2023 BAFTA Breakthrough winners: "It gives the games industry a level footing, culturally, with other industries"

The 2023 BAFTA Breakthrough awards celebrate the hot new creative talent working today. Amongst the 42 must-watch creatives working in film, games and television today, from across the UK, US and India, are Kitt Byrne, 2D artist and game designer, and Joel Beardshaw, lead designer. I caught up with them to discuss the state of the industry and what you need to know to get into game development.

"It's a huge accolade to attach that name to a game that you've worked on, especially, I think, because I work in indie games, they're quite small teams, small games sometimes," says Kitt Byrne, adding: "It feels very big, very important."

Byrne worked on one of this year's best indie games, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, a whimsical, nimble but often sad platform game with an eco message at its heart and a beautiful watercolour, storybook art style.

The art direction of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees resembles an animated wildlife storybook, Byrne tells me "it's that kind of mix of very painterly, slightly kind of jaunty angles and things like that," adding how the game has been "inspired by nature and the real life animals".

BAFTA Breakthrough 2023; a woman in black on a blue and red background

Kitt Byrne is a 2D artist working in video games, her latest indie is Gibbon: Beyond the Trees. (Image credit: BAFTA / Vivek Vadoliya)

Byrne says she's passionate about being able to work in different styles and loves this aspect of working in indie games, and indeed explains this is crucial for a game artist. It's an ongoing debate, to specialise or generalise, and for Byrne being able to adapt has been successful and enjoyable.

She says: "If you get really well known for a very strong look that can work in your favour, but also if you enjoy working on lots of different things, each new project looks different. I think just choosing one or the other and then making yourself show that you can be good at that, I think is the important thing. So if you want to do a style, get good at it. If you want to do lots of styles, get good at lots of styles; that would be my advice."

She tells me how BAFTA has been a helping hand for many years for artists wanting to work in video games, Byrne herself has been to BAFTA industry talks and events that are open to the public. "My impression," she says, "is they do a lot for people at all levels of the industry [helping] people who are just getting into games. just seeing who else was awarded made me feel like it was really special."

BAFTA Breakthrough 2023; a man stood in front of a red and blue background

Game designer Joel Beardshaw is a BAFTA Breakthrough, and worked on hit game Desta: The Memories Between. (Image credit: BAFTA / Vivek Vadoliya)

One other BAFTA Breakthrough contemporary is Joel Beardshaw, lead designer on indie hit Desta: The Memories Between, from developer Ustwo Games. This oddball game is a mix of turn-based tactics, physics and sports and has been scooping plaudits all year. Desta is a game that showcases Beardshaw's imaginative approach to game design.

Beardshaw tells me how the involvement of BAFTA in video games has been a boost to the industry. The BAFTA Games Award is now a regular in most people's calendars, as is Young Games Designer Award. 

"I feel like it gives the games industry a level footing culturally with other entertainment industries in the UK, who have that kind of longstanding cultural cache," says Beardshaw, joking: "My mum gets excited about the fact that BAFTA Games exists."

He continues: "But also I think it's really important to have an entertainment and arts focused organisation rather than just a trade industry body […] But having that kind of cultural arts institution to tell stories, talk about creators, breed creativity and reward creativity, I think is really, really key."

BAFTA Breakthrough 2023; an isometric game world

Joel Beardshaw is lead designer on Desta: The Memories Between, a unique co-op tactics game. (Image credit: Ustwo Games)

Desta is a game Beardshaw has worked on from prototype all the way to release as lead designer. The idea grew from an earlier shelved idea from another team member, "a kind of turn-based dodgeball game, says the dev, but with a unique end lose state, that became a narrative feature and how characters interact. "Each of those characters came from different relationships and different types of people in various team members' lives," reflects Beardshaw.

Working in indie games, Beardshaw is clear BAFTA's help is crucial, and now there are more ways to release games, including on Netflix, this year's BAFTA Breakthrough Award sponsor. 

"The last two games I've worked on have both been subscription games primarily, and then came to other platforms," says Beardshaw. "I think it's really great that Apple and Netflix are supporting smaller developers […] smaller stories, and we also still have the freedom to take it to platforms like Nintendo Switch or PC […] to find other audiences."

He adds: "Apple Arcade has found great success with being a games platform for parents with young kids who just want a safe space where their kid isn't going to run into anything too scary or with microtransactions in; and I'm really pleased the platform for that continues to exist."

I don't think we should be scared of junior roles, of people without prior experience joining teams

Joel Beardshaw, lead game designer

Talking about how to get into the industry, and how helpful bodies like BAFTA can be, Beardshaw stresses the need for more junior roles in the games industry and the insights and new ideas they can bring to a studio. "I don't think we should be scared of junior roles, of people without prior experience joining teams," Beardshaw tells me. "I think the thing you get in the long run is so exciting."

The game designer's advice for anyone looking to get into the video games industry would be to show teamwork wherever possible. He recommends attending game jams, taking part in university projects, or engaging with creative opportunities online can all help."

"Getting involved in those [things] and then reflecting on it, putting it in a portfolio, would be my kind of thing; make sure you have a succinct reflection on it in your portfolio," he explains, adding how that person, who shows they "understand what collaboration means within the games context. Yeah. Fantastic."

BAFTA Breakthrough 2023; two apes sit in a tree

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees features tranquil 2D art by illustrator Kitt Byrne.  (Image credit: BAFTA / Vivek Vadoliya)

Kitt Byrne's advice for anyone wanting to get into video games is similar. Indie games are a great entry point, and the tools, like Unity and Unreal Engine 5, and learning resources are readily available, to "just make your own game". 

She also conceded not everyone has the time or skills to do everything, and it's here Byrne echoes Beardshaw's advice, saying: "It's easier than ever to find other people who might want to do it in their spare time as a way of trying to get into the industry. I think that's one of the reasons I really love the indie side of the industry is that it is open to a lot of different voices and experiences and people."

Byrne also reflects on overworking, and while she advises everyone who wants to work in video games to be prolific, "don't let perfection be the enemy of good". She tells me this is a lesson she herself learned, advising: "Just keep doing lots of things rather than trying to do one perfect thing, stopping yourself from working on other things […] give yourself permission to do new things, to try new things."

I felt like I belonged less in the industry when I could only draw using Photoshop and Illustrator

Kitt Byrne, artist and illustrator

Byrne reflects on her own development as an artist, from only using Photoshop to now learning 3D software, particularly in her new game Botany Manor, an exploration-puzzle.

"I felt like I belonged less in the industry when I could only draw using Photoshop and Illustrator," she says. "I started, over the years, to learn how to implement my art using Unity, and I've started to learn some 3D as well, which can be really helpful."

The advice is clear: never stop learning and pushing yourself to try new things, she also tells me anyone who wants to get into video games should be "humble and be gracious" but don't hold back from contacting studios. "Don't be afraid to do it," she says, stressing: "Just put yourself out there, be polite and sell yourself. And I think people who do that, I know if it pays off, they are able to make contacts."

BAFTA Breakthrough Award winners

BAFTA Breakthrough is one of the organisation's year-round events to promote and help creatives get noticed and develop careers. Other initiatives include, BAFTA Elevate, Young Games Designers, and the Yugo BAFTA Student Awards, all designed to help people get into film, games, and television. Find more details at the BAFTA website, and below is the full list of 42 BAFTA Breakthrough Award winners:  

UK BAFTA Breakthroughs

(Image credit: BAFTA / Vivek Vadoliya)
  • Adjani Salmon, writer/performer/exec producer – Dreaming Whilst Black
  • Bella Ramsey, performer – The Last of Us
  • Cash Carraway, creator/writer/exec producer – Rain Dogs
  • Charlotte Reganm, writer/director – Scrapper
  • Cynthia De La Rosa, hair & makeup artist – Everyone Else Burns
  • Ella Glendining, director – Is There Anybody Out There?
  • Funmi Olutoye, lead producer – ‘Black History Makers’ (Good Morning Britain)
  • Georgia Oakley, writer/director – Blue Jean
  • Holly Reddaway, voice and performance director – Baldur’s Gate 3
  • Joel Beardshaw, lead designer - Desta: The Memories Between
  • Kat Morgan, hair & makeup designer – Blue Jean
  • Kathryn Ferguson, writer/director – Nothing Compares
  • Kitt (Fiona) Byrne, 2D artist/game designer - Gibbon: Beyond the Trees
  • Michael Anderson, producer - Desta: The Memories Between
  • Pete Jackson, writer/creator – Somewhere Boy
  • Raine Allen-Miller, director – Rye Lane
  • Rosy McEwen, performer – Blue Jean
  • Samantha B art, performer - The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
  • Talisha ‘Tee Cee’ Johnson, writer/director/presenter – Too Autistic for Black
  • Vivian Oparah, performer – Rye Lane

US BAFTA Breakthroughs

(Image credit: Getty Images for BAFTA / 2023 Getty Images)
  • Amanda Kim, documentary director - Nam June Paik: Moon Is The Oldest TV
  • Aminah Nieves, performer - 1923 and Blueberry (Film/TV)
  • Apoorva Charan, producer - Joyland
  • Cheyenne Morrin, senior games writer - Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
  • Edward Buckles Jr. documentary director - Katrina Babies
  • Gary Gunn, composer - A Thousand and One
  • Jingyi Shao, writer & director - Chang Can Dunk
  • Maria Altamirano, producer - All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
  • Santiago Gonzalez, cinematographer - Shortcomings
  • Shelly Yo, writer & director - Smoking Tigers
  • Sing J Lee, writer & director - The Accidental Getaway Driver
  • Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, writer & director - Mutt

India BAFTA Breakthroughs

(Image credit: Getty Images for BAFTA / 2023 Getty Images)
  • Abhay Koranne, writer - Rocket Boys
  • Abhinav Tyagi, editor - An Insignificant Man
  • Don Chacko Palathara, director/writer - Joyful Mystery
  • Kislay, director – Soni
  • Lipika Singh Darai, director/writer - Some Stories Around Witches
  • Miriam Chandy Mencherry, producer - From the Shadows and The Leopard's Tribe
  • Pooja Rajkumar Rathod, cinematographer - Secrets of the Elephants
  • Sanal George, sound editor/mixer/designer - Gangubai Kathiawadi
  • Satya Rai Nagpaul, cinematographer – Ghoomketu
  • Shardul Bhardwaj, performer - Eeb Allay Ooo!

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Ian Dean
Editor, Digital Arts & 3D

Ian Dean is Editor, Digital Arts & 3D at Creativebloq, and the former editor of many leading magazines. These titles included ImagineFX, 3D World and leading video game title Official PlayStation Magazine. In his early career he wrote for music and film magazines including Uncut and SFX. Ian launched Xbox magazine X360 and edited PlayStation World. For Creative Bloq, Ian combines his experiences to bring the latest news on AI, digital art and video game art and tech, and more to Creative Bloq, and in his spare time he doodles in Procreate, ArtRage, and Rebelle while finding time to play Xbox and PS5. He's also a keen Cricut user and laser cutter fan, and is currently crafting on Glowforge and xTools M1.