Comedian and presenter Dara Ó Briain is to video games what Stephen Fry is to cinema. He's hosted the British Academy Games Awards for seven out of the last eight years (Rufus Hound filled in for him in 2014), though he can't quite remember them all. "I honestly have no idea how many times it is," he tells me, "I just remember the first time being exciting because GTA IV didn't win Best Game."
With this year's ceremony just days away, taking place in London on April 7, I called Ó Briain to talk about this year's awards and his forthcoming TV series, Go 8 Bit, based on the live show conceived by comedians Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon.
VICE: How did you end up as the go-to presenter for the British Academy Games Awards?
Dara Ó Briain: It's just one of those things. I mean, how am I also the guy who ended up hosting science programmes? I was one of the [celebrities] who said declaredly, "I play games," and that got spotted by somebody, so they asked me to come and do it and I said I'd be delighted. Because I genuinely know the industry, I know the product. So that was it. I also think Jonathan Ross had done it a fair few times, and Charlie Brooker wasn't available, so it was a small pool of people who had a certain level of profile but also played games. It's weird, as you think there'd be more people who are openly gamers within the comedy community, particularly because there are [plenty] who play games.
Were people perhaps less open about their love of gaming because there was more of a stigma about it back then, compared to today?
It was definitely a theme at the time during the first one I did, where I said in my speech, "You've done it. You are the biggest entertainment industry in the world." [Games] are not going to get the coverage other mediums do because you don't have beautiful people, wandering around in elegant dresses – and nor do you need it. I certainly don't think as an industry it's held them back in terms of the amount of coverage and enthusiasm for the actual product. The fact that no one is going, "Oh, I wonder who Mario is dating at the moment?" or all this ridiculous stuff that movies and television get, simply because there are beautiful people to be photographed so you can fill space in newspapers and magazines, because that's basically what publishing is these days.
But that was the first point at which we could actually point and say [that] the largest entertainment product this year was... well, it would have been Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, wouldn't it? So it's like, right, you've overtaken everything else, and there was an element of this being a transcendent moment, a coming out moment for the whole industry. You know: wow, we've become this huge thing. And so I've always [said] that – you're the biggest industry, you just don't have to put up with the fripperies and the nonsense of the other ones.
Do you have time to keep up with games each year, or when this comes around do you have to hurriedly swot up on everything?
No, I'll end up having to swot up on the nominations, because I've played the wrong games this year. That occasionally happens. I've been playing a lot of Batman: Arkham Knight and Bloodborne and FIFA and LEGO Dimensions, which get a mention here and there. Not so much on The Witcher 3, which I meant to [play] – but I lost hours of my life to Skyrim, so I can't do that again. And I kept meaning to go back to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Life is Strange but never really got around to it. But there are lots of games, so it's very difficult to keep across it fully. I've got a mad two weeks of trying to catch up. I'll try to catch up with Those That Have Been Nominated. But yeah, I was going around collecting Riddler trophies in Arkham Knight rather than keeping a broad view of the industry.
Is there anything on the shortlist you're particularly rooting for, or anything you'd like to see on there that hasn't made it?
Yeah, I'm surprised Bloodborne didn't get more [nominations] (it received only one, in the Design category). But then again, that underlines its cult [appeal]. I say Bloodborne, as if I've played lots of it – I die repeatedly, instantly, and I find the whole thing just head wracking as an entertainment idea: "this is going to be ludicrously difficult". I've yet to fully get the rhythms of it.
Metal Gear Solid V was probably the one that stood out for me. Each mission is a perfectly realised nugget-sized game – each time you drop in and you think, "Now how am I going to attack this?" And the freedom of it was just fantastic. So that for me was the outstanding one, but I'm saying this without having properly lost myself in The Witcher 3 or Fallout 4. Oh, and bloody Rocket League, where in the hell did that come from? And this is what BAFTA should do, BAFTA should also be saying, "Have you not seen this?" It's not just, "You already know this and we're going to rubber-stamp it". And in the time I've been doing it we have done that, with nominations for games like Limbo. Some of the stuff that's been coming out of the indie sector is fantastic, and they've always taken that very seriously. [BAFTA] absolutely should be pointing you towards new things.
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It's interesting you mention Bloodborne, given your famous routine about games presenting these arbitrary obstacles to overcome before you get the next part of the story. Particularly this year, we're seeing games like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch that don't have those roadblocks. Do you prefer something with more of a challenge, or are you a fan of these more narrative-led games?
Well, it's a bit like watching different types of television programmes. I think we can comfortably accommodate all of them. I mean, you're in the mood for different things at different times. I like that Bloodborne is there, and I occasionally will crank it up and go, "Oh god, this is ludicrous, I haven't mastered it at all, aargh, there we go again: You Died." But it's a strength of the medium that it can do something completely different. You compare that to Her Story, in which it's very difficult to die. These games where you walk around, like Rapture, are just taking the format and bending the story around them in a really interesting way, and I think it's great that the medium can do all this. But yeah, at different times you want to do different things. At times you just want to turn on your iPad and stroke the screen.
Have you had any experience of virtual reality yet? Do you see it as a great leap forward, or is it another fad like 3D gaming?
You see, I never thought 3D really amounted to very much. I thought it was one of those things that appeared every 30 years. I had a joke on stage about it – it's like tuberculosis, it suddenly flares up, and we have to wipe it out again. So 3D never moved me very much. But VR, I think, is genuinely a different thing. There's a potential to interacting with it in a way you don't have with 3D. I'm looking forward to the release titles, but there's obviously going to be an unseemly battle for supremacy over which VR [device] we play. For a little while, at least. And then we'll get over the initial "Oh look, I'm on a rollercoaster," to seeing what we can actually do with it, which is interesting.
I sat through one demo with Facebook last year on Oculus, and what worked wasn't just the huge [spectacle] stuff. It was small, like being in a room. There was a clockwork model on the table in front of you, in this virtual world, and you could walk up to it, and turn it around or walk around it, and you could look at all the different moving parts inside and look through it. And I was thinking, I never thought they'd go in that direction with it, that they'd make it small and intimate. And then you can obviously have your Minority Report moment with it all. I think it's going to be amazing.
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You've just announced a new TV show called Go 8 Bit. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Absolutely. It's going to be based around the simple idea of letting people play games, and letting the natural competition – and I dread to say the word "banter" because it's been hideously co-opted, so let's just say "bants" instead which is far less awful – come out. People are constantly contriving ways to put comedians into situations where we're competing with each other. If you put a controller in a comedian's hands, they start getting into it in a huge way. In video games, veritas – people's real personalities come through a lot more when they're playing games than most other [pastimes]. Any time it's been done in front of an audience it's really worked, people really get into it. It's an experiment for the programme makers to see if it will transfer across – we've seen that it works live, but will it transfer across through the medium of television? Because there's always a lag between what feels great in a room and what feels great on screen. But I think this could really work.
Why do comedians in particular seem to have such an affinity with video games?
I'll give you the very short answer: we have lots of time to kill. And we're in a state of arrested development anyway, so it fits very naturally into our worldview. You gig for two hours a night, and then you're either travelling or sitting in a hotel room. So it works for us.
Dara Ó Briain hosts the British Academy Games Awards on April 7 – visit the official website for further information including the full list of nominees. Go 8 Bit will be broadcast on the British television channel Dave in autumn 2016. Follow Dara himself on Twitter here.
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