If awards season is a game, it’s one that’s nearly impossible for most people (and projects to win). Catapulting a project or a performance or a craft into awards season consideration is no easy feat, and it’s never one entirely rooted in actual artistic merit. Instead, a lot of award season campaigning is, well, a lot like political campaigning, complete with strategies, stuck-to storylines and a dizzying amount of face time. Winning the big prize — like an Oscar — is the result of not just exceptional work on a single project, but enduring the slings and arrows of a months-long process that can very often seem like something that’s played more than it’s earned. Just like a game.
And that’s where “Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage,” a delightfully simple web game with lots to say about awards season itself, comes into play. The new side-scrolling web platform game, styled to look like an 8-bit entry from yesteryear, comes to us from The Line Animation at Electric Theater Collective, who have managed to use a relatively simple structure to deliver a fun experience that also approximates the frustrations, anxieties and talking points surrounding awards season.
The basic premise of “Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage” follows best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio as he attempts to navigate the red carpet (while chasing a shiny Oscar statuette) and get into the Academy Awards where, presumably, he’ll finally be awarded an actual Oscar for his turn in “The Revenant” (or, as some awards devotees may believe, for his turn in just about every other Oscar-nominated role that he never actually won for).
Along the way, little 8-bit Leo must battle pushy photographers and red carpet reporters, the appearance of an ill-timed “Titanic” iceberg and even a miniature Lady Gaga, who is also rushing her way to the ceremony. (The Lady Gaga inclusion is, of course, a nod to the pair’s apparent run-in at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, during which Gaga shoved up against DiCaprio’s chair as he appeared to be snickering when she won for her work in “American Horror Story: Hotel,” an almost certainly invented narrative propagated by the media and Twitter users who thought the incident was funny.)
This initial run to the ceremony doesn’t require much in the way of gaming skill, as players just need to jam down on the “G” and “H” keys and occasionally hit the space bar to jump over blockages. Once he reaches the ceremony, a clever bonus round — “Quaalude Overdose,” a wink to his work in “The Wolf of Wall Street” — helps players rack up even more points (the aim is always more points). After that, the stakes get more precise.
Other rounds see Leo facing off against various competitors, from “The Danish Girl” star Eddie Redmayne (who’s wearing a dress, made up to look like the real-life Lili Elbe) to “The Martian” lead Matt Damon (in a wee space suit), literally running in order to best his competition. It’s not about the acting or the work or the performance; it’s just a sprint to the finish line. Along the way, the competitors snatch up other awards (“Golden Globe Combo Bonus!”) in their mad dash to the big prize. It’s maddening and stressful and mostly insane. The flashbulbs are blinding, the competition is fierce and the end result is never clear until a blinking screen (“FAILURE!”) lets you know if you’ve won or lost (or at least advanced to the next round).
And, it is without qualification, just a race to the finish. Artistic standards are long out the window. It’s only about moving faster than the competition and grabbing an award at the end.
Later, players can again utilize those “G” and “H” buttons to force Leo to “ACT HARDER!,” a section in which his 8-bit face only gets more and more red, sweaty and determined. He’s acting harder, sure, as has often been the story ascribed to his work on “The Revenant,” but that’s all it is, a competition. Win another round, and you can write your own acceptance speech, but don’t try to do anything original, because no matter what keys you hit, the same standard language shows up on the screen. The end result is mostly the same, no matter the key-hitting work that goes into it.
But “Red Carpet Rampage” isn’t content to upbraid only the actual marathon that is awards campaigning. It also takes aim at the process itself. In the most biting section, “Red Carpet Rampage” asks its players to “find the black nominee” in a sea of 8-bit faces. Having played the game a dozen times now, I’ve yet to find one. It’s a pointed, heady critique, a jab at the current #OscarsSoWhite controversy wrapped up in a consumable and entertaining package. It’s this stage where the game gets real, and it’s the most surprising — and essential — section of an experience that initially seems intent on deconstructing the awards season game just for laughs.
It’s unclear if the game is actual winnable — even my best tries, full of pap-stomping and “ULTRA BAFTA BONUSES” never ended with my little Leo winning an Oscar. By the end, when a scoreboard showed how many other awards I picked up along the way (Golden Globes, MTV Movie Awards and, most inexplicably, Emmys), there was a big fat zero standing next to my Oscar tally. After all of those accomplishments, I was still a click away from success in a game that has less to do with talent than pure button-mashing.