Not everyone’s a fan of year-end award shows. It’s not hard to comprehend why. Putting stamps on “winners” and “losers” in subjectivity-driven, creative fields can seem contrary to their intention. Alternatively, it’s pragmatic to suspect potential internal politics driving specific games to win versus legitimate artistic merit; considering just how common this type of bribery is for The Oscars (1), there’s nothing to suggest a lesser journalistic culture like games (2) wouldn’t follow suit. I mean…is it really that hard for anyone to make the connection between the copious amount of Blizzard advertisements and all of their prizes this year? The final issue, that’s both the easiest to anathematize yet hardest to amputate, would be the self-inflating aura surrounding them.
Even with these contentions, I can’t help but indulge some of my time with end-of-year lists and awards. I suppose it’s the culmination of looking back at how the medium performed and how those successes may affect in the years ahead that makes me so interested. In a time of caustic subsets of the gaming community, increasing general cynicism, and what have you, taking a short leap back in time to catalogue one’s favorite gaming memories of the year could be the right medicine. Perhaps that sentiment is too mawkish for its own good but maybe it’s necessary.
I do like award shows in principle. Of course, as we’ve seen before, there can often be a great disparity between ideal and implementation. The 2016 Game Awards—perhaps the show’s core too—is a clear example of debasing that ideal. After the disastrous results of the VGX (3) with Joel McHale’s egregious presentation—but I guess he had one fan (4), Geoff Keighley, The Dorito Pope himself, seemed humble in his apologies for it and his hopes to allay our worries and make something that’d actually honor games. Heck, I’ve admitted to somewhat feeling that enthusiasm with last year’s award show (5). But when looking at this one in particular and seeing the accumulated embarrassment of past SPIKE Video Game Award shows, what with their celebrities busting out cringe game-themed jokes, the plethora of endorsements, and general disregard of decorum, I simply don’t see any hope to come from this unless major changes occur.
Before getting to those issues, I just feel the need to momentarily retract the claws and discuss the paucity of qualities I liked from this year's presentation. The most notable point being the sincerity of That Dragon, Cancer developer’s award speech. The mixture of the inspiration for this game, Ryan Green’s crying, and his raw message made for something I’m sure many were tearing up over. It says a lot when a tawdry awards show can still showcase such powerful glimpses of the artistic potential within this medium. A similar praise can be handed to the acceptance speech of boogie2988 for Trending Gamer. I haven’t watched many of his videos, but he’s always struck me as one of the nicest dudes in the community (once his paroxysms of rage when getting into the Francis character have subsided, but that’s really for show anyways). I’m glad to see he won. Topping off the trifecta of worthwhile speeches, Nolan North’s focus on the SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike was tastefully handled. One article personified it as an attack (6) but that simply doesn’t hold water when considering the content of the speech itself and North’s previous vocal support of the strike only a month before (7). But that’d be expecting a scintilla of research and consideration from games journalists.
Outside of a few sincere speeches, I thought the last big positive was seeing a live band playing some of the DOOM (2016) soundtrack; conversely, I was dumbfounded in seeing some random rap group, with one glitter-jeans-bedecked guy revealing his underwear of choice by deciding to not wear a damn shirt, and Run The Jewels. I mean, at best, Run The Jewels could be considered tangentially connected via the Gears of War 4 DLC but that’s a really big stretch. This odd and off-putting conglomeration is a reflection of the desultory thinking that went into this show altogether.
A cornerstone which reveals the superficiality of this show is from WHEN The Game Awards happen. This has always been a pet peeve for me: having year-end award shows when the year isn’t even over. How can you respect this year of games when not waiting to consider all of this year’s games? Now I’m aware of the Oscars' political and monetary influences, and how the red carpet walk of fame is just advertising for expensive clothes (8). But doesn’t it say something about games culture’s childish impatience when our Game Awards, and a plethora of gaming sites, hand this stuff out almost a month before the year’s finished?
Between this routine indulgence to the smattering of promised “exclusive” trailers, publishers receive the greater focus here. Instead of celebratory considerations for all ’16 games, the show utilizes itself as an extended commercial for games available during the holiday shopping season and drumming up hype for the next one. So right out of the gate, dwindling respect for these awards is a natural byproduct considering WHEN they’re happening—and WHY they are at this specific timeline.
Were they to fix this problem there’s still the hurdle of identity with its categories. Granted, there’s nothing here eclipsing the obnoxiousness of “Best Independent Game fueled by Mountain Dew” from yesteryear; however, that’s not much of a hurdle to cross. Awards like Best Game Direction don’t really present the clearest language: “recognizing a game studio for outstanding creative vision and innovation in game direction and design.” This is it. That’s all you get to go on. What’s strange is on the show’s website they have it listed as “Best Studio/Best Game Direction” (9). And when considering that four out of the five nominees were first person shooters well…you’re really starting to stretch the term “innovation” altogether, aren’t you? If you’re truly considering “innovation” for this category why not look to more fertile ground within the indie scene of this year? Certain titles like Campo Santo’s Firewatch does build on the game design of “first person walkers.”
Not only in their oversimplification, these categories had odd omissions making the production feel incomplete. Some are broken out by platform, but not all platforms. Same applies to genre and technical achievements in design. Categories like Best Mobile/Handheld Game are actually put together! Two unique ways to play, strapped with different control methods, clumped together because no one could be bothered to differentiate them. There’s a best multiplayer award, yet no recognition for best single-player campaign. Puzzle games also get the shaft. Once again, let’s compare this to film’s mass-appeal equivalent. Here’s a list of what you’d see from the Oscar categories:
-Best Actor (Lead/Supporting)
-Best Actress (Lead/Supporting)
Notice the difference? You can see that each integral aspect of filmmaking is recognized. Sure, there’s always the inevitable snub list after the Oscars are announced—challenging the notion of limiting certain categories to only five nominees, but you can still feel The Academy gave some semblance of an effort in assessing hundreds of different works released that year. But when The Game Awards have only a portion of the technical awards, a portion of the genre awards, and a portion of the platform awards, you’re left with certain groups not getting any acknowledgement; and when that attitude’s gone on for years, I can’t help but question the spirit of the competition. This is exacerbated further by half of the category winners hastily handed out by Keighley to move things along. It’s so weird hearing that lady’s voiceover announce “Overwatch also wins Best Multiplayer Game and Best eSports Game” while Blizzard developers are just beginning to trot up onstage for winning a different award. If time is such a concern strip out something like platform awards entirely to focus on technical and genre aspects.
What is the central tenet of Keighley & co.’s establishment here? When all of the background noise, like Schick Hydro Bot, random music performers, and a glut of game ads come into focus, you’re ultimately left with a husk vying for a larger pool of viewers (10) in lieu of any clear ideology.
Other year-end game awards have been capable of maintaining a singular purpose for years now. GDC has its own award setup in judging and honoring those within their rank and file. The Independent Games Festival is its own offshoot of that same core desire of GDC but with a strict emphasis on smaller games in this day and age. While limited in its categories for games, even something like BAFTA holding games in the same esteem as film and television has a clearer mission statement of what these awards represent. But The Game Awards feel like something else ninety percent of the time: devising a petulant way to celebrate games.
There’s still so much of the poison from the Spike Game Awards coursing through this spinoff. Granted, it’s not AS insufferable as its precursor, but it’s still drawing too much power from the wrong places. It’s more reflective of gamer’s consumption rather than appreciation. A celebration of game’s as profit-making products instead of inspired works of creativity.
All of this said, I can’t help but hold on to some semblance of hope. I really do like the idea of a grand game awards show with mass market appeal. Gaming having its own Oscars—stripped of the political bullshit—could be a great way to drown out old-hat stigmas against it; plus with games culture being a younger and more diverse caste of people, maybe we’d perform better at not giving awards to games’ Oscar-bait equivalents. But there has to be arduous work in reeling back on advertisements—which also means putting the kibosh on ads of games nominated in that year’s show, the general sense of impropriety between game executives involved and award winners, and actually waiting for the year to finish; last but not least, it needs to craft its own distinctive personality that honors each individual award as something meritorious instead of a stopgap between commercials.