It may sound anti-democratic, but awards should do more than merely follow the crowd. Sometimes the year’s biggest blockbusters might genuinely be the best films, albums or games, but for prizes to be meaningful you still need a team of people to sift through all the titles — even ones with smaller marketing budgets — to make sure.
Happily, among the nominees for next week’s Bafta Games Awards there is no shortage of smaller makers in the running. In the UK, where 90 per cent of studios have fewer than 15 developers, this feels like an important gesture. Take Cult of the Lamb, created by the 11-person studio Massive Monster and nominated for best game. Its mix of dungeon-crawling and ecclesiastical administration sees players crusading against the woodland heretics who refuse to join their (literal) flock. It will face competition from Stray, the cyberpunk, feline-fronted first game from Montpellier-based BlueTwelve Studio, as well as supernatural shoot-em-up Vampire Survivors — a “perfect game”, according to the FT’s review, and one whose initial build cost its creator Luca Galante about £1,100.
Other standout debuts are recognised in their own category. The Case of the Golden Idol builds on the popularity of slower-paced puzzlers like 2018’s Return of the Obra Dinn; here your detective work takes place (with access to a slightly wider colour palette) across an intricate web of cases in the 18th century, all linked by an arcane idol. Trombone Champ, on the other hand, is more about physical dexterity than mental: “Unlike most music games, you can freely play any note at any time,” say the makers. And, to be fair, the results are a good deal more entertaining than they would be if you picked up a trombone and just started tooting away in real life.
Even more eclectic are the titles featured in the awards’ “game beyond entertainment” category. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as a game can only be so educational or informative if it’s not also halfway entertaining, but these six all put social issues at their core — or above shooting aliens, at any rate. We’ll always have Paris, for example, is a point-and-click narrative game exploring the complexities of being in a relationship with someone with dementia. Its co-developer, Marina Sciberras, is interested in how to use the agency inherent in games to create a story that is more immersive, and therefore more effective, than can be achieved in other media. “Rather than telling the player about the realities of memory loss, we thought the game format would allow the player to step in the shoes of the protagonist,” she says.
The creators of Not For Broadcast had a similar approach in mind — albeit for a very different topic — when creating their dark and often absurd TV production simulator. Will you, as producer of the National Nightly News, toe an increasingly authoritarian party line or champion the murkily funded resistance group that springs up to oppose it? “The medium of a game gives the player the space to explore many different versions of how this story might play out and the consequences for each,” says creative director Alex Paterson. “Games give immediacy and reality to the revelations in a way that the passive medium of film simply can’t compete with.”
It stands to reason, too, that smaller developers are more naturally disposed towards unorthodox and narrative-heavy experiences. For one, lower budgets make rivalling graphical fidelity and environmental scope prohibitive, but they’ve also got a point to prove and very few shareholders to keep happy. None more so than Jump Over the Age, Gareth Damian Martin’s “one-person game development studio”. Its Citizen Sleeper (one of the FT’s best games of 2022) is also nominated for “game beyond entertainment”, presumably in recognition of its services to existential doubt. This role-playing game has players pondering their purpose and rights as a not-quite-robot, not-quite-human entity trapped in a post-capitalist, space-age society.
“It really is a showcase of the breadth of the games industry,” says Tara Saunders, chair of Bafta’s games committee, of the nominations. “It’s broad, global and very diverse in its creative offering.” Although the awards are not limited to developers in the UK (there is a separate category for that), they do speak to an industry in which the country punches above its weight. It boasts the sixth-highest games revenue in the world, after China, the US, Japan, South Korea and Germany. Games constituted 42 per cent of total British home entertainment revenues in 2022.
Bafta has attempted to position itself as a pipeline for talent within the UK. Developer Jay Armstrong, whose Cult of the Lamb is nominated for the best game, game design and original property awards, is one of the organisation’s “Breakthrough Brits”, a programme of mentoring for creative professionals. So too is Charu Desodt of London-based Interior Night, whose interactive storyteller As Dusk Falls is in the running for best debut.
The aim, according to Bafta CEO Jane Millichip, is both to inspire future game designers and engage a public who might only be familiar with the charity’s work in film and TV. She points to the success of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us as proof of a broadening of the medium’s reach. Craig Mazin, who co-wrote the show after the success of his 2019 series Chernobyl, has also written the screenplay for the upcoming film based on the Borderlands game franchise.
The relationship between games and other media has not always been so smooth: at one end it tended to comprise hasty interactive tie-ins to piggyback off the publicity of a film, and at the other you found niche-interest and unfaithful cinematic adaptations of games. Yet titles such as Hogwarts Legacy, set within the Harry Potter universe but with an original and well-executed story, point to the potential in crossing the streams. “I’m looking forward to seeing more writers in games, film and TV collaborate together,” says Millichip. “I’m interested to see where it goes next.”
The Bafta Games Awards take place on March 30