Rare. Rockstar North. Creative Assembly. Codemasters. The UK’s games industry is bursting with talent, and as players, we usually know the names of the studios behind our favourite games. But what about those following in their footsteps, the next games we’ll fall in love with? Backed by Netflix, BAFTA’s Breakthrough UK programme aims to answer that question by shining a spotlight on the country’s most promising talent.
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Beyond platforming their work, BAFTA provides each Breakthrough with a year of mentoring and support, along with access to an entire calendar of BAFTA events throughout the year. For creatives in the early years of their career, that sort of support can be invaluable – and Tara Saunders, studio head at PlayStation London Studio and chair of BAFTA’s Games Committee, tells NME that the programme is crucial for uplifting the UK’s next wave of creative talent.
“Breakthrough plays a critical role in showcasing talent and career pathways in the creative sector, which is a big part of BAFTA’s mission as an arts charity,” Saunders explains. “In the games industry we often celebrate teams and not individuals, so Breakthrough is a fantastic opportunity for creatives that are at the cusp of their career to be recognised and supported on that journey.”
According to Saunders, the BAFTA Breakthroughs aim to “inspire the next generation of developers,” while the jury in charge of selecting participants is keen to “support and champion” the talent they find. To learn more about the talented figures that BAFTA currently has its eye on, NME spoke to each of the UK’s Breakthroughs to find out why the UK games industry’s future is so bright.
For Alyx Jones, the escapism of gaming became a means of “survival” while she experienced childhood abuse and homelessness. Now a dialogue editor and BAFTA Breakthrough due to her work on NME‘s best game of 2022, Elden Ring, that intrinsic connection to gaming has taken her far.
Though Jones says she’s a fan of traditional games like Pokémon or Assassin’s Creed, she also believes the medium can do more to push the boat out and explore “difficult or less talked about topics” that are neglected in gaming. Jones points to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice‘s portrayal of psychosis, or That Dragon, Cancer‘s “raw reality” of childhood terminal cancer, as examples.
“It would be good to see a broader range of topics explored in games,” says Jones, who wants to see developers “take more risks and be brave with what they have to say.”
It’s an ethos that Jones has taken to heart. With her talent landing her name on the credits of mainstream giants like Just Cause, Elden Ring and 2020’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Jones has now branched out to found her own studio. Named Silver Script Games, Jones wants the studio to tell more of the stories that aren’t being told in gaming – starting with her own. Silver Script Games’ debut will be The Quiet Things, which is early in development and is based on the diary entries that Jones kept as a teenager.
“I feel very lucky for the opportunity to tell my story through the medium I am most passionate about. With a game, the player really gets to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time, and I think it’s a very powerful platform to raise empathy and awareness about important issues.”
Jones says The Quiet Things will deal with “topics around domestic violence, sexual abuse and homelessness, and the deep impact those experiences have on mental health,” and says these are areas that are yet to be explored fully by the medium.
“Lots of books and films exist around these topics and as autobiographies but the games industry is still just taking its first steps in that area,” Jones says. “I’m very hopeful that the industry is starting to tell these kinds of stories, as well as being truthful and sensitive, not in a graphic way or just for shock value.”
Following stints at global gaming giants Microsoft and Sony, Emily Brown now works as a lead designer at ustwo games, a much smaller studio located in London. There, her work on the studio’s 2020 gem Alba: A Wildlife Adventure won her Breakthrough recognition. Though she says working at a smaller studio isn’t too different from her stints at larger developers, working on Alba helped Brown see the appeal of making games for a wider audience.
“I could really see the power of making a smaller experience,” says Brown. “Something that is welcoming to all kinds of players and can be enjoyed and completed by players who don’t have the time for longer experiences, or who want to balance out their longer [games] with something on a different scale.”
Brown adds that she feels the games industry is “opening up” to more creators, which offers a win for everybody – not just the individuals and indie teams who are getting to bring their games into the world.
“The variety in scale and theme and genre, including the creation of new genres, means so much more choice as a player,” explains Brown, who holds a degree in Psychology and masters in Human Computer Interaction. It’s a combination that has helped shape Brown’s own approach to game design, and she says she’s “always trying to consider what the player is thinking about at any time.”
“What emotion have we created and how do we move into another moment? Was that level a really challenging one and would it be nice to have something more playful and relaxing now? I think both psychology and human computer interaction made me a really player-focused game designer and it is not about making things easier, but really about improving our understanding of the player experience- what are our players experiencing at each moment?”
Brown’s input – along with her fellow developers at ustwo – paid off, and Alba‘s player reviews remain ‘Overwhelmingly Positive‘ on Steam. Though Brown is proud of the teamwork that brought Alba into the world, browsing through player feedback – from heartfelt appreciation posts to anecdotes about recognising a real-world bird thanks to the game – offers its own reward. Ultimately, Brown says it’s all about the effect her work has had on the world: “Players took something positive away into their day, and that feels good.”
“My first steps in writing music were really designed to be soundtracks – I just hadn’t found anyone to trust me with their projects yet,” Jamal Green tells NME. Now, the composer is a BAFTA Breakthrough for his work soundtracking Something We Made‘s hand-drawn adventure TOEM – which picked up a BAFTA of its own in 2022.
Besides TOEM, Green has spent years bringing his creative talent to the film and game industry. Now, Green is now looking to create more standalone music, though he admits that it was initially difficult to branch out of the media he is now used to working alongside.
“I find the constraints of writing to media really helpful,” explains Green. “The projects I write for help guide my musical decision making so finding the inspiration and confidence to pursue my own ideas was a big challenge for me but I’m finding it incredibly fun and rewarding.”
Green points to a number of composers he’s inspired by, which range from Childish Gambino producer and Black Panther composer Ludwig Göransson to fellow game composer Tomáš ‘Floex’ Dvořák. Green appreciates that all of his inspirations have “unique, distinctive voices,” and is currently looking to explore his own voice with an original album inspired by John Carrol Kirby’s 2020 album ‘Conflict’.
However, Green says the “beauty and creativity” that comes from the UK’s indie game developers mean he will “always have close ties” to the scene. There are a number of larger studios in the UK that Green would love to work with – he names the likes of Rare, Frontier Developments, Hello Games and Rocksteady – but right now, Green is keen to meet the UK’s wider talent in the games industry.
“Everybody seems to know everyone so it’s not hard to make friends and be introduced to people you admire,” says Green. “I’m so proud that the UK is the home of such amazing game developers both big and small.”
Luciana Nascimento and Zachary Soares
Moonglow Bay was Bunnyhug’s debut game, and both Soares and Nascimento took away plenty of lessons from its development. “We’re a very small team which means we wear many hats, so improving really means figuring out what you can do yourself best and what needs to be delegated out,” they share, adding that they learned to trust their own work during development.
Though Moonglow Bay is set in Canada – the country that Nascimento and Soares first met – Bunnyhug is located in the North East of England. The Bunnyhug founders explain that working from Gateshead is “quite relaxing” compared to London, and there are still plenty of fellow developers in the North East to connect with.
“The density and bustle of London don’t exist here but we still have access to everything you need,” they explain. “One big outlier is how we’re able to easily escape the stresses that come with work since the North East is much more laid back which makes it easier to build a healthy balance.”
Though Bunnyhug isn’t ready to reveal what it’s working on just yet, Nascimento and Soares are excited to be working on it. “It’s cute, magical and the team really enjoys building it, which is a great sign,” teases the developers, who say they like to call their games “RPGs based on side characters”. Neither developer can say much more about the project that’s “really dear to everyone on the team” just yet, but add that players are going to “enjoy what’s to come” from Bunnyhug.
After an internship at Horsham’s Creative Assembly (Total War, Alien: Isolation) turned into full-time work in the games industry, principal technical artist Morag Taylor says she “basically grew up professionally” at the studio.
“Every day I was being taught something new by a different discipline, and my main lesson was that you never know quite as much as you think you know,” recalls Taylor, pointing to the complexity of working with different disciplines and keeping a studio running smoothly. However, it was at Creative Assembly that Taylor – who once leaned toward a career in film – learned to appreciate “the power of any type of game to inspire and connect people,” regardless of its genre.
Though Taylor says the developers at Creative Assembly will “always” inspire her, she’s keen to learn more from the UK’s wider wealth of talent. “Already meeting my fellow Breakthroughs and seeing what they have achieved has been a great source of inspiration,” she says, before listing a number of other creators in the UK she takes inspiration from.
“There are so many studios that do amazing things in the UK it’s hard to not just list them out,” admits Taylor. “I’ve always got a soft spot for silly couch co-op games, so stories like Ghost Town Games‘ success with Overcooked is something that inspires me. On a technical level, I think what Hello Games achieved with No Man’s Sky was really impressive. Artistically, I’m really driven by games that try to make their own style, so State of Play’s Lumino City has to be up there too.”
Taylor remained at Creative Assembly for seven years, earning Breakthrough recognition for Total War: Warhammer 3, but left in 2022 with her sights set on the future. Though she’s still working out what that future holds for her, the dream is to eventually make a game of her own. “I’d like to make something a little bit silly, but with a bit of heart,” says Taylor, who has been “toying” with an idea with her partner, a fellow game developer. “It’s something that is a celebration of the simpleness of everyday life and the connections we make with each other.”