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Ashly Burch saves video games by making fun of them

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The Mythic Quest star has spent a decade pushing the medium forward by helping us laugh

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet isn’t just a great comedy about video games, but a strand connecting an older, weirder era of its culture to the more mainstream world of workplace comedies. Few people on the show exemplify this more than Ashly Burch, a writer on Mythic Quest who also plays Rachel, a wide-eyed game tester for the studio that makes the show’s eponymous game.

Anyone watching Mythic Quest with more than a passing interest in games will recognize Burch’s name immediately — she’s spent the last decade as one of the industry’s most prominent voice actors, starring as Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn and Chloe Price in Life Is Strange. Older heads know her from Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?, the long-running (and still funny) web series she made with her brother, writer Anthony Burch. As a writer for Mythic Quest — where she’s currently in the writer’s room for the second season — Burch is one of the show’s most experienced voices when it comes to the world of video games.

This puts her in a uniquely insightful position when it comes to the ways the show skewers the games industry’s problems with diversity, sexism, and how quickly video game players will take anything you give them and use it to make a penis.

The Verge: Given your career in games and games culture, on Mythic Quest it’s almost like you’re the bridge between games culture and mainstream comedy. Is that something you feel?

Burch: It feels kind of surreal to me because I’m a lifelong gamer and I always wanted to be a voice actor and I never, ever would have guessed that there would be a sitcom on a major streaming service about a game company. The business has been seen as so niche for so long. So it’s something that really legitimizes the games industry — not that it really needed that, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry — but it’s still been seen as niche for a long time. We were the kids playing Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid and no one knew what the hell we were talking about, and now there’s this show on Apple with an Oscar winner about a games studio!

Image: Kim Newmoney

Yeah, and because it’s about games but not of them, Mythic Quest can look at them from a different angle and say “Hey, this is a little weird or fucked up.” Did your experience in the writer’s room make you think about games differently?

I just found it exciting to have an outlet to talk about the industry. Because we have those conversations within the industry itself, with devs or with other voice actors. But it’s really cool and sort of fascinating to be something of an ambassador for the industry within the context of the writer’s room, and then also getting sort of the feedback and perspectives of some of the writers who maybe weren’t as familiar.

You’ve worked in so many different capacities in games, how did that inform your approach to this?

I started doing web series with my brother over a decade ago, and that’s kind of how I first started getting into video games [for work], through video game sketch comedy. After that I did voice acting, and then I’ve given talks at different conventions and stuff about the industry, or the culture — so I’ve thought a lot about the industry from different angles for a long time. So it was just interesting and a lot of fun to funnel that knowledge into the context of the show. And to depict games in all of its flaws and all of its grandeur. To show the ugly side but also the beautiful side of games.

Because both exist. It’s a massive industry and it’s an amalgamation of a lot of different types of people, so you’re going to get people that are very toxic and very destructive, and then you’re going to get people that are lovely and love games and put good into the world through that love. I feel like we were able to give a complete picture of the industry, which I’m very grateful for and excited by.

Like you said, despite their success, games still feel like a niche industry with a very prominent dark side. Do you struggle with that perception of the industry as you talk about your time in it to people who aren’t familiar?

What I mostly find, honestly, is that people mostly don’t know a ton about the industry. I’ve been a voice actor for a long time, and over that time period, you know, you go to parties, people ask you what you do, I’ll say I’m a voice actor for games, mostly, and their response has more or less remained consistent, which is just confusion. Because, you know, like, Mario! “Do you do ‘it’s-a-me, Mario,’ is that your thing?”

They don’t realize that there are so many games with these sweeping epic stories that are just as compelling as any movie or TV show that you’ve seen. So mostly I think it’s been a lack of understanding, which isn’t malicious. It’s just, if you don’t play games, you don’t know! So what I think is awesome about Mythic Quest is that we’re getting the opportunity to present a holistic narrative of the industry and showcase that games are more than just Mario or more than just Halo. And that they have a life or community all their own. To me that’s exciting.

Do you feel that perception changing?

I think it’s probably changing, but I also think that a lot of people just know the broad highlights, they know about games their kids play, or they know about Call of Duty. And so I think having a show like this just demonstrates a side to this world that people don’t often get to see, and you get to show that these folks are not tremendously that different. It’s not substantially different from a normal workplace, it’s got the same sort of problems.

There’s a normalization that happens there, which is cool — and then getting to showcase the ways that it is different. Like, in the show when we talk about TTP*, that’s a real thing! [laughs] It’s a real thing that someone from Ubisoft told us about, and that is a complication that is very unique to games! You know, I don’t think accountants are having to worry about TTP. [laughs]

*In an episode of Mythic Quest, TTP (Time to Penis) is described as the amount of time it takes before players figure out how to use a tool given to them by a video game in order to make an in-game penis.

Wait, really? When did you learn about this?

I actually had not heard about it before the show! I hadn’t heard about it until Jason Altman, who works for Ubisoft, he was in the room a lot, and he told us about TTP. I think I, you know, assumed that I have enough of a knowledge of the gamer base to know that yes, they’re going to find a way to teabag someone, they’re going to find a way to make a penis — these things are known. But I did not realize there was an acronym that people used in gaming [laughs].

As crass and upsetting as that may be, it kind of represents one of my favorite things about games: they have to account for people so much, and people always surprise you. Not always in a good way!

[Laughs] But sometimes in a good way! Sometimes in a great way.

In one of Mythic Quest’s best episodes (“The Convention”), the show drills down on the industry’s struggle with gender equality, giving lip service to women in games but lacking the infrastructure to keep or support them. Can you tell me a little bit about the team deciding to take that on?

I think it would’ve been a huge omission to not talk about that on the show. It has been a problem, it continues to be a problem. We’ve gotten better, I think, but we still have a long way to go. I spoke to a friend recently who is a female programmer, and she said she literally had what happened to Michelle in that episode happen to her, which is that her company brought in a Girls Who Code group as a PR move to talk to her, and she didn’t sugarcoat it. She said, “This is a difficult place to work, and I feel undervalued.” She just kinda went bleh and it came out!

I am so glad and excited and grateful that Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz and David Hornsby — that was their M.O. from the beginning: let’s showcase this world, let’s show all of it. You know? The good, the bad. And obviously we don’t want to make the whole show about Gamergate because the whole industry isn’t about Gamergate, but to not have acknowledged this disparity and the problems that women face in games, it would have been a huge omission.

And I feel like we were able to tackle it in a way that was still funny and thought-provoking. I’m horrified that my friend went through this, but it was affirming that it resonated so much. That she saw that scene and was like, “That was me,” you know? Because it means we’re touching on things really true.

Right, and there’s a similar problem with diversity across the board, and games industry executives tend to talk around the toxicity that perpetuates this. Do you think people are becoming more frank or are we still euphemizing too much?

I think I’ve seen a shift. Obviously the big event was Gamergate, and even though it was such a nightmare, and so harrowing for so many women and people of color during that time, the one silver lining I think was that the majority of developers came down on the side of “this sort of toxicity is unacceptable.” And rather than seeing a bunch of companies kowtowing to the whims of this very vocal minority, you saw, I think, an influx of characters that represented a larger player base. You saw female leads in major franchises and options for people of color in multiplayer games. I think you just saw a shift, and I think there’s no question after that — this is an environment that has a lot of toxicity in it, but also an acknowledgment that we don’t want that to be who we are.

So the fallout from that — people were made aware how deep the problem went, and a shift happened after that. It’s the beginning of a good idea. We need to keep moving in that direction.

Can you tell me a little more about what that looks like?

Representation in games has improved over the years, I think that’s indisputable. I remember playing Metal Gear Solid when I was younger, and the representation of women in that game is awful! Now you have Ellie in The Last of Us or Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s different now. But I think the thing we need to keep pushing for is representation on the other side, in game dev. More game devs of color, LGBTQ game devs, female game devs. And continuing to push forward and make space for more diverse voices.

But I do think that when the industry was confronted with that choice — do you want to continue on the path you always have, or are we going to address this toxicity? — this problem that has been bubbling under the surface of our industry, I do think that they chose the latter, for the most part. Obviously, things are not fixed fully. But what you see is an increase in those types of conversations. There are several prominent companies that have had sexual harassment issues that are being worked through now, and not all the solutions are perfect. But, at least in my view, we are making progress. That doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels, but at least there seems to be a trajectory in the right direction.

Do you ever find yourself getting a little weary of games, or are they still fun for you?

Oh yeah! They’re still really fun. I haven’t ever been a type of person who is like, “Because I’m writing on a comedy, I can’t watch comedy.” I don’t really have that experience. What’s so cool to me about games is how they still surprise me. I played Return of the Obra Dinn over the holiday break, and that game blew my mind! It was so well-designed... I loved it. And I never would have imagined a game like that would exist — I mean, the short pitch is that you’re an insurance adjuster in the 1800s trying to figure out what happened to a ship! [laughs] Not the most exciting log line, but it’s such a compelling game. So to me it’s really cool to have been in the industry for this long, and to see where games started when I was a kid and before that, and now where we are.

Yeah, and perhaps if games were a more mundane thing, people in the industry could talk about them without feeling like they had to advocate for or save the medium.

I do sometimes think that because we perpetually feel like the underdog, that there’s the feeling that we’ve got to prove ourselves — that dampens people’s desires to take risks. I do wonder what our industry would look like if we just sort of felt like we had arrived, and we didn’t have to keep vying for cultural acceptance or cultural relevance. I feel like we would get to see different games. And I’m excited for that, I want that day to come.