While video games are riding an all-time high of success, commentary Webshows and machinima have snagged a piece of the spotlight and become one of the quickest forms of underground media to gain popularity. --- Some poke fun at gaming in general, others critique titles both past and present and some create vast story lines (both parody and dramatic) using the game mechanics themselves.
The Web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'? was started by the sibling team of Anthony and Ashly Burch in the spring of 2008, featuring short stories based around the video games they've liked (or hated) from the past or current titles they wish to pay homage to ... or just kick in the ass, we can't be sure which. The series has become a staple of GameTrailers, earning the duo fans across the globe and stardom amongst lifetime gamers. Today, we snagged Ash away from the controller to talk about the series and its history, the influence they've had on the gaming community, thoughts on the industry and some other random stuff. Somehow, we ignored asking what game was in the console.
Gavin: Hey, Ash. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ash: Well, hey there, buddy. I am a 21-year-old undergraduate in the Media Arts & Culture Department at Occidental College [Los Angeles], I play vidja gamez, I have cried at least seven times while watching Doctor Who and I am of the belief that the crust is the best part of any food item. That about sums it.
Gavin: How did you first get into video gaming and what were some of your favorite titles growing up?
Ash: My dad was, and I guess still is, pretty protective of me and Anthony. He didn't like the idea of us roaming around outside because he thought we would be kidnapped or hurt ourselves, etc. For this reason, I didn't learn how to ride a bike until about a year ago and Anthony still doesn't know. So, in short, we mostly stayed inside and played a lot of video games. As a kid, I loved the ever-loving shit out of Harvest Moon 64, the Final Fantasy series, Kirby Super Star and Metal Gear Solid. Last one's a bit of a curveball.
Gavin: Growing up, how much of a competition was it between you and your bother to be the best at any particular game?
Ash: I don't really remember there being much competition, to be honest. As much as I would like to say that I held my own, Anthony is inarguably better than me at most -- if not all -- the games we play together, a fact I accepted at a young age.
Gavin: At what point did you start learning more behind the medium than just the game, such as companies, designers and writers?
Ash: Probably about the time that Anthony and I started HAWP. Before that, I just sort of played games and didn't think about it.
Gavin: Your brother, Anthony, got involved with game writing and reviewing via [the blog] Destructoid. What was it like for you seeing him get involved with gaming and how did that influence your views on it?
Ash: I was really proud of him for landing that job, and I'm so immeasurably grateful for it in retrospect, because it jump-started Anthony's entire career. It's interesting, because he was really invested in film prior to becoming features editor at Destructoid, and his focus shifted completely thereafter. Sort of the same thing with me, I guess. Anthony and I also agree on most things/have incredibly congruent tastes, so our views on gaming were, and remain, pretty much consistent with one another. Games are an incredibly important medium, have the capacity to be high art, blah, blah.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up a Web series about gaming, and how did the name come about?
Ash: Anthony thought it would be funny to see me dress up as Andrew Ryan and deliver his monologue from Bioshock in front of a shoddily green-screened Rapture. We pretty much did that, sans green screen, and now Anthony is writing Borderlands 2. This is how the world works. As far as the name, I really can't remember. It just sort of came about organically in our first video.
Gavin: What was it like for you both filming that first set of videos, and what lessons did you learn along the way?
Ash: It was incredibly fun. Anthony and I had never really collaborated in that way, just the two of us, before, and I really enjoyed it. Looking back on those first episodes, I think they pale in comparison to the quality of the ones in our current season -- i.e., there are less dead-baby jokes -- but I like reviewing them occasionally to see what worked in them. Primarily, it's the dynamic we managed to establish between me and Anthony that I liked the best.
Gavin: You launched the series on YouTube around mid-2008. What was the initial reaction from viewers at a time?
Ash: We actually put it on Destructoid – we didn't have an official YouTube presence until like a month ago. Given that, the reaction was favorable because everyone in the DTOID community knew Anthony and knew of me through stories he would tell on podcasts he was on.
Gavin: What was that first season like for both of you and what made you decide to keep going with it early on?
Ash: It was a lot of fun, and it was great to have our work appreciated. If we didn't receive the positive response that we did at the beginning, we probably would have stopped making them.
Gavin: What made you decide on the track from FantomenK as your main theme for the series?
Ash: For obvious legal reasons, we had to stop using copyrighted material as the end credits music for our videos, so we sought out some chip tunes music that we thought fit the tone of the show. FantomenK's track works perfectly. He's a really cool dude, also.
Gavin: How did the deal with GameTrailers come about and how has it been featuring your videos on their site?
Ash: Niero Gonazles, the editor in chief of Destructoid, helped get us in touch with Jeremy Hoffmann at GameTrailers, who liked our videos enough to vouch for us and help us get our foot in the door. Being featured on GameTrailers has been totally amazing, really and truly. There are other Websites that host shows like ours and they don't treat their creators with anywhere near the same level of respect we receive from GameTrailers. It's been fantastic.
Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a video, going from the script all the way to the final video?
Ash: Essentially, one of us -- “us” being me, Justin, and Anthony -- writes a script, and then we e-mail it to the other two. We get notes, change anything that needs to be changed. Then when we all reconvene in the winter, we shoot the episodes. If anything feels like it isn't working, we fix it then, on the day.
Gavin: Are there any games you've wanted to do something on but decided not to just before filming?
Ash: Not really. Generally, we will write episodes, find out in the editing room that they aren't funny, and ditch them then.
Gavin: How often do you hear back from the game companies whose work you parody and occasionally slam?
Ash: We've had a couple of really awesome responses to our videos, actually. After we released that Rock Band video, Harmonix contacted us and asked if we really didn't have Rock Band. At the time, we didn't. So they sent us Rock Band 1, 2, all of the peripherals and Rock Band: Beatles. Harmonix is the best. Also, the good folks at Bioware told us they liked our Mass Effect episode, even though it had nothing to do with the game. That was my bad. I want to re-visit Mass Effect one of these days.
Gavin: You also launched a podcast for the series a while ago. What made you decide to do that and how has it been making those?
Ash: Narcissism. It's working.
Gavin: As of this interview, you're approaching the end of the third season. What's your take on the series as a whole at this point and the influence you've had with gaming fans?
Ash: I'm personally really proud of this last season. I think it's our best yet. And as a whole, I'm happy with HAWP – I think we've maintained our integrity thus far, which is really important to me, and is also a really weird thing to write down because we make poop and abortion jokes. I don't want to be presumptuous and say that we've had a huge impact on the gaming community, but one time a girl dressed up as Princess Peach walked up to me and thanked me for what I do for women in gaming. So that was really cool. We were at PAX, also. It would have been really cool if that happened out of the blue, though.
Gavin: With Anthony now working for Gearbox as a writer and you perusing acting and other projects, how has the series affected both your careers?
Ash: It's made them, effectively. HAWP got Anthony the job, and by extension, I've gotten some acting gigs and met some really cool people. Honestly, without HAWP, I don't know where Anthony and I would be. It's gotten us where we are.
Gavin: Branching into the industry a bit, what's your take on the gaming industry today, both good and bad?
Ash: Oh, man, do you have like, eight hours to spare? That's a big one. Ahhhhhhh ... sexism bad, but games good cause art and things.
Gavin: Are there any specific companies who you feel are at the top of their game and producing titles you love to play?
Ash: Valve Bioware Valve Bioware Valve Bioware Valve Bioware Valve Harmonix...Valve.
Gavin: From an entertainment standpoint, what are your thoughts on G4, both good and bad, and the kind of impact they'd had on covering gaming from a entertainment standpoint?
Ash: Honestly, I don't watch enough G4 to make a totally educated and non-douche-baggy assessment of it. What I do know is that they definitely go down the “bring in the hot girls to talk about video games” route. And you know, those girls might actually play games, who the fuck knows? I certainly don't. But as it is with any medium, having real, not-super-human-attractive, women talk about games thoroughly and intelligently would certainly make me feel less like the network is just pandering to men.
Gavin: On the fan video side of things, what's your opinion on the genre and the kind of videos we're seeing?
Ash: I think there's some really awesome stuff being made. Obvious favorites would be Mega 64 and Zero Punctuation.
Gavin: What are some other video series that you like to check out and support?
Ash: They aren't video-game related, but I have loyalty to Barats & Bereta and Picnicface. Definitely Picnicface. And 5 Second Films. Literally none of those groups need my help plugging them, but I would recommend them.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and HAWP over the rest of the year and going into next?
Ash: We're nearing our season finale for HAWP, so that's something to look for. As far me, I'm graduating this semester and I'm not really sure what's happening next -- hopefully, some cool stuff. I'm working on my senior-thesis project right now, which is a video- game study. I'll publish all my findings on a Website, and send that link around once it's done, if anyone is interested.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Ash: If you haven't seen me babble about it already in different forums, How Games Saved My Life is one of my current projects. It's a repository of stories from players about how games have positively affected their lives. If you have a story to share, please submit it!
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