Forced indoors by the all-consuming coronavirus pandemic, most of us are drawn like moths to the glow of our TV screens. Video games are particularly well positioned to profit from the lockdown; they can be purchased, downloaded and used, all from the comfort of your home. They demand large chunks of time, sometimes nesting the temporal equivalent of whole film franchises or even long-running TV series within a single game.
Video games also offer a sense of vicarious escape that no other medium can match. Through the mechanical intermediary of a control pad, players are sprung from their physical containment, and are free to roam the streets, or the cosmos, at their leisure. It is through this lens that reports of the gaming industry’s coronavirus-driven surge are typically framed.
The Bafta Games Awards, the annual ceremony celebrating the year’s greatest accomplishments in the industry, are going ahead tonight via livestream, with Dara O Briain set to host. The nominations are a recognition of gaming’s powerful escapist allure – and the skilled craftwork that goes on the scenes. But more than that, they represent an acknowledgement that gaming is more than just unadorned entertainment – that it can hold some deeper and more meaningful purpose, especially in times of hardship.
The full list of nominees is vast and varied, spanning everything from monstrously popular battle royale games such as Fortnite and Apex Legends to indie gems like Planet Zoo. Several games stand out from the pack, however: most notably, Death Stranding and Control, which, with 11 nominations apiece, both broke the record for the most Bafta nominations for a single game.
Death Stranding, created by Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima, is a PS4 game that speaks uniquely to our times. The game tells the story of Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), a delivery man who travels across a post-apocalyptic US to connect people using a futuristic internet-like network.
It is single player, but players are able to build things like bridges, roads and ladders and place them in the online world for others to use; both in message and method, Death Stranding intuitively explores isolation and connection in a digital age. Reaction to the game was entirely split, with many people turned off by its slow, exploration-driven gameplay and clunky, jargon-heavy dialogue (a possible reason why it was not nominated for Best Game), but when Death Stranding clicks, it is transcendent.
Control is a slightly more conventional action game, developed by Remedy Entertainment, set entirely within a Tardis-like government building occupied by the Federal Bureau of Control. Playing as newly appointed Bureau director Jesse Faydon, you have to rid the building of a sinister paranormal threat known as “The Hiss”, using a living firearm that defies physics.
It’s a superb game, mixing tropes from beloved sci-fi like The X-Files with a solid amount of its own invention. And, according to Mikael Kasurinen, Control’s director, it bears particular relevance now. “We wanted to bring a degree of realism to the supernatural phenomena, make them feel like complex disasters that can be crippling, vast and unexpected,” he says, “very much mirroring real life disaster scenarios like oil spills or, yes, pandemics.”
“It also goes to the fundamentals of human condition,” he continued, “and connects to what we are going through in the world today. We see different behaviour in the face of vast unknown forces – there’s fear, anger, greed, heroism.”
“However, Control also shows the value of measured consideration: treat the unknown with respect, take your time and exercise caution, and you’ll figure it out. Also, wash your hands.”
Sam Lake, one of the game’s writers and the creative director at Remedy, agrees. “In Control, we’re in a lockdown, desperately trying to stop this force from spreading any further, trying to find a cure. I’d also say that the view in this story is that there’s always hope. It’s not too late to fix things.”
Video games can indeed inspire hope. This is an idea that resonates in another Bafta-nominated project: ZA/UM’s genre-bending, radically impressive role-playing game Disco Elysium. In Disco Elysium, you inhabit a shambling, drug-using police detective who investigates a lynching near a dock workers’ union in Revachol, a fictional city in an alternative, Earth-like reality.
Among Disco Elysium’s myriad influences are Cardboard Computer’s point-and-click masterpiece Kentucky Route Zero, artists such as Rembrandt and Ilya Repin, and David Simon’s TV paragon The Wire. You can see The Wire’s legacy in the game’s political perspicacity, in the relationship between its two lead detectives, even in Revachol’s dock workers, who passingly recall the Baltimore stevedores from the HBO series’ second season.
As you might imagine, Disco Elysium is a weighty game, and is mature in a way that surpasses most ostensibly adult-targeted video games. Tthat shouldn’t make it off-putting, though. Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium’s Art Director, says, half-jokingly, “the notion that this game is somehow cynical or bleak is enemy propaganda. This is the most hopeful game that anyone has ever made.”
Rostov spoke to me along with Helen Hindpere, the game’s lead writer, about Disco Elysium’s seven Bafta nominations. “I have a couple of thoughts on it,” he says of the game’s success. “One of them is the contemporary political situation. With the rise of not-quite-actually fascists in America, the hiccups that socialism has had, the failure of Labour in the UK at the last election, people are just like, ‘oh, there’s a game that’s relevant to the modern times in a way that games usually aren’t.’”
What does it mean for a game to be relevant? Disco Elysium contains some superficial echoes of the news headlines – for instance, hidden in the expansive mass of backstory is the revelation that the in-game world suffered a deadly pandemic, giving birth to areas of socialist utopia. But the creators, like the game itself, keep the focus on the bigger picture, on broader sociopolitical and emotional insights.
“I think it speaks to people’s disconnection,” says Hindpere. “Because everyone feels quite disconnected from the political establishment. We’re all extremely online people. I assume that our players are all also extremely online. So they understand this quick, ironic but still very politically worried attitude that this game has.”
“The thing that coronavirus has done is show us the wealth gap between people,” she continues. “Right now, we have these mostly white-collar workers who can work from home, everything goes on normally, and then it’s just people who are actually working on the frontline for us – actually maintaining society – who are at risk. In Disco Elysium, Revachol is so incredibly working class. If the [coronavirus] crisis were to happen in Revachol, it would probably play out the same way.”
Some people, understandably, might baulk at the perceived heaviness of Disco Elysium. You need only glance at the record-breaking sales of Animal Crossing: New Horizons last week – and the surfeit of reviews applauding its timeliness – to realise that there’s a public appetite for head-in-the-sand relief from relentlessly grim news headlines.
And, for its part, the Baftas also recognise games like these. Untitled Goose Game, the unlikely hit of 2019 in which you control an errant goose causing mischief in a small English village, is in contention for four awards tonight, including for Best Game. Its simple gameplay belies an observance of everyday social order; with gamers everywhere trapped inside self-isolating, Untitled Goose Game is a spiriting reminder of the way things used to be.
Similarly, four nominations have gone to stylish, family-friendly British game Knights on Bikes, developed by Foam Sword. Its creators, Moo Yu and Rex Crowle, note the game’s appeal – “exploring new and exciting environments while staying indoors”. But, insists Crowle: “In its themes, it also attempts to address some of the harsher realities that isolated rural communities face.” Escapism does not, necessarily, equate to obliviousness.
Though many people will turn to these kinds of games for solace and entertainment, there is still great comfort to be found in a game like Disco Elysium, says Hindpere, which tackles the problems we are facing head-on, and with great thought. “Disco Elysium very much deals with mental health issues as well,” she asserts. “Anxiety, depression, all these voices going on in your head.”
“In some ways it depends on the person. But I’ve been personally in quite many tough places, and for me, it’s always helped. It’s much more difficult to be in this dark place and feel like nothing in the culture reflects it.”
Awards ceremonies are far from the be-all-and-end-all of creative worth, but they offer a useful insight into the zeitgeist, a means of understanding what kinds of art are considered valuable, and why. Rostov even describes ZA/UM’s nominations as “graduating out of the video games ghetto into the real cultural stage – Baftas is something that my mum knows about”. This year, the Bafta nominations are a timely reminder that there is value in depth, that understanding can be just as liberating as escape.
The Bafta Games awards ceremony can be streamed from 7.30pm on all major social platforms including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Twitch