that Aloy was the only protagonist option, I felt an incredible responsibility. I think the industry is shifting, especially since Gamergate. We’re more aware of representation and more companies are shifting practices to include more women and people of color. But it’s still slow-going. Horizon is a big push, and I really wanted Aloy to feel like a character that was memorable for personal reasons, but that nobody would be able to write off for being a woman and that any sensitive Gamergate dude could play without having any complaints.

You’re absolutely right. Most RPG-leaning games give you a gender option, which lets them dodge that question. It’s rare that you see a truly authored experience in a triple-A game with a woman in at the center.
Yeah, I think it’s really significant. Of course, you have influence over the type of person that Aloy can be, but fundamentally, she has this story and this arc. I felt honored and humbled. It was important to us to create a character who was relatable and also aspirational. Whenever anyone is making an aspirational female character, I always hope that that character can make little girls feel seen, and inspired, and empowered, and offers the opportunity for men to look up to a woman.

When you were a little girl, what were some of the characters that made you feel seen?
Sailor Moon, honestly. It’s funny – these labels are so archaic now – but I was a tomboy growing up. When you’re younger, there’s this self-hatred. Like, it wasn’t cool to be a woman, and boy stuff was cooler. I remember as a kid, I was derisive about the Spice Girls, and the Spice Girls were awesome! But for some reason, Sailor Moon hit me. It was the first time I remember being fucking stoked on a very female show. I wanted to be Sailor Moon more than anything in my life, up to this day. She was flawed, that was the cool thing about her.

You often see female characters at the center of stories in triple-A games that rely on the usual "strong female" tropes (not that those are necessarily bad). Is it important to you to introduce more female characters that can be vulnerable when they’re feeling vulnerable? Is it important for us to add more dimensions to some of these performances?
I think so. It’s hard line to walk because women for so long have been criticized for being overly emotional or overly sensitive. I remember that Princess Peach game where all of her mechanics are her crying or whatever, which is destructive. But also I think having our female characters being unassailable terminators who don’t have any emotional landscape is destructive, too. The idea that emotions are a sign of weakness is a narrative that is destructive to men and women, and I don’t want to see it in male characters [either]. In a lot of places, I don’t think we afford our protagonists – male or female – robust, fully fleshed-out emotions. I think our characters are more relatable when they fuck up more. For Aloy, if she was just a stoic badass, I don’t think people would be having the response to her that people are having. I’m getting people who are going out of their way to message me how much they really like Aloy, and it’s because she’s curious, she’s a bit sassy, she’s compassionate, she’s weary, she’s strong – she has so many different shades to her and so many things she cares about.

What have you been playing lately?
I’m playing a bit of For Honor which is really fun. There’s a lot female voice-acting heavy hitters in there, too. Jennifer Hale is the female knight, and my friend Sarah Elmaleh is the female raider.

It must be fun to be playing a game and suddenly being like "oh, there’s Jen!" I’m sure you guys pick up on that stuff better than any of us.
It’s fun! Sarah is one of my closest friends, and there’s a very particular voice acting joy in saying "I’m gonna play as one of my friends!" 

This interview has been edited and condensed.