The Videogame Oscars – The Nominees

There are plenty of awards for the video game industry, but I want to approach this from a different angle. Much like how the Oscars rewards movies for their artistic merit, I want to honour games in the same way. Along with a team of the most esteemed gamers I could find (within walking distance), I’ve put together a list of nominations for the most artistic games of the decade. These nominations aren’t based on just graphics or gameplay, but also storyline, acting and creativity. I need YOUR help to decide the winners. Yes, YOU, anonymous blog reader! Screw the Academy, we’re the Academy of gaming. Simply click the link below and make your choice or even make your own nominations! Feel free to check out these videos of the nominees to help make your decision.

Click here to vote!

And the nominees are …

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Yaani Fisher as Riley – The Last of Us: Left Behind

Ellen McLain as Glados – Portal 2

Merle Dandridge as Alyx Vance – Half Life 2

Mark Hamill as The Joker – Batman: Arkham City

Stephen Merchant as Wheatley – Portal 2

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Ashley Johnson as Ellie in The Last of Us

Courtnee Draper as Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite

Nolan North as Nathan Drake – Uncharted 3

Troy Baker as Joel – The Last of Us

Rob Wiethoff as John Marston – Red Dead Redemption

Best Developer:

Naughty Dog – The Uncharted series, The Last of Us

Bungie Studios – The Halo series, Destiny

Irrational Games – Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite

Rockstar Games – The GTA series, Red Dead Redemption

Valve – The Half Life series, the Portal series

Tell Tale Games – Fables: The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead

Rocksteady Studios – The Arkham series

Best Game:

The Last of Us

Uncharted 3

Bioshock Infinite

Arkham City

Portal 2

Half life 2

Red Dead Redemption

Shadow of the Colossus

Results to come this week!

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.

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.

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.