The five games nominated for Game of the Year at The Game Awards are all typical, expected choices. That Mario game. That Zelda game. That robot dinosaur game. That high school-simulator-slash-JRPG. That Early Access game some argue shouldn't be eligible. But if you look past the biggest games of 2017, there's a new category this year: the Student Game Award. An award reserved for students studying game development; students paving their own path into the games industry at large.
Unless you're a big time developer, or get lucky with accolades and word of mouth, it's not every day that you're nominated for an award at The Game Awards, arguably the biggest award show in the medium of video games. The new category isn't voted on by the public like most others, but by a special panel of judges featuring luminaries from the games industry. Hideo Kojima. Kim Swift. Todd Howard. Vince Zampella. Ilka Paananen. These are the minds behind some of the most played and well-regarded video games across decades: the Metal Gear Solid series, Portal, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, Titanfall, Clash Royale, and many more.
As for the nominees, they're all still fresh-faced students, studying game development from all corners of the world. From Singapore to France, the talented groups of students all entered their games into the first-ever Student Game Award competition, where six were ultimately chosen for the final nominees. This past week, I spent time speaking to all the developers nominated; mostly over Skype, some over email. All were elated for this week, readily gearing up to fly to Los Angeles to see who would take home the big award tonight at The Game Awards that kick off at 5:30pm PT/8:30pm ET.
For most though, they're just happy to be noticed at all. Even just the thought of the high caliber of judges seeing and playing their games is an award of itself.
"Kim Swift's going to be playing our game. You know, personal heroes like Todd Howard and Hideo Kojima. It's a bit surreal really," says Stephen Scoglio, level design lead at Glitch Crab Studios, the student development team nominated for their game LVL² (Level Squared). "Who knows where we'll go from here, but we're really humbled by the nomination."
Level Squared is a puzzle-platformer cooked up by eight students studying from Melbourne, Australia at Swinburne University of Technology, as a part of their capstone project. Across most of the students I spoke to, their entries were a part of the same thing: their capstone, or in layman terms, their big thesis to cap off their schooling. For many students, their games that were nominated are the last hurrah of actively studying game development. But learning how to make games doesn't really stop at schooling, it's an ongoing practice as technology, and more ambitious ideas, advances.
Level Squared wasn't always the minimalism-minded platformer that has a playable demo on itch.io. Originally, it got its start as Four Shadow, a Gothic-Victorian-themed puzzle-platformer about a girl that loses her shadow and befriends animals' shadows on a journey to get her own back. But development surrounding Four Shadow was messy and complicated; the team wasn't cohesive in its first 12 weeks. So they ended up scrapping the idea approximately half way into the year—a tough decision that essentially gave other student teams a massive head start—but it served as a wise lesson, and inspired the team to work harder and faster than before. Level Squared was born of that decision and resulting dedication, and it still shares a lot in common with the original vision too, at least mechanically in utilizing projections (formerly shadows). Given its big nomination and success at PAX Australia, the risky mid-development switcheroo paid off.
Taking risks is part of what makes games stand out often. In all the nominees of this year's Student Game Award, it's young developers at what might be their rawest, their most experimental. Like all games, it's also a lot of work; only with students it's piled on top of school work, jobs, and trying to live their lives. As some of the team from the nominated title From Light tell me, the work load got so unbearable that the team had to regularly pivot and prioritize different aspects due to constraints. But it never held them back. "Getting an A in the class is not enough to motivate everybody so we had to keep morale high," says Sherveen Uduwana, the lead producer on the University of Southern California student project. "We bought a lot more ice cream cakes than I would have pictured at the start of this."
The art of the newly established studio Faffinabout's From Light, a 2D puzzle-platformer, is the most striking thing about it. Heavily inspired by NASA JPL Space Tourism posters and the look of gouache on wet canvas, From Light was first concepted by its team after seeing a mathematical model shown in class once, a model that looked like a long-exposure photo, giving it a sort of dreamlike quality. At the game's start, its art direction was relatively basic: just grass, a tree, and the player. When the team wanted to build on the concept, Uduwana says they experienced unexpected pushback from professors and others. They were stubborn though, their vision remained steadfast, and From Light was fleshed out.
The team behind From Light is quite large. According to its credits page, it's a group effort across miscellaneous USC students. For Uduwana, along with one of the game's directors Alejandro Grossman and lead designer Thomas Watson, games have always been a part of their lives, whether it was that green Nintendo 64 or only buying games based on their cover art. Watson's experience was different though. "For the majority of my childhood, video games were this super fun thing that all of my friends had and talked about [while] I had books and Legos," writes Watson over email. "Eventually I had to get my own computer for high school and my parents couldn’t moderate what I downloaded or what sites I went on. I finally had access to the one thing that had been just out of reach my whole life." Years down the line, Watson chased the dream of game development. Everyone else did too, even if different roads led them there.
The nominations news came as a surprise for the team, considering that just months ago they were hard at work developing an early, and what would come to be first version, of From Light. "I immediately texted my parents the news [that we were nominated] with a screenshot of the Wikipedia article for the Game Awards," Uduwana says. "And I underlined the part that said 'The Oscars of games.'" Whether the team behind From Light takes home the trophy or not, From Light in the meantime is eyeing a full release in Fall 2018.
Before Erin Marek studied game development, she studied biology. By the end of her undergraduate degree, she realised something was amiss. She didn't enjoy biology. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life pursuing it either. So she reevaluated things and thought to herself, "What do I like to do?" That's when video games crystallized in focus, and then graduate school arrived.
Hollowed, with development led by students Erin Marek, Jerrick Flores, and Charley Choucard at Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, is a narrative-driven side-scrolling adventure game that contextualizes the five stages of grief. It culminates into a single choice made by the player: to accept that their loved one they've lost is gone, or do the impossible to bring them back. Speaking to me over Skype, Marek says the 15-person team didn't want Hollowed to fade away as just another student game; so they worked hard to polish it, officially publishing the game on Steam on November 2nd of this year, where it's free to download.
"One of the first things that our team agreed on is that we all really loved [Studio Ghibli films]," says Marek of the game's cute aesthetic married with its solemn undertone. "We loved like how their works were really artistic and beautiful and they have this interesting story but had a deeper meaning or purpose, so there's something going on below the surface more than just kind of a kids film. We also wanted to try to accomplish that with our game."
After publishing Hollowed a little over a month ago on Steam, Marek hopes that the Student Game Award is the start of something new in the industry. The start of student game developers no longer being given the cold shoulder by companies and others who don't take student work as seriously as others. "[Companies] don't see them," says Marek. "They see [student games] more as like 'oh, students just learning and you know fumbling around.' But for us and I feel like for some of the other teams [too], we really put our heart and soul into this. It was our first real project, our first real game that we got out there. And for us, we published it. So hopefully people will see that, you know, sometimes students can produce great work too and maybe it'll encourage other places to get student programs and student nominees as well."
The most notable thing about all the nominees for this year's inaugural Student Game Award is that the budding developers and designers come from all across the world. Hariz Yet, a student from DigiPen Institute of Technology Singapore, is one of the farthest away from the United States, where The Game Awards is held. The nominee also constructed a game within the smallest team. That is, primarily by Hariz alone.
The nominated game Meaning, which is downloadable from DigiPen's website, was an "oddity" at DigiPen under development, because it wasn't designed for a mass market in mind and was small in every imaginable way, from its lone designer to its sense of scale. It's a personal game for Hariz too, who struggled through a rough period of clinical depression prior to Meaning's start in development. Meaning is a game about about those struggles and outsiders' failure to relate to them, mechanized in the game in a poetic, seamless way.
"Meaning is designed to speak to those who are going through a hard phase in their life without saying too much. It is reflected in the design and the mechanics," writes Hariz over email. "The simplest of mechanics, a one button mechanic and constantly moving plane, each of which has a subtle meaning. When I set out to create Meaning, my design goal was that everything in the game should have a meaning and purpose beyond just gameplay balance or fun. It should mean something to whoever is playing the game, even if they don’t see it."
Meaning is a game with no risk and no fail state. The player glides a little fragile-looking plane around while trying to avoid obstacles, even if the obstacles get overwhelming sometimes as they clutter the screen. "I hope that my game being nominated, even if it's just a student game, is a testament that we should strive to create new and different experiences," writes Hariz. "High costs of development throwing out the same thing over and over shouldn’t be the only way we develop games. Even though digital games goes back maybe 30 years, we shouldn't accept that the status quo of games [being] games that play the same, work the same, and [are] designed the same, because there is still so much potential."
Tucked away in France is the three-person development team behind Impulsion, a fast-paced 3D puzzle-platformer that's heavily inspired by Valve's Portal—that is, if you were running through it at a breakneck speed. Hugo Verger, programmer and level builder and more on the project, notes that the ease of understanding Impulsion at a glance is what makes it digestible for players.
"Just having two types of forcefields interact with objects; one slows down, the other boosts. So it's easy to explain [and] people learn it fast," says Verger. "This is the most basic fun aspects that you can get in a video game. It's not really immersive, it's not a beautiful story, but it's mostly about gameplay and just feeling great to play." Impulsion has already net one award in Paris, France at the Ping Awards for Best Student Game; The Game Awards is its second recognition in the awards sphere.
In the midst of preparing to travel to Los Angeles for the awards, the big thing on Verger's mind is more concerning judge Kim Swift rather than winning alone. "It's really insane just seeing the jury. [Like] Kim Swift was an original creator of Portal, which is the main game that our game's inspired by," says Verger. With a greatly-polished (and almost corporate vibing) science-fiction flair and a first-person perspective, it's easy to see where the inspiration's from. "So yeah, just thinking that she will play our game, and obviously she's the link between the two. It's just a great honor." Impulsion will be getting a full release on Steam sometime in 2018.
Out of all the nominees, the game Falling Sky might be the most ambitious. Billed by its team as an "open world adventure" game, Falling Sky is notably the only game with motion capture, usually something reserved for triple-A developers or others operating at a slightly lesser scale. Director Jonathan Nielssen, despite leading a large team at England-based National Film and Television School alongside producer Nikolay Savov, is the lone "game developer" on the expansive project. Nielssen's in charge of making sure all the game elements sing with everything else.
As for the game, Falling Sky follows the character Daniel, who returns home to find his younger brother abandoned by their mom. Together they embark to solve mysteries: the mystery of their weird town, and the mystery of why their mom went missing in the first place. Nielssen describes it to me as a cross between Twin Peaks and The Legend of Zelda in a way; something quiet and meditative like a "walking simulator," while still injecting playful elements into the narrative.
"Without knowing how to do motion capture and not really having done [anything] this big either scale or in terms of quality, it was definitely a bit of nervous planning in the beginning, but it was also very much excitement," says Nielssen. "That's the great thing about being in school, that you can actually just scope it out like crazy and it's just, you do it because you want to learn. So it was very ambitious, [but] it was purpose purposefully ambitious."
That seems to be the spirit ringing through all the nominees for this year's Student Game Award: ambition that isn't tampered with. Nothing, no matter how big or small, should be seen as out of reach because the developers are still learning. If anything, they haven't been soured by the industry yet; so having big dreams, big ideas, and going against the norm is hardly discouraged. It won't be long now until the winner of the Student Game Award is revealed tonight in front of the most recognizable faces of the games industry. Hopefully this isn't the last of the category, or student ambition, either.