Horizon Zero Dawn introduced us to Aloy, a new protagonist who quickly became one of the most iconic leading characters to emerge in the last generation. Aloy's strength and tenacity captured the hearts of players, and that's thanks to the talents of Ashley Burch – the voice actor who brought Aloy to life.
With over 40 video game credits to her name, you've no doubt heard Burch give stellar performances in the likes of Life is Strange as Chloe Price, or The Outer Worlds as Parvarti Holcomb. Now, with the highly anticipated sequel Horizon Forbidden West headed to the PS5, Burch is back to reprise one of her most beloved roles as Aloy once again.
Sitting down with GamesRadar+, Burch shares her thoughts on Guerrilla Games' follow-up, talks us through becoming one of gaming's much-loved heroines, and reflects on what it was like to have to reluctantly part ways with Chloe Price.
Landing the role of a lifetime
"It was one of those things where I had no idea how big of a deal Horizon was going to be, you know?" Ashly explains with a shake of her head. "Especially because it was a new IP. When The Last of Us 2 audition was rolling out, I knew exactly how monumental that project would be. But with Horizon I got sent lines for this character and I wasn't sure what it was for. I assumed that [Aloy] was probably going to be the protagonist because the script had choice wheel options in it, but I had no idea that it was going to be as beautiful as it was.
"Then, when I went into a recording session, my director said, 'Oh, hey, we have the gameplay footage for the E3 demo, do you wanna see it?' And my jaw was on the ground! I was recording these lines in isolation so when I saw that footage of Aloy sneaking through the grass, taking down watchers, and then fighting the Thunder Jaw, I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was like, 'Oh my god, this is a huge deal.'"
Even after realizing that Horizon Zero Dawn was shaping up to be something pretty special, the success Aloy's adventure found was beyond Burch's wildest dreams. "I loved the game!" she reflects with infectious optimism. "I loved the character and I loved the story – but it's one of those things where you have no idea how other people are going to react to it. Then for it to be received as well as it did... It's just been incredible. Of course, now I'm also feeling a lot of responsibility as the sole protagonist. I hope people like Aloy because they're stuck with her!"
As a voice actor in video games, you rarely ever have the full picture. With little more than concept art and a vague bit of direction to go on, the characterization that's built up throughout the initial voice recordings are largely all taking place in the actors' imagination. It's a challenge that Ashly relishes.
"There was a lot of wrapping my head around [Horizon's] lore and history - the sort of scope of the game at the beginning. [Guerrilla Games] gave me a rundown of what the game was about, but there were certain things in the first game that I didn't discover until I was recording them."
"I was discovering Aloy's story alongside her in some cases. But what's great is that, with enough time with that character, and settling into her, you get to really know their world. So if Aloy's going into this conversation, it's like okay, this person is from this type of tribe. What is this person like? How would Aloy feel about them? And then kind of go from there."
What to expect from Horizon Forbidden West
With over 10 million copies of Horizon Zero Dawn sold, perhaps it's no surprise that Burch has found herself hard at work on a sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, scheduled to launch later this year. It's the sort of creative endeavor that comes with a lot of pressure built in, but it's a challenge the actor is eager to embrace.
"What's great now about working on Horizon Forbidden West is that I have all of that stuff in my back pocket. So it's really great to be able to be like, 'Oh, Ted Faro, yeah, I remember him!' There's stuff like that I get to do now because I know her and this world so well. It's like building on this already very solid foundation – it's exciting."
So what exactly can fans expect from Forbidden West then? Burch reveals that, despite the pandemic upending business as usual, she's currently hard at work recording lines for one of 2021's most anticipated releases. "I have a record [for Forbidden West] later this week. It's going – it's still happening! I can't say a lot… But, um, I will say that I really do think that all of the things that people loved about Zero Dawn – the gorgeous world, the immersive story, the awesome gameplay – Forbidden West is just more and better. "
"The new areas that Alloy is traveling to, the tribes that she's meeting, and the story that unfolds… I got a primer on it all before recording for the game, where the writing team took me through the arc of the story and it was like being a kid at a campfire. I'm just so excited for it! I'm also a fan, so I'll be in recording sessions and we'll be recording a scene and I'm like, 'I can't wait to do this fight or I can't wait to explore this area!' So, yeah, I really think that people are going to enjoy it."
A different kind of performance review
While many singers cringe at the idea of hearing their own vocal takes played back to them, Ashly finds herself just as excited to play the games she's in as the fans anticipating them. In fact, Burch reveals that playing her own games helps her make her next performance even better:
"I do play my own games. I mean, A) I am lucky that I'm in good games – so I don't want to miss a really good game just because my voice is in it. But B) I actually find that it's helpful to play them. I feel like I've been able to cultivate an ability to review my work dispassionately."
"I can play a game and hear back what I've done and say, 'Okay, this works' or 'this doesn't quite work as well'. I might even be able to remember recording it and going, 'Okay, I remember this, so maybe in the future, I should try this.' It feels a bit like a performance review, except I'm the one doing It – and I'm fighting robot dinosaurs as I do it."
Playing Chloe Price in Life is Strange
While Burch may, arguably, now be most famous for playing Horizon's ginger-haired heroine, it was reading for a little game called Life is Strange that changed her life forever. "When I got the audition for Chloe, I had no idea how involved she was in the narrative of the game. At that time I had mostly played smaller roles. So I was used to coming in for a day and then leaving…"
"My first session was all the scenes between Chloe and David, and I didn't realize that she was going to be in every single episode... and then the sessions kept coming! As the episodes went on, I just fell more and more in love with this character and the story. I hoped other people cared about this game as much as I did, but I definitely cared about [Life Is Strange] a lot. It wasn't until the game came out and there was such an outpouring of love that I realized just how seminal a character Chloe was going to be in my career."
"It's one of those things where you don't really think about that when you're recording, you're just trying to do the best job that you can. It's only in retrospect that you're like, wow – that touched a lot of people, and it touched me too. Chloe is a really important character to me."
There's no doubt that Burch's performance as Chloe led to one of the medium's most beloved characters. Yet when the Chloe-centric Before The Storm was announced a few years later, an on-going writer's strike meant that Ashly wasn't able to reprise her then most famous role.
"Yeah, it was difficult," Ashly says, with a tinge of sadness, "It was during the Screen Actors Guild strike. It was difficult for me, and I had some emotions to process around it. But, I mean, it's one of those things, it is what it is, and a lot of voice actors had to give up a lot of amazing opportunities during that strike. So, you know, I was not the only one that had to make sacrifices."
Guerrilla Games tells GamesRadar+ what to expect from its debut PS5 game: Horizon Forbidden West takes Aloy into the unknown for a PS5 showcase like no other