There were some very exciting events at 2018’s Video Game Awards. The Epic Games Store is launching with a playable build of Supergiant’s newly-revealed HADES as a flagship title. Dragon Age and Far Cry announced upcoming entries in their respective franchises, Obsidian and Hello Games revealed new properties, and CS:GO of all games is getting a battle royale mode. I have no idea what SAYONARAWILD HEARTS is, other than the devs describe it as a mixture of OUTRUN, WARIOWARE, TRON, and Carly Rae Jepsen, but I am definitely here for it.
Such is the hype generated around these trailers that one could be forgiven for forgetting that The Game Awards also hand out trophies and honors for the most distinguished titles that already came out this year. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Ed Boon came onstage to announce the winner of “Best Sport/Racing Game,” only to instead hijack the jumbotron with the reveal cinematic for MORTALKOMBAT 11. It’s this dissonance between celebrating games and selling them that is primarily responsible for my ambivalence towards the ceremony.
The brainchild of pundit-turned-personality Geoff Keighley, The Game Awards held its fifth annual ceremony last Thursday in Los Angeles. Ostensibly the gamer’s answer to the Academy Awards, Keighley’s show is designed to honor the most significant achievements within the industry, not just for developers, but for writers, performers, composers, and gamers as well. Incidentally, it is also one of the biggest nights of the year for publishers to tease audiences with glimpses of their coming attractions.
It shouldn’t be news to anybody that the medium of video gaming has grown at a staggering rate over the past 30 years, let alone the last five. The game industry dwarfs both film and music combined, and its icons have become more recognizable than any comic book hero or cartoon character. RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 recently hit shelves with the highest grossing opening weekendfor any entertainment product in history.
As an artistic institution, however, video games still have a long way to go. It’s an industry that faces plenty of criticism for its lack of representation, both on and off the screen. Game creators lack the star power of actors, directors, or musicians, and the publishers that sponsor them are surrounded by a corporate air that somehow feels more commercial than monoliths like Disney or Netflix. Even on this very publication, the merit of the medium itself has been called into question. I’m not proud of having a hand in that last bit, but it is indicative of the perceptions many still have of this relatively new artform.
The Game Awards face a similar narrative. As awards shows across the board dip in ratings, the TGAs have witnessed their viewership spike over its short lifespan: this year’s show was streamed by over 26 million people, double last year’s number. Held in the Microsoft theater, the ceremony itself was a grand production; this year saw orchestral performances conducted by Hans Zimmer, a stage planned by Super Bowl Halftime Show designers, trophies crafted by WETA Workshop, and plenty of celebrity presenters. It was nothing if not a spectacle.
However… winning a Game Award does not carry the same prestige as a Golden Globe or Oscar. Part of that may have to do with the fact that the TGAs don’t have an established academic institution supporting it. Nominees are selected by representatives from the largest publishers and manufacturers, while the actual votes are cast by a panel of handpicked gaming critics and journalists. If the winners of the TGAs are simply an aggregate of opinions from leading outlets, it’s no wonder that the most acclaimed games are quicker to advertise themselves as winners of BAFTAs, or the GOTY on GameSpot or IGN, than they are as TGA recipients.
It also doesn’t help that the ceremony feels as much of a showcase for upcoming content as it does a celebration of the year’s highlights. There’s more buzz on Twitter about the PERSONA 5 protagonist appearing as a guest character in SUPER SMASH BROS ULTIMATE than there is regarding GOD OF WAR winning the honor of Game of the Year. If these reveals are what drive the TGAs viewership, what really separates it from a major trade show like E3?
And yes, The Game Awards also emulate the worst aspects of shows like the Oscars. Cringeworthy skits put on by announcers, some even more unbearable acceptance speeches, and the relentless theatrics all make The Game Awards far longer than necessary. Were it not for those game reveal trailers, the show would simply be unwatchable in its current form.
But despite all of this, I don’t believe The Game Awards are a flawed concept. On the contrary, it’s probably one of the best things to happen to the industry in recent memory. From standout indie titles like CELESTE and INTO THE BREACH getting much-deserved exposure, to more marginalized developers and talent getting their turn in the spotlight, the TGAs are at least making an effort to debunk the commercialized atmosphere permeating the industry that they themselves are somewhat complicit in.
While those trailers were nice, they aren’t what The Game Awards got me the most excited for. That heavily-stacked indie lineup, both among the reveals and the nominees, reflects an earnest desire to give smaller developers a platform. The Epic Games Store, with its 88:12 revenue split, is an enticing lead for anyone who wants to join the ranks of said smaller developers. Even among the titans of the industry, the horizon looks bright. With the figureheads of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony sharing a stage together,one can easily imagine a future where the three major console manufacturers can continue to work in cooperation.
And while it isn’t a necessary step for the show’s continued growth, it would be absolutely spectacular if The Game Awards and events like it eventually led to the creation of an organized body of game makers dedicated to advancing the craft. I don’t say this for the sake of having a central critical authority within the industry, mind you—God knows I don’t rely on AMPAS to tell me what the best movie of the year is—but rather to have a body that, like The Game Awards, can stand independent of the factionalism and cutthroat competition that we see in console wars and publisher one-upmanship. Like so many other things in gaming, I’m confident that The Game Awards have a lot yet to offer gaming, but in the meantime, the teasers will have to do.