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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Female Representation in Gaming: Why GamerGate can change it for the better

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months as the GamerGate debacle has morphed into a beast that I don’t think any of us quite foresaw. Depending on your point of view, it’s done a lot of good, a lot of bad or both. But it’s undeniable that it’s cast a lot of light and a lot of mainstream attention onto issues within the gaming community that though they might not have been the initial intention of the movement, are still important issues nonetheless and issues that have been quite prominent with other artistic mediums. One such issue is that of sexism within gaming, though at this stage, I don’t want to focus on the issue of female gamers and how they are treated or represented. That’s another important issue for another time. What I want to focus on is the representation of female characters within video games.

Film has long struggled with the idea of prominently featuring female characters and for a while, the film community and the general public has been wrapped up with the idea of “strong female characters”, without realising that this was a fallacy in itself (when’s the last time someone’s called for a “strong male character?) and became a trope that allowed for bland, stereotypical representations. We don’t want “strong female characters”, we want good ones. It’s a trap that the video game industry has fallen into more often than not. There’s been a lot of bad with female representation in gaming, especially considering that the primary audience for a long time has been young adult males. There’s been a lot of over sexualisation and a lot of bland female characters that exist solely as accessories for the male protagonist. Even female protagonists such as Lara Croft were by and large devoid of personality and hyper sexualised. But fear not loyal reader, things HAVE been improving.

In recent years, there have been a number of female characters who are not just some of the most complex, compelling and endearing characters in gaming, but in recent fiction in general. Characters like Ellie from the Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock are characters who have their own motivations, strengths, weaknesses, fears, aspirations, emotional nuances and character journeys. They’re strong but also vulnerable, they have their own important place and arc within the story and do not exist solely to provide support or emotional baggage for the male protagonist. Even characters like Lara Croft have been given a major update. Croft now has an actual personality besides being an unstoppable bad ass. She’s an actual character now and that’s wonderful. As games become more recognised as art, things are improving at a rapid pace. It’s no coincidence that some of the most artistic games in the last few years are the ones with this kind of diverse and effective representation. That’s not to say there’s not still bad with the good, but female representation is certainly evolving and it’s on the upswing.

Which is why all of this debate and controversy brought about inadvertently by GamerGate and the criticism of sexism is a good thing. Art is ever changing and art is controversial. This debate gets eyes on the issue in both the mainstream and from developers and players. It can shine light on the good that has happened and also the issues that still need to be improved. Sure, things might get ugly, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Depression Quest: Forget the Controversy and GamerGate. Is it art?

There’s been a lot of ugliness surrounding this game and its creator due to all of this GamerGate controversy. But there’s a million voices already sounding off on that debate and that’s not what I want to address in this blog. Sometimes when we get all caught up in social and cultural rhetoric, we forget to look at the games themselves.

Depression Quest was released in 2013 and has split the gaming community down the middle. Some reviews have been overwhelmingly positive with gaming critics leaping to praise it, while others have been crushingly negative with many not even considering it a game at all. Zoe Quinn created Depression Quest as a way to tackle the subject of depression head on and try to build understanding of the issue through an interactive narrative. The player is presented with descriptions of a variety of situations and decisions to make based on those descriptions which lead to five different endings. These are constructed in a way that attempts to bridge the gap between sufferers of depression and those who have never experienced the affliction before by putting them in a depression sufferers shoes. The decisions they are faced with are often illogical and often aren’t decisions at all, as many options are crossed off depending on prior decisions made. This is supposed to convey the idea that depression often robs the sufferer of choice. It’s a very clever narrative device and one that can only be done through gaming.

Many have said that it is not a game. They have criticised Depression Quest for being boring, repetitive, unintuitive and just an all around poor gaming experience. In many ways, they are right. This is gaming used as a social tool, gaming used as education rather than entertainment. It’s making a statement and all of the GamerGate ugliness aside, it’s trying to use the medium in a creative way to try to instigate positive change and alter perceptions. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

Art affects people, art changes perceptions and makes a statement about culture or life in a creative way. Depression Quest does this in a way that only a game can. Is it perfect? Certainly not. It’s rudimentary, clunky and  downright clumsy at times. But it’s bold and it’s different. For gaming to move forward as a medium and be recognised as a legitimate art form, this type of experimentation is welcome and needed. The hardcore games will always be around, but there’s certainly room for this sort of experimentation and I’m excited to see more in the future.

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!

Why Bioshock Infinite is Art

BIOSHOCK INFINITE

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 subversive and utterly mind bending shooter, Bioshock Infinite. This is the tale of a city in the sky where a furious and brutal civil war brews beneath the calm, cloud lined exterior. But is it art? Let’s find out. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE FOLLOW

WELCOME TO COLUMBIA

Bioshock Infinite takes revisionist history to a whole new level as they thrust you into the midst of colonial America. But it is an America very different to the one we know from the history books. You play Booker DeWitt, a  gruff gun for hire desperate to pay his debt. To do this, he must venture to the floating city of Columbia, a civilisation isolated from the ground bound America by its religious and fanatical leader, Zachary Comstock.  Booker is tasked with finding a girl named Elizabeth and together, they must try to escape Columbia as it is torn apart from the inside out by a war between the white upper class and the Vox Populi, a revolutionist civil rights movement so zealous that even Malcolm X might have taken pause. There are a hundred things I can talk about that make Bioshock Infinite great. The stunning, hauntingly beautiful setting. The multilayered, emotionally nuanced and morally ambiguous characters. The fast paced, frantic and exhilarating gameplay. But what I want to focus on is what makes the game stand out: The way Biotic Infinite makes full use of the medium of gaming to tell its story in a way that simply cannot be done through any other medium.

Constants and Variables

At several points in the game, an odd couple will appear, seemingly out of nowhere and will offer you a series of choices. Heads or tails – the bird or the cage. Bioshock Infinite is more than anything about choice. This is where the BIG spoilers start, so read ahead if you dare.

Elizabeth has the ability to open “tears”. These are portals into parallel universes – some, almost exactly the same while others radically different. For every choice one makes, there exists a different universe – an endless number of variations – an “infinite” number of universes. In each universe, there exists variables. For example, a man being dead in one or alive in another. But there also exists constants. Things that must happen and will always happen within each universe. Early in the game, the Luteces wonder whether Booker will row a boat. He doesn’t and they remark that “He doesn’t row”. After a pause, they realise that “He doesn’t row“. It’s a puzzling line but comes together once the parallel universes are revealed. In that instance, across all universes, Booker will never choose to row.

This is a commentary on gaming as a medium. Even in games, that give you the option of variables – choices you can make, things you can change each time you play through it – there will always be constants. More often than not, whatever choices you make will lead to the same outcome.The Luteces approach you again and present you with a choice – heads or tails. No matter which one you pick, the outcome will be the same. No matter which outcome you pick, the game will end in the same way.

On this same vein, they give you the opportunity to choose between two pendants: a bird which represents wild, unrestricted freedom and a cage which represents control, safety and security. It doesn’t make a difference which you choose and there’s no real impact on the story or the ending. There’s a reason for that. These represent the two conflicting ideologies presented by the extreme political leaders of Columbia: The all powerful, all controlling dictator, Zachary Comstock and the violent militia leader, Daisy Fitzroy. You clash horns with both sides as they vie for control of Columbia, cutting a bloody swathe through the populace as they do so.

As both groups commit seemingly try to outdo one another with the atrocities they commit, Booker, Elizabeth and the player themselves finally come to the realisation that it doesn’t matter which side is chosen: they’re both as and as the other. The dictatorship of Comstock was cruel, racist and made life a living hell for those who he deemed as unworthy of God’s grace. But Fitzroy’s revolution resulted in total anarchy, bringing out the worst in people as they revelled in the violence they were free to commit. The bird or the cage, it didn’t matter which one because both resulted in death and misery.

It’s an illusion of choice, an illusion of freedom. You control the characters, but really, you don’t. They will always end up in the same place, no matter how many times you play. The game asks the question of the player: Are we bound to our fate? Do choices matter in the long run if we all end up in the same place? It’s heavy stuff and more than a little morbid.

But after playing the game through,  one may realise that even if they’re bound to the same track – it’s still one hell of a ride.

Have you guys played Bioshock Infinite? What did you guys think? Are there any other games you want me to take a look at? Let me know in the comments below!