The Videogame Oscars: And the Winners Are …

After a fierce few days of polling, you lovely readers have finally put together a decisive set of winners for the first ever Videogame Oscars!

Now let’s see our winners:

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Mark Hamill as the Joker in Arkham City

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Ashley Johnson as Ellie in The Last of Us

Best Developer:

Naughty Dog

Best Game:

The Last of Us

Thanks for voting!

Who are your winners for these categories? There’s no right or wrong answer. Let us know in the comments below!

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Games are art: Morality vs Choice

The biggest difference between film and video games is the agency of the player. Though it’s not always the case and it doesn’t always have to be, players are able to make decisions that can change the course of the story. It’s this agency that can be the best advantage for video games moving forward as a medium. But in order to take full advantage of this potential, game developers need to understand the difference between morality and choice.

Certain games like the Mass Effect series and the Infamous series pioneered the idea of morality based decisions where the player could choose at certain points in the game between the “good option” and the “bad option”. These choices could change everything from the story itself to how the characters looked and played. Often, the “bad choices” would result in the character looking more and more evil, with Infamous’ Cole McGrath becoming more monstrous and inhuman with each bad choice he made. The problem with this approach was that rather than really giving the player a true choice on how to proceed and progress the story, it gave them two linear options that they were encouraged to take rather than making decisions of their own autonomy. In both Mass Effect and Infamous, the player had to essentially choose either the good option or the bad option and stick to it, or else they were unable to get the necessary upgrades and play the game properly.

This is the difference between choice and morality. Games that give you choice understand that decisions are rarely as clear cut as the “good option” and the “bad option”. Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect and Infamous are great games, but in terms of having the player affect the story and make them feel as if they are truly making decisions, there’s so much potential for much more. There are some games that attempt to do this. Games like The Witcher, Dragon Age and Heavy Rain give the player difficult choices that truly make them think and consider the consequences of their actions. That’s where gaming needs to go in order to truly take advantage of what the medium can allow developers to do.

Games are art: The Plight of the Voice Actor

Much like how video games have been dismissed as not being “real art”, so to have voice actors been dismissed as not being “real actors”. What happens when you combine the two? Voice actors who work primarily with video games were often not given the top billing they deserved. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “I need to play that game because X voice actor is playing the main character!” But the truth is, a great vocal performance can elevate a great story while a bad one can drag it down. In recent years, thanks to some fantastic work in some of the best games of the decade, more people are beginning to recognise the hard work, dedication and talent needed to become a voice actor. Today I want to take the time to recognise some of the best voice actors working in the industry.

In no particular order, here are my favourite voice actors in the gaming industry today:

Courtnee Draper

Courtnee may be a relative newcomer when it comes to the gaming industry with her first role as a voice actor in Bioshock Infinite, but she has certainly made a splash in her short time performing. She stole the show as Elizabeth, bringing the character to life with a wonderfully nuanced and emotional performance. Since then, she’s taken the character in a very different, darker direction in the noir inspired Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea, showing us just a glimpse of her range. The future is bright for Courtnee and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

David Hayter

David is best known for his iconic role as Solid Snake. His gravelly voice has become a staple of the Metal Gear Solid franchise and has made him a legend in the gaming industry. He’s not only talented, but passionate about his work as he gave up half his pay check to ensure that the other cast members of Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes were able to return.

Ashley Johnson

Much of the success of arguably 2013’s best game, The Last of Us, can be attributed to its female lead, Ellie, who was voiced by the talented and experienced Ashley Johnson. Ashley injected Ellie with a mixture of toughness, vulnerability, dry wit and enthusiasm that made the character someone that gamers could truly empathise with and connect to. Ashley has taken part in several video games before, but this raw, emotional performance truly set her apart form the pack.

Nolan North

This man is everywhere. Widely considered to be the King of Voice Acting, Nolan has provided voices for practically every character imaginable. He has played superheroes, supervillains, assassins, turtles, adventurers, princes, talking animals, you name it, he’s voiced it. Perhaps his most beloved role is as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series where he was able to inject Drake with a roguish, everyman charm that made him the Indiana Jones of gaming. Chances are, if you’ve ever played a game in the last ten years, you’ve heard this man’s voice and you’ll be sure to hear a lot more.

Troy Baker

If there’s anyone who can challenge Nolan North’s claim to the throne, it’s this man. His work in the industry is too numerous to name, but in the last few years, he’s really taken the world by storm. In the same year, he starred in three of the biggest and best games and turned in three of the best performances of the year. He played the amoral hired gun with a warped past, Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite, capturing the attention and empathy of the player despite rarely ever seeing the character’s face. He then went on to play Joel, the gruff and grizzled protagonist in The Last of Us where he also provided the mo cap for the character, turning in another great performance. At the same time, he surprised everyone in his role as the Joker in the latest Batman game, Arkham Origins. His manic performance was barely recognisable and really showed his impressive range. Baker’s got a couple of other huge projects coming up like Metal Gear Solid V and Batman: Arkham Knight. Perhaps he might just topple Nolan North after all.

So those are my top picks for best voice actors. Who are yours? Sound off in the comments below.

Games are Art: How Music Can Make Moments Matter

A great soundtrack can make a scene. The right song at the right time can elevate a mediocre scene to great or a good scene to amazing. Quentin Tarantino is one of my favourite directors who really uses music to its full potential. Take this scene from Kill Bill for example:

Now watch it on mute. Really, most of the scene is just the two characters staring at each other and the scene is honestly a little boring. But the music makes it one of the most tense and exhilarating fight sequences I can remember seeing.

Music can be just as important for a video game and while there are many games that have great soundtracks, only a select few have truly used music to draw an emotional reaction from the player and really enhance the storytelling of the game. One in particular stands out: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead is a love letter to Western cinema where you take control of John Marston, a man on a mission to return to his family. After a long, brutal and exhausting campaign across the Wild West, you are finally given the opportunity to reunite with your loved ones and “ride into the sunset”, so to speak. But while most Western movies cut to the credits at this point, by virtue of you being in control of John, you get to play out this victorious moment in full. Just as you begin to ride, without warning, the soundtrack changes (having been almost exclusively instrumental pieces up until that point) and we get this great moment:

The game never cuts away, it never pulls you into a cutscene for this moment, it just lets you ride, keeping you in control. Because this moment is the climax to everything you had been working for since the very beginning of the story. It’s triumphant and sombre at the same time – you finally get to return home, but only after doing terrible things to get there. The fact that you’re in control really lets the moment sink in, really makes you feel as if it’s not just John’s story, it’s your story as well. It’s a perfect example of how gameplay and music can work in concert (pun intended) to deliver an amazing experience. Games are art.

What are your musical moments in gaming or film? Sound off in the comments below!

Shadows of Mordor: How The Nemesis System Can Change Gaming

I’ve talked a lot in the past about how videogames can make use of the conventions of gaming as a medium to tell a story and really connect with an audience in a different way than a film or a book can. Unlike those mediums, games are interactive and with this comes the possibility of diverting from the linear story progression that people have become acclimated to. It’s rare however, that games have truly taken advantage of this, with a few like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect playing with multiple branching story arcs based upon the decisions of the player. For the most port, the choices in these games are fairly straight forward –  choose A or B or C. But with the new Nemesis system introduced in Shadow of Mordor, it seems that there’s room in the future for an interactive story where both the decisions and the actual ACTIONS of the player impact the story.

For those who haven’t played Shadow of Mordor (it’s quite good, FYI), the game pits you on a quest of revenge across the fantastical realm of Middle Earth. Along the way, you’ll fight hordes upon hordes of bloodthirsty orcs hell bent on ending you. The gameplay is fun (think Arkham City with swords and magic), the map expansive and the story is simple but engaging enough. What sets Shadow of Mordor apart is the fact that every encounter with an enemy may come back to bite you. With the Nemesis system, the game remembers your interactions with enemies and the game will adjust accordingly. For example, if you throw an Orc into the fire and he lives to lick his wounds, he may come after you for revenge for being burned and disfigured. Each enemy is unique and your actions can allow them to rise and fall through the ranks and change how they behave and interact with each other. With every battle, you could be creating your own arch enemy.

It’s a great addition to the game, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential of this system quite yet. While you could alter the ranks of your enemies, you couldn’t shake up the system entirely and the main storyline would progress more or less the same. You couldn’t create the next Sauron. But think about what COULD happen in future Middle Earth games or even other games using a similar system. There’s incredible potential for this system to allow every action of the player to affect the story in a major way. I want a game where the first few moments of playing could entirely change the landscape of the game. Maybe in the next Middle Earth game, the Nemesis system gets pushed further. Imagine in the first enemy encounter, you take on a swarm of enemies and one survives to lick his wounds. Over the course of the game and through several more encounters, he continues to grow in opposition to your character with his skills and personality developing in response to your actions until it’s this once lowly grunt that is the end game boss you must overcome. There’s so much potential for this system to allow gamers to shape the story they are playing.

I’m definitely excited for the future and for what this could mean for gaming as a medium. Games are art.

An Ode to Naughty Dog: Top 5 Moments

This September marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary studio, Naughty Dog. If you know even a little about gaming, you’ll know that Naughty Dog has been a pioneer in story driven, artistic and creative videogames over the past few decades.

Since the first game Naughty Dog released in 1989, the studio has grown and evolved to become one of the most beloved and successful gaming studios of all time. Fans will fondly remember the Crash Bandicoot and Jak series’ providing hundreds of hours of the best platform gaming available before Uncharted flipped the script and changed gaming forever. The Uncharted series raised the bar for video games by presenting players with a beautiful, exciting and character driven interactive cinematic experience that was both fun to play and fun to watch. But they didn’t just stop there as the release of The Last of Us in the final days of the Playstation 3 has proven to be one of the truly greatest games of that generation.

Now as they celebrate 30 years of innovation and excellence, let’s take a look at the Top 5 moments in a Naughty Dog game. These are moments that engaged players, that made them laugh, cry, scream or just made them feel something. Much like the best movie scenes, these are the five Naughty Dog moments that I believe will be remembered throughout gaming history.

Top 5 Naughty Dog Moments: 

5. The Helicopter (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted is best known for its cinematic moments and this sequence feels like something straight out of a blockbuster action movie. Just as Nathan Drake thinks he gets a moment to breathe, a helicopter appears and next thing you know, you’re jumping from building to building as gunfire chews up the rooftop beneath you and brawling with militia as an entire building collapse with you still inside. Top that, Indiana Jones.

4. The Giraffe Scene (The Last of Us)

I’ve already talked about this moment from the Last of Us in a previous blog, but this standout scene really highlights the range of emotions displayed in The Last of Us. It’s both touching and melancholy, telling us a lot about both characters as well as the world they live in. All with only a few lines of dialogue. This is economic, character driven storytelling at its finest.

3. A Rock and a Hard Place (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted 2 opens with Nathan Drake beaten to hell, suspended in a train carriage that is dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff. You have no idea what’s going on, all you know is that you’ve got to try and survive the next five minutes. It’s one of the most riveting openings of a game and keeps the player guessing in more ways than one.

2. Young Nathan Drake (Uncharted 3)

Uncharted 3 changes things up for a level by putting you in the shoes of Nathan Drake as a child. It was fascinating to see Drake as a down on his luck, smart mouthed street rat. It was a great insight into why Drake is the way he is and also into his relationship with his mentor, Sully. Not to mention the brilliant and exciting chase sequence that served as the climax of the level. Gaming doesn’t get much better than this.

1. The Ending (The Last of Us)

Simply put, The Last of Us has the best ending to a game I’ve ever seen. The final level is nail bitingly intense and the choices you are forced to make are morally and emotionally complex. There’s really no right answer to what happened at the end of the game, whether it was right or wrong. And that’s what makes it great. This was Naughty Dog’s best moment yet, but with Uncharted 4 on the horizon, you’d better believe they’re looking to top it.

Congratulations to Naughty Dog for thirty years of greatness and here’s to thirty more.

 

 

 

Why the Last of Us is Art: Ellie

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW

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Last time, I picked apart why Joel was such a great protagonist. He was emotionally complex, morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed, but still relatable, allowing us to connect with him as he learned and developed throughout the story. But while Joel was a great leading man, much of the success of The Last of Us stems from Ellie. In many ways, though we control Joel for much of our playing time, the game was more Ellie’s story than Joel’s and she has quickly become one of the most beloved characters in gaming.

Perhaps the main reason why Ellie resonated with the audience was the fact that she was so relatable on so many levels. People understood why she did things, people understood and sympathised with her actions and her struggles. Even though Ellie grew up in a world completely different to the world that the audience grew up in, the echoes of our world still linger with her. She’s not so far removed from our reality that she’s alien and it makes sense to us that this is the kind of girl that the post apocalyptic world of The Last of Us would produce. She’s tough, smart mouthed and quick witted but thankfully she manages to stray away from the “strong female character” trope that so many games and films abuse so gleefully. What I mean by this is a female character whose entire existence and entire personality revolves around the fact that she’s “strong”, the fact that she kicks ass and takes names (Resident Evil’s Alice being one of the main culprits) with no semblance of any real character traits beyond being a bad ass.

Ellie isn’t just a “strong female character”, she’s just a good character. While she may be tough as nails, she has a personality. She has a wry, decidedly goofy sense of humor (“I used to be addicted to soap … but I’m clean now”) and a love for reading. She’s brave, but has her vulnerabilities. She confesses that her greatest fear is being alone as everyone she has ever cared about has died or left her. She is fascinated with the relics of the old world such as comic books, magazines, videogames, toys and approaches these with a child-like wonder that seems at odds with her usual hardened exterior. What I’m getting at is that she’s not just a bad ass cardboard cut out like so many heroes, she is complicated, multifaceted character that actually feels like a person, complete with her own likes, dislikes, fears and aspirations.

One of my favorite scenes in this game or any perfectly sums up Ellie’s character and why she’s so appealing. After a rough couple of days, Ellie and Joel have almost reached their goal. But there seems to be an impending sense of dread, as if they both know that once they get there, things will not go as planned. You take control of Joel and watch as Ellie seems to withdraw into herself as you travel through the ruins. All of a sudden, she perks up and runs off, leaving you to dash after her. This leads to a scene that is both uplifting and melancholy, one of the most emotionally resonant sequences in gaming history. You’ll notice that this particular scene was the inspiration for the whole decor of this blog.

We’ll have more more on Ellie and The Las t of Us as well as other great games in the next few days!