Bafta video game awards host Dara Ó Briain on a lifelong love of gaming
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) You can tell a lot about a gamer from their first system. When someone in their forties claims to be a lifelong player and then confesses that they got into games via the original PlayStation, you know something isn't quite right. The PlayStation wasn't launched until 1995. However, when I ask Dara Ó Briain about his first experiences with interactive entertainment, he not only immediately references the ancient Commodore Vic-20 computer, he also remembers how much RAM it had available for games programming: 3.5K. You couldn't even open a Word document with that nowadays.
"There were very few games that linger in the memory from that era," he says. "The Vic-20 wasn't exactly a wonderland for programmers." Later, however, the Ó Briain household graduated to the much more powerful Commodore 64, and the comedian's love affair with games began. "Mission Impossible and Boulderdash were my favourite games," he continues, and suddenly I realise that this interview is going to become a pixelated trip down memory lane, because – along with the sci-fi shooter Paradroid – these were my favourite titles of the eighties too. Boulderdash was an amazingly compelling mining game in which you had to collect diamonds while avoiding falling boulders and weird fluttering enemies. Mission Impossible was a visually beautiful but immensely cruel and challenging platformer set in the lair of an evil scientist. They truly timeless classics, as playable now as they were in the mid-'80s – even though technology and graphics have moved on considerably.
We wonder, then, why there have been no decent modern updates. "Boulderdash got the balance just right in terms of the controls and the speed of the falling boulders," he says. "No iOS translation has got it right." We agree that its down to controls – Boulderdash was all about precise control and accurate movement around treacherous subterranean passages. You needed a proper joystick with microswitches; tapping a screen just won't cut it.
Ó Briain is dismissive of touchscreen smartphones as gaming devices. "I know that the Walking Dead has found a way around the control feel; it has a couple of interesting mechanics. But there are very few games that have lingered with me at all. There are a few action games that are just frustrating to traverse... and the rest are all puzzles. Charlie Brooker said it very well: playing an iOS game is like tapping on the side of a fish tank and hoping the fish will move."
Mission Impossible, programmed by old school gaming legend Dennis Caswell, required players to navigate over 30 rooms guarded by electrifying robots. Ó Briain was so addicted, he attempted to map the layout on graph paper, even thought the configuration of rooms reconfigured at the start of every game. "It was the first game I finished," he says. "And all you got was the scientist at the end screaming 'noooooooooo!' in early digitised speech. I downloaded it as a ringtone a while ago. It's a lot more crackly than you remember. It's like what George Lucas said about updating Star Wars: you want it to be as you remember not as it actually was. Then he went too far and ruined everything..."
While there are plenty of other comedians who play video games, it was O' Briain who introduced the subject into his live show – famously with an eight minute segment that tackled Guitar Hero, Metal Gear Solid and how Wii games are all about stroking unicorns who poo rainbows:
"It still feels like something that's enthusiastically adored by some crowds, and completely ignored by others," he says. "That Metal Gear/Guitar Hero routine, which I call Jump-Crouch-Touch, was just at the point where I felt enough people in the room would get it – although I had to write in a recognition of those who'd watch it and go, 'what ! Why is he doing this Why is he crouching '. I get quite an age spread and the older generation just did not get it. But comedy's all about playing the numbers anyway, you're hoping enough of the audience get it to carry the rest along."
So are there other comedians following Ó Briain's lead into video game material "I've seen a few," he says. "Seann Walsh does a very good routine. But mostly it's about eighties games – and it's taken 30 years for that! It's like Wreck-It-Ralph - that's essentially a movie about video games 30 years ago, because its only now that those games have percolated sufficiently into the common consciousness."
Ó Briain puts this down to the fact that there are fewer communal moments in games – we often have very different experiences and see very different things in the same games. "Plus, you don't have the attendant star industry around games," he says. "Even if you haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook, there are enough bloody pictures of Jennifer Lawrence in the papers. Similarly, I've not seen Twilight but I get the gist of it from media coverage. However, I've not played Bioshock and I know nothing about it - it doesn't resonate in popular culture in the same way."
There are none of these problems at the Bafta video game awards, which Ó Briain has been presenting for the last five years. He says it's a very different and more committed audience than at some TV or movie events, where filmmakers make up only a minority of the audience, amid a sea of celebrities and hangers-on. Everyone there gets jokes about video games.
It's a good year for nominations, as well. Although there's a smattering of Triple A titles, there are also plenty of leftfield projects like Journey, Proteus and Dear Esther. Ó Briain has tried to play everything on the nominations list, but has a young family and toured extensively last year. "Also, the release schedule seemed to be very heavily skewed toward one three-week period in the autumn," he complains. "I picked up Assassin's Creed III and was briefly playing it, before Dishonored lured me away. Then Far Cry 3 came along and that stuck. But it is wonderfully diverse. You have the equivalent of a short film, an animated movie and a Hollywood blockbuster in the same category."
We talk about Dear Esther and Proteus, about how they're games but also somehow not games, or at least they're about games. "It's interesting how developers are playing with the form now," he says. "There's an assumption that we all roughly know the rules. There are a couple of jokes I do know about how there isn't a game around these days that doesn't have some sort of hallucination sequence. We've had Batman being injected by Scarecrow and your man doing drugs in Far Cry 3 – then there's a shift in location or perspective, some unusual animation... Every game seems to crowbar in a way to get the player to take a pill – okay, now we can go crazy for a while! It's all about playing with the format. We now have a common language for how these things work, and that's interesting."
Dara's children are too young to play games at the moment, but they're beginning to show interest in the iPad. I tell him how my own sons have managed to creep up on me while I'm playing Call of Duty, witnessing dozens of messy kills before I realise they're standing behind me. We're entering a new era of gaming parents, who will have to establish barriers and manage access to the many games lying about the house. "A friend of mine had a class full of children talking about nail bombs. They asked, 'how do children know about that ' I expect a few parents will know exactly where they heard about nail bombs... It clearly came from a parent who'd left a some shooter on the console."
So does he have any idea who'll win for, say Best Game this year "I'm always weary of predicting anything," he says. "I was sure Batman would win last year and it was Portal 2. It's such a diverse selection... I'm happy to be surprised."
The British Academy Games Awards will take place on Tuesday 5 March. The ceremony will be streamed live on Twitch – you can view it here.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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