Ashly Burch is a voice actress specializing in video games who has worked on titles that include "Mortal Kombat" and "Fallout 4."
But her most recent character is the warrior Aloy in "Horizon Zero Dawn." It’s an epic, action-packed role-playing game put out by Sony’s Guerilla Games imprint.
The game centers on Aloy, a tribal warrior living in a world overrun by robot creatures. So far the game has been a huge hit for Sony, selling more than 2.6 million units in just its first two weeks of release.
Burch worked on "Horizon Zero Dawn" for two whole years, so when she stopped by The Frame the first thing we wanted to know is: Why did it take so long?
On her character's role in the game and why it took so long to complete:
Aloy, my character in the game, is the protagonist and it's an open-world game. There are many different missions in the game. There's what we call the "critical path," which is the main story line and all the missions that you have to do to complete the narrative arc of the game. Then there are side quests. They're not essential to completing the game. They're for fun or because you want to learn the story. My character is involved in every single mission. You spend every single moment of the game with her. There's just so much content. The average play time for an open-world game is about 40 to 50 hours.
On creating a female character with depth:
Aloy is a younger woman. She's 18. But she's also experienced a lot of trauma and grief in her life. She never knew her real parents. She grew up as an outcast and was treated really terribly by all the other people in the tribe. There's a potential to make her petulant and angry and closed-off and suspicious, which I think are all things that would make sense for a character like that. But Aloy — what we discovered is that she comes at things from a baseline of curiosity and compassion, mostly. While she is bruised and has elements of suspicion and has an edge to her, she mostly is curious and open to the world. Making that choice and finding her that way informed the rest of the process, because you also have to think about the fact that a player might be spending 60 hours with this character.
On working against expectations for her character:
With Aloy in particular — when I auditioned for the character, I did not know how big this game was going to be. When I found out, I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to make a character that was compelling and interesting. There are very few games, especially on the scale of "Horizon," that have a sole protagonist that is female.
Most games, if you're stuck with a singular protagonist, it's a man. So I felt a lot of responsibility to make Aloy a complex and interesting character. One of the archetypes that exists in games a lot for female characters is the "capital S" strong female character that has no emotional nuance and is basically just a gun with legs. I really wanted to make sure that Aloy felt three-dimensional and complex and could feel fear at times and could feel vulnerable at times and have a rich emotional landscape. I've been extremely lucky and grateful, especially with Aloy, that she is not sexualized. Her dress is totally practical for what she's doing. She has a body type that makes sense. Like all of the other female characters in the game as well, there's a whole litany of female characters that are of diverse sexualities and races. They all have dress that makes sense for where they live, their tribe and the things they do. It's such a thoughtful construction of this world.
On her study with educator Rosalind Wiseman on gender assumptions about gaming:
I think we assume a lot about both genders. But in particular I think we assume that only boys play games and that boys are only interested in playing games that reflect their narratives and their interests. What I found in the study with Rosalind is that boys don't really care. They just want to play a fun game and they don't really mind if they're playing as a woman or as a man. Girls have more of a preference to play as a woman. Based on that, it makes more financial sense to include more female protagonists because boys ... don't really care.
There's the idea that gaming is a closed door and that men are holding access to who gets in or out, and you have to prove — if you're female — that you're a real gamer. I think the younger generation, they don't care. They want more women playing and they just want to play with friends and they just want to play fun games.
On bullying and targeting women and people of color in the gaming community:
That's why I think "Horizon" is such a huge deal. The fact that Guerilla Games chose to make a new IP, which in-and-of-itself is risky. Games cost millions upon millions of dollars, and to be able to break even they have to sell millions and millions of copies. Which is why there are so many sequels because, if it's a known franchise, of course people are more likely to buy a bad game. Not only that, but having their main protagonist be a woman, for most people is considered very risky. It becomes a chicken-and-egg thing where publishers will say, People won't buy a game with women as a protagonist. But then, of course, they don't market it because they believe that's true. And if they don't market it, people don't know about the game and, thus, they won't buy it.
Now that "Horizon" is out and it sold so well, developers, if they want to pitch a game with a female protagonist, and the publisher says it won't sell, everyone can point at "Horizon" and say, Well?
On people underestimating voice actors for video games:
I think most developers [recognize their importance]. The problem is, publishers don't. All actors are on strike against video games right now because of that very reason. Basically, all video games have a component where, for a while, you're going to have to be doing death screams, pain screams, attacks — and those can be really taxing on your voice. There are horror stories of people being pushed to the point where their vocal cords bleed, or [they're] asked to scream for four hours. So we're asking for a provision where all stressful sessions are limited to two hours with no reduction in pay. MOCAP — motion capture and facial capture — are now a big part of games as well, but there isn't a requirement to have stunt coordinators on the set of motion capture studios. People are being asked to, in certain cases, do acrobatic things that they are not prepared for and have not been trained for, with no safety measures. We're also asking for transparency so that we can appropriately negotiate for ourselves. Then the biggest and most contentious part of the negotiations is asking for residuals. We're asking that for games that have only made over a certain amount of money, which I think last year only five games would have qualified.
Games are progressing so quickly in terms of their graphics and the technology, and also the stories that they want to tell. People are still stuck in the old mindset where games are side scrolling like ["Super Mario Bros"]. But really, they are these beautiful works of art now, and so many games are hinged on performance.