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I spent the latter half of last week in London for the Bafta Games Awards – a ceremony whose existence still seems to surprise people, despite the fact that they’ve been running in some form for 18 years. I suppose it doesn’t help that the institution is literally called the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, but video games are a big deal at the UK’s prestigious arts organisation, more so now than ever. (Full disclosure: I’ve been involved on and off with the video game Baftas for years, as a juror or an adviser. It’s never been a paid thing, though I have eaten a shameful number of cocktail sausages during jury deliberations.)
Few people outside the entertainment industry really care about awards, unless somebody famous throws an unexpected slap. There was no surprise violence last Thursday night, but nonetheless, the Baftas were worth paying attention to because of the diversity of the nominees and winners (and presenters – it is great to see a games industry event that actually reflects the makeup of the people who play games, which is pretty much everyone). A lot of awards end up highlighting what’s been most popular and successful as opposed to what’s been most interesting or worthy, because the voting systems involve huge pools of people. But the Bafta juries are smaller, and comprise a mix of developers, critics and other people involved in the video games industry, and so the shortlists are pleasingly unpredictable.
You get something like remote-control car football game Rocket League winning five awards in 2016, beating everything from Destiny to Fifa. This year The Artful Escape, an intergalactic prog-rock adventure, beat Resident Evil to win Artistic Achievement. These awards presumably mean a lot to most people involved in making games, but when a small team wins, they seem especially delighted and overwhelmed. This year, a delightful black and white indie photography game called TOEM won Debut Game, and the entire team got up on stage to collect it, which was only 8 people. One of the big winners of the night was Unpacking, the meditative house-moving simulator, which won Best Narrative and the audience-voted game of the year award. That game was made by a wee team in Australia, two of whom are in a relationship that partially inspired the game. They were absolutely flabbergasted and it was adorable.
Unlike in the film world, people who work in video games tend to be genuinely invested in each other’s success. Games are still culturally undervalued – though less so with every passing year – and so a victory for a single game feels like a victory for everyone. The acceptance speeches reflect this – mostly everyone just expresses amazement that they could have won against everything else in their category. Shout-out to the exuberant It Takes Two creative director Josef Fares, though, who bounced on stage to collect the Multiplayer award and said something along the lines of “I’d pretend to be surprised but actually this one was definitely expected!”
Science-fiction shooter Returnal won four awards, the most of any game, including Best Game and Performer in a Leading Role. This pleased me because a) I personally adore that game, even though 2021 was a tough year to be playing a time-loop shooter about being unable to escape from a hostile alien planet, and b) its lead character Selene is a badass middle-aged single mother, and lord knows we do not play enough games starring fed-up tough-as-nails women. This is the equivalent of the arthouse Oscar winner I reckon; it might not be for everyone, as it’s pretty challenging, but if you do vibe with it, you will love it a lot.
The Bafta awards reminded me that though 2021 was a weird year for games, it was also an interesting one: several big names that I was looking forward to were either delayed or turned out to be disappointing, but that left room for more left-field contenders to steal the stage. A few more recommendations from the shortlist, if you haven’t gotten around to them yet: Psychonauts 2, a surreal comedy platformer about diving into people’s psyches; Before Your Eyes, a fascinating game about replaying moments in a person’s troubled but beautiful life (you can control it by blinking!); and Chicory: A Colourful Tale, winner of the Family category, a touching and vibrant puzzle game that hit me unexpectedly hard in the feelings. Oh, and I’ve finally started Inscryption, the Game Design winner, which people have been recommending to me for ages: I’ve been told to expect nothing but the unexpected. I suspect I’ll come back next week fully obsessed with it.
What to play
Kirby has always been among Nintendo’s least-loved mascots, I feel. Even Luigi stepped out of Mario’s shadow in the excellent comedy-horror Luigi’s Mansion series, but apart from the years I spent absolutely dominating everyone with Kirby in Super Smash Bros on the N64, I’ve never had much of a reason to really love this weird pink blob. His main “thing” is that he eats enemies and gains their powers, but Mario is a better transforming game character in Super Mario Odyssey, imo.
So I am surprised by how much I’m enjoying Kirby and the Forgotten Land. You know why? It’s weird. It’s weird and kinda dark. Instead of floating through unbearably saccharine levels that look like murals in a high-end nursery, we prance and transform and bounce about in what is clearly the abandoned ruins of Earth. I’ve not finished it yet so I don’t know if this is ever explained, but the wry juxtaposition of something as cute as Kirby with something as un-cute as a post-apocalyptic city is really doing something for me.
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: 10-12 hours
What to read
00s noir games Max Payne 1 and 2 are getting remade. Personally: not sure this is a good idea. These games are very much of their time, and the script was frequently wince-worthy even then.
On the possibly permanent cancellation of E3: Vice’s Patrick Klepek has been attending that show since he was a plucky teenager, when his dad had to chaperone him into meetings, and he wrote this beautiful thing about his fond memories of both his late father and E3 through the years. I had a similar experience as a teenager with the European games trade shows ECTS and Gamescom: I scammed my way into one of the very last ECTS shows in London when I was 14 years old (lol), and attended Gamescom from the age of 16 right the way up until my mid 20s. Like Patrick, I’ve kind of grown up within and alongside the games industry; at this point I’ve been doing this job for more than half my life. His article made me quite emotional.
There’s going to be a new Kingdom Hearts, the Disney/Square Enix crossover series with an inexplicably rabid fandom.
What to click
Today’s question comes from reader Jeanne:
“Lately it seems that a lot of current games, from Elden Ring to Sifu to even the alleged Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order sequel, are simply too hard for many gamers, regardless of our age or physical ability. What games released in the last year or so don’t beat the player into submission or require genius-level intellect?”
As is probably obvious if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, I have a bit of a weakness for games that give me a hard time – but I also never have enough spare time for those exact games, so I also play things with much chiller vibes. Here are a few from 2021/22 that spring to mind: Dorfromantik, a game about building idyllic little villages; Chicory: A Colourful Tale and Unpacking, which I mentioned above; Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a total player-centric delight of an action game; the Forza Horizon series is just a big holiday; Life is Strange: True Colours has a decent story that didn’t require hours of suffering or effort to access.
Pushing Buttons readers, what are your favourite less-challenging games? Hit reply on this newsletter to share a recommendation.