In December 2015, for the second time, a group of 30 gaming journalists from all across the world, as well as countless gaming industry veterans and assorted big shots gathered for an end-of-the-year event in which to reward whichever game studio produced the best game of the year. This practice is nothing new, with most gaming magazines and even fan forums having their own contests every year. But seeing how The Game Awards are trying to emerge as the leading authority on this subject by bringing together professionals from across the entire gaming media we should take a moment and try to scrutinize not only their decision process for choosing The Game of the Year, but the very concept of picking a single game and declaring it the best of the year, as well as this tradition’s relevancy in the modern gaming industry.
The Problem with the Industry
The toxicity of the GamerGate scandal has quickly reached a point where anyone can be excused for not wanting to delve even the lightest into that Internet cesspit, but it should nonetheless be seen as proof that there is a general feeling of distrust regarding the gaming media. While consumers and even some of the journalists flaunted a litany of faults that the gaming media stands accused of in the High Court of Internet Opinion, the main grievance, and by far the most legitimate one, was the uneasy relation that exists between the gaming industry and the gaming media. Unlike in other journalistic areas the gaming press doesn’t even pretend to be the ideal watchdog that keeps its item of interest accountable, but more of an extension of the large publishers’ PR departments.
There is little surprise then that every year, like clockwork, the winter season of Christmas discounts and end of the year rankings is accompanied by a distant grumble that can be heard coming from various gaming communities. It’s true that many of the protests are little more than tantrums thrown by fans of the games that did not get to sit at the top of one magazine or another’s yearly list, but sometimes the objections tend to be more abstract and refer to the very concept of a Game of the Year award. Given the above-mentioned borderline incestuous relation between the gaming media and the industry that it covers, an increasing number of gamers see the GOTY awards not as monolithic recognitions of greatness similar to what the Oscars or the Nobel Prize are for their respective mediums, but more of a self-congratulatory end of the year party that the industry throws for itself.
Because of the sale trends of most video games being very strictly tied to the few weeks following release, with negligible long-term trails, one would assume that getting a GOTY award wouldn’t really offer much in ways of sale boosts except for the games that are being released around the holidays. However, in our age of digital distribution, where many gamers wait for Steam sales to grab the games that aren’t among their most expected, receiving this sort of critical attention can work towards prolonging the sale half-life of a game. And with a financial advantage being possible as consequences of these awards, suspicions naturally increase.
What is a GOTY award even for?
The first thing we need to establish is what a GOTY award tries to establish. Is it trying to symbolically reward the creators of the most complete artistic and mechanical achievement of the gaming world? Is it trying to give a seal of approval to a product that should be purchased by every gamer in that particular year? Or is it a way of saying that buying that game is the best investment a gamer can make? If we take those three questions as possible reasoning for the award, we might end up with three different games that would top the list.
Then there is the issue of gameplay diversity. To make an obvious comparison to films, while a Werner Herzog documentary and the latest Pixar flick are very obviously going to be different in spirit from one another, they will both clock in at about one and a half hours and carry the same ticket price, and yet few would imagine comparing them in any meaningful way. How is it then so easily accepted that we try and compare a game like Witcher 3, with its 100+ hours of meticulously crafted content with an aesthetically pleasing, but otherwise dull game like last year’s Armikrog that takes most players around 4 hours to complete? And that is to say nothing of games like the venerable Civilization series or any sort of rogue-like that don’t have a quantifiable number of content hours, of comparing games that offer multiplayers versus single-player experiences or games from different platforms. Simply put, despite being taken as granted, the very concept of choosing a single game every year to call that year’s “best” from a pool as diverse as the gaming medium offers is bizarre.
The Game Awards as Industry Standard
The GOTY award given off at the end of the year by one magazine or another can be seen as an intimate communication between that magazine and its readers, who presumably continue to read that particular magazine because their tastes seem to be more in line with those of the editors, a symbiotic relation that probably also carries a certain amount of influence on the editorial staff’s decisions. That is why the concept behind The Game Awards is such an interesting one, its all-stars jury made up of 30 gaming journalists from publications from all around the world, offering an alternative to single entity awards. First of all, it goes a long to towards dispelling the aforementioned accusations of complicity between media and industry, not because it makes it impossible, but with such a large array of professionals from diverse backgrounds, it’s very unlikely all loyalties will point towards the same direction.
It seems that the entire idea behind The Game Awards is to create a more legitimate authority of game recognition, one that goes beyond the readers of a single media outlet. In the same way in which it surely nice for your movie to be considered The Guardian’s best movie of the year, but it’s obviously not an Oscar, the people behind The Game Awards realized that the gaming industry lacks this sort of interstitial forum for recognizing the industry’s achievements. The fact that the awards are presented not just through a webpage and a digital ribbon, but as an actual Los Angeles ceremony complete with next year’s sneak peeks or musical performances proves that the movie industry model served as an obvious inspiration.
For their second edition, The Game Awards jury chose 5 games as their finalists for the GOTY award and with the exception of the token whimsical Japanese game from a beloved franchise, which proved to be Super Mario Maker this particular year, all the other four games are AAA third-person action games with varying degrees of RPG elements. In all fairness, this could have more to do with the state of the industry in 2015 than with the jury’s decision.
Most of the nominees are uncontroversial, Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V, Super Mario Maker and The Witcher 3 all being showered with near-unanimous praise by the media professionals and being thoroughly enjoyed by their fan base. But one can’t help but wonder however if Fallout 4, with its lukewarm critical reviews and downright divisive status among the public would have been here if it wasn’t part of the illustrious franchise. Highly criticized for its decision to scrap the dialogue system in favour of a Simon Says-type emotion wheel that takes away almost even the last bit of agency from the players, Fallout 4 is a fun game, but doesn’t really meet any criteria for being hailed as the industry’s greatest achievement of the year. In fact, seeing how much hype it managed to ramp up prior to its release, it seems that its place among the GOTY nominees was achieved mostly through the sheer force of it being expected to do so.
Kickstarter success Pillars of Eternity and indie-darling Undertale were better received by both critics and the public, but they only manage to appear as nominees in the Role Playing Game and Indie Game categories, respectively, due to their lack of AAA status that seems to be a prerequisite for even being taken into consideration for the GOTY award. It’s a shame that this is still going on and that in this post-Minecraft era the industry is keen on celebrating games that don’t conform to the big name/big budget paradigm, but still keeps placing them at the kids’ table.
It would have been not only a surprise, but an injustice for any other game to win the GOTY award ahead of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It’s the sort of success story that the gaming industry celebrates, despite enabling the conditions for it in the first place. The no-name Eastern European game studio making an action RPG based on a fantasy series virtually unheard of outside of Poland by using the already pretty dusty Aurora engine (Neverwinter Nights) was largely ignored by the mainstream gaming media back in 2007. It silently garnered a fanbase in Europe which expended to the rest of the world with 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings and just 9 years after the original game they are considered among the big players on the RPG development scene, having developed a game that many see as having revitalized the role playing genre.
Has The Witcher 3 fit all the criteria that we discussed as potential reasoning behind the idea of a Game of the Year? Maybe not, but it surely checked more boxes than any other game this year. It created a huge, sprawling world with gorgeous visuals without sacrificing the storytelling parts that make or break this sort of game. Moreover, it managed to do what only a handful of modern-day RPGs achieved, namely to pleas both old-school fans of the genre of the kind that last enjoyed a game in 1998 and new-comers who can’t remember a time before pixel-shading.
Bringing together important members of the international gaming press rather than focusing on a certain outlet does give more legitimacy to an award. For example, despite the incalculable contributions to gaming history and development that came from Europe or Japan over the years, the industry still seems to carry a distinctly American bias, yet having The Game Awards jury made out of a diverse group of media insiders is definitely a step in the right direction. The fact that a European game won the 2015 contest might be unrelated to this necessarily, seeing how The Witcher 3 received unanimous praise from all parts of the world, but it still stands in contrast to the de-facto segregation of the ‘90s and ‘00s, when games that were incredibly popular in Europe, such as the German-made Gothic series, struggled to get even a passing mention in the American media.
Furthermore, there is something in me that enjoys this sort of event that goes to the trouble of organizing a proper gala somewhere in L.A. in an attempt to make the award seem more grounded in reality, rather than some internet musings. First of all, historically, the video game industry had much more to gain by copying the movie industry than the other way around and second of all there is something inherently pleasing about knowing that most people at this gala that tries to be glamorous and cool are actually incurable computer game nerds who probably feel awkward throughout the whole event.
Unfortunately, as a cursory analysis of the GOTY nominees proves, The Game Awards doesn’t manage to completely change the paradigm and still functions as a popularity contest among the big players of the industry, with games that don’t come with an enormous advertising budget only being acknowledged in their respective sub-categories.
As long as we consider production value the most important aspect of a video game and place it over innovation, inspiration or artistic merit, we really have no right to be upset at those who see games as consumer goods and not as an art form.