Reviewing The Game Awards

It’s that time again. Just as our forebears gathered sheaths of grain into their storehouses to prepare for winter and the new year, so do we gamers gather the games we played during the year and recount which ones stood out the most.

It’s almost as if this kind of behavior is ingrained into us!

Sorry if that sounded a bit… corn-y! Okay, okay I’ll stop.

With prizes like The Academy Awards for film and the Pulitzer Prize for writers, it’s only natural for video games to have their own achievements and ceremonies. We want to celebrate what these game developers accomplished and congratulate those that made especially outstanding work on the medium.

Of course there are inherent flaws in making such an event. Some things could be considered “objective” when evaluating a game, such as graphical performance or principles of game design; but as an art form, there’s always a level of subjectivity as well. Even games that the industry universally calls masterpieces have several problems that can turn other people away from them. How can you say which one was definitively the best game of the year? Should you give such an award to the game with best gameplay? The best story? And how do you determine what makes up the “best gameplay” or “best story?” In that way, if you take an award show too seriously, you’re 100% guaranteed to be upset with the nominations and winners. Every single time.

It’s much better to take the game awards as an opportunity to simply celebrate the games and have fun.

But even then, you have years where the offerings are not very impressive, while other years are packed with masterpiece after masterpiece. For me, 2020 was a difficult year because very few games wowed me the same way that games from past years had. 2017, on the other hand, had multiple games that were worthy of being Game of the Year, but unfortunately they all had to compete with each other just because of the time period they were released in.

So for the fun of it, let’s review five of the biggest award ceremonies out there.

Shigeru Miyamoto receiving the BAFTA Fellowship at the 2010 BAFTA Game Awards.
  1. BAFTA Game Awards

BAFTA, or the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, began holding video game awards in 2003 as part of all of the media and performing arts achievements in any given year. These awards take place in the spring, usually in April, in London. Initially the BAFTA Game Awards divided up their awards by genres and platforms, such as best Action game or best GameCube game; however, nowadays they have very specific awards, such as best Animation Achievement and best Audio Achievement, in addition to the Best Game of the Year.

I’m happy they changed their approach. You are given very clear guidelines about what the game excelled at, and it encourages all developers to compete and outperform each other, no matter what genre or platform they are making the game for. While awards already make little sense the whole idea of “Best GameCube Game” makes absolutely zero sense. Any game system could have any number of games released that aimed for entirely different things. It would be like making a Olympic Skier and an Olympic Gymnast compete together in the Diving event. As BAFTA takes place in the U.K., there is also an award specifically for British developers. They also give a spotlight to five young game designers every year, which I think is a great way to showcase the achievement of new talent, a sort-of “who to look out for in the coming years” award.

Yu Suzuki receiving the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2019 Golden Joystick Awards for his work at Sega.

2. The Golden Joystick Awards

The Golden Joystick Awards also take place in the U.K., and is one of the longest-running game award ceremonies, beginning in 1983. They usually take place in November of any given year. These awards are decided by vote online, which set the precedent for others like the Steam awards. The Golden Joystick Awards typically have the same kinds of criteria for awards that BAFTA does, but also maintain that nebulous best game for each platform that I talked about earlier, such as “Xbox Game of the Year,” and the final “Ultimate Game of the Year”. This November, The Last of Us Part II swept many of the awards, including Best Storytelling, Best Visual Design, and Best Audio. Other games that won several awards included Hades and Fall Guys.

I generally don’t like the Golden Joystick Awards. However, the one part that I wish would catch on better is the award for Studio of the Year. They take the time to recognize a specific studio for… something? I have no idea exactly what criteria they are using. But it has great potential. We could potentially give such a token to a studio that reduced crunch and promote a healthy work environment, or promoted creativity and opportunities for diversity inclusion. That kind of award, though, has a lot of problems that come along with it. There’s no guarantee that a publisher would be transparent enough to allow accurate judging to happen. But since all awards are sham tokens anyway, it would at least prompt more discussion of crunch and show that we care about developer health.

Lucas Pope, winner of Best Downloadable Game during the 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards for his game Papers, Please.

3. Game Developers Conference Awards

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is an annual event where developers across the world can network and attend TED talks about game design, where presenters will discuss how they overcame a specific problem or used a certain mechanic. It began in 1988 and usually takes place in the spring in San Francisco. They began having an awards show in the early 2000s and have been a staple of the conference ever since. Like BAFTA, the GDC focuses on awards based on merit in a specific aspect of game development, such as Best Design or the Innovation Award. There is also a Pioneer Award, which is given to developers who have made outstanding improvements in the medium, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes a specific developer’s entire body of work as being impactful to the medium.

Other award ceremonies have a version of the Lifetime Achievement Award, but I find that the GDC one has a special weight to it. After all, if anyone is qualified to see the technical skill used in a game, wouldn’t it be game developers themselves? It makes me happy that they recognize each other in this way. However, because GDC involves developers talking amongst other developers, the conference looks a bit more stale than the others, lacking that mainstream pizzazz.

Masahiro Sakurai at the Japan Game Awards receiving the 2019 Grand Prize for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

4. Japan Game Awards

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry began hosting awards for video games in 1996 as the CESA awards, and by 2006 officially changed to the Japan Game Awards. They also take place in the spring of every year. Because the award show focuses on games developed in Japan, the ceremony takes a largely different approach than the other award shows and will often showcase very different games. The way they hand out awards is less based on categories or specific design elements, instead giving out more generic awards such as “Excellence Award,” “Grand Prize,” and “Best in Sales Award.” They also have one award for foreign developers.

I love that the Japan Game Awards allows other games to shine that the West doesn’t exactly pay attention to. For example, the original Splatoon won the Grand Prize for the Japan Game Awards in 2016, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate won in 2019. That would never happen at other awards ceremonies. Nintendo usually just becomes relegated to the Family game categories, as if a focus on gameplay over story is just for kids. The CESA Awards is a refreshing perspective in an industry that is trying maybe a little too hard to being like the Oscars.

Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi receiving the Game of the Year Award at the 2017 Game Awards for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

5. The Game Awards

Speaking of which, this is probably the closest we now have to an Academy Awards ceremony. Originally starting out as the Spike Video Game Awards in 2003 and was hosted at the end of every calendar year. Geoff Keighley was a major writer and host during these early shows, and in 2013 was highly disappointed with the direction the awards were taking. By next year Keighley had separated himself from Spike TV, invested a million dollars of his own money, and gained major backing support from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony with creating his own game awards. This first Game Awards was hosted in December of 2014 and have historically taken place in Microsoft’s Theater in Los Angeles, though this year they were, of course, hosted virtually. The Game Awards is a massive hodgepodge of awards to give out, including the best of specific game elements, the best in a genre, and the best of debut games to recognize indie developers. In addition, The Game Awards recognizes specific voice actors, as well as eSports players and even journalists and influences. Keighley takes big pains to have actors and well-known bands to perform as well in an attempt to drum up news interest.

I highly respect Geoff Keighley for all the work that must go into putting together a Game Awards that could be compared to the Academy Awards. However, I think his methodology for actually selecting nominees and choosing awards is highly flawed. Critics don’teven need to play the game to vote for it. In fact, it feels like several of them just watch Let’s Play videos to form their opinions, because there is sooo much emphasis on cinematics and story with these nominations.

Their pattern is so predictable that even if I never play them I can tell which games will be nominated and which will likely win. Basically The Game Awards boils down to the “AAA Sony Game Awards.” And if you’re not Sony and want your video game to be nominated for Game of the Year, then make sure it:

  1. Is an action game
  2. Is open-world
  3. Is cinematic, with a realistic art direction
  4. Has a strong emphasis on story
Elizabeth Dahm Wang and the leadership team of SIE Santa Monica Studio accepting the Game of the Year Award in 2018 for their work on God of War (2018).

Sorry, here I am saying that I wouldn’t get too emotionally invested, and yet I still get so frustrated with The Game Awards sometimes.

I personally don’t have a problem with cinematic games. They’re just not always for me, and they’re only a small slice of the entire interactive medium. JRPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, despite their compelling storytelling and excellent game design, have no chance of getting nominated or winning because they’re too stylized or not cinematic enough. Not to mention they’re portrayed as more “niche” and so not as many critics probably played them in the first place. As much as I want the awards to just be about casual fun, the hurt is still real when these games get snubbed.

Despite all of their missteps, when I look at all of these ceremonies, I swell with pride. I feel a lot of validation knowing that someone out there recognizes these video games and their artistic achievements. Every year it gives me pause to think about where the industry is going, and where I find myself in it. Congratulations to The Last of Us, Part II, and to the other winners this year (wait, were there any other winners?!?), and here’s to more good games to come in 2021!

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