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!

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.

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!

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!

Why the Last of Us is Art: The Protagonist

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?

Let’s find out.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW.

The Protagonist

Joel, played by Troy Baker

For the majority of the game, the player takes control of Joel, voiced and motion captured by Troy Baker. When we first meet Joel during the prologue, he’s a loving, if somewhat distant single father who is struggling to make ends meet. After the infection strikes and the world falls apart, the story picks up twenty years later and the Joel we knew has disappeared almost completely. Left in his place is a grizzled, amoral shell of a man still unable to cope with the loss of his only child.  This brings us to our question of the day. Why is Joel a compelling character? What makes him worthy to stand out among the multitudes of brooding protagonists populating post apocalyptic fiction?

When looking at a character, I generally ask myself three simple questions:

1. Do they feel real?

As we guide Joel along his journey, we see that while he’s the protagonist, he is by no means a hero. When he correctly anticipates an ambush by bandits, he’s asked how he knew what would happen and replies simply: “I’ve been on both sides”. He’s a smuggler, a thief and a murderer; a man who stopped living decades ago and now only survives. Throughout the early stages of the game it becomes clear to the player that while Joel exists day by day, eating, sleeping and slaughtering infected by the droves (general post apocalyptic survivor chores) he has no semblance of purpose. The only meaningful connection he has is with another survivor, Tess. The nature of their relationship is never made clear and he insists on keeping even her at arms length.

For all intents and purposes, he’s a complete scumbag.

When I ask whether a character feels “real”, I don’t necessarily mean whether they feel as if they could exist in the real world, what I mean is whether I can understand and sympathize with why that character is the way they are given the world around them. Which is why Joel works so well as a protagonist and why that prologue depicting his loss and the effect it had on him was so important. He’s not perfect, he doesn’t make the right choices. To call him morally ambiguous would be an understatement. But through all that, we understand him. Everything he does, everything he is continues to be informed on some level by that loss. Because of this, everything he does makes sense. We understand immediately why Joel has little regard for authority and little regard for human life. We understand why Joel is estranged from his family and why he refuses to trust or connect with anyone. He isn’t perfect and that’s exactly why he feels so real.

2. Do they change?

The first glimmer of hope in his murky existence comes in the form a teenage girl named Ellie, who he has to shepherd across the country as she may hold the key to curing the infection. Initially, she’s nothing but cargo to him but over time, they begin to bond and the foundations of a tenuous father-daughter relationship begin to form. This relationship is the crux of his change as a character and because we understand him to be so fundamentally defined by loss, this change makes sense. You can probably see the running pattern here. The change isn’t abrupt or unfounded. They don’t suddenly love each other after a few days of travelling. Their relationship isn’t always onwards and upwards, it’s not a completely steady progression, just like a real developing relationship. They have their ups and downs and with every beat in their story, we understand why this is happening.

By the end of the story, Joel isn’t a completely new man. Hell, one would be hard pressed to even call him a good man by the end. He makes a decision that is fundamentally selfish, in many ways immoral and irresponsible. After finding out that in order develop the cure that would save humanity, Ellie would have to die, he must choose between the human race itself and her life. He chooses her and in doing so, perhaps doomed mankind. It’s a decision that many have debated, condemned and justified. But the ending is a matter for another blog. The point is, that by the end, he has changed, but this change is justified and founded on extensive, dynamic and logical development across several hours of game play. By the end of the game, he’s learned to live again. This brings us to the third and final question.

3. What is their purpose?

What I mean by their “purpose” is, what function are they supposed to fulfil to the audience? What message are they supposed to be sending or what reaction are they supposed to invoke? To answer my answer this question, you have to understand that  to me, The Last of Us is fundamentally a story about two things: Loss and hope.

As I’ve mentioned before, loss informs every aspect of Joel’s character. He exists in spite of loss and everything he does is because of it. He shows the audience how far a man can be pushed, how far morality can be bent due to tragedy. In many ways, Joel has allowed his loss to become a disease, turning him into just as much of a monster as those who were infected.

In this world, there is no hope. It’s reiterated many times that even if the characters do survive, death is just around the corner. Existence in this world is an endless cycle of murder and horror, with brief intervals of peace in between. But through the developing father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie, we see that even in this world, hope can exist. His words in the final scene of the game sum up both his message and one of the enduring messages of the game:

“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you – no matter what. You keep finding something to fight for.”

This is what Joel did, at the expense of everyone else. Was he justified in doing what he did? Who knows? It’s not something as simple as right and wrong. For Joel, that wasn’t important. He clung onto that last shred of hope and fought for it above all else. To me, that’s what Joel is all about. The idea that even through all of the loss and pain, even if there is one single glimmer of hope, you can keep fighting.