It would be so easy to just tear apart The Game Awards 2016.
I stopped and allowed myself a little time for what happened to sink in; if only because there were moments that were so outright bizarre and misplaced that I could have sworn I was hallucinating, as though some mysterious force had slipped in my window at two in the morning and spiked my cup of tea with something highly illegal and definitely powerful. To talk about the giant shaving razor-come-fighting game character (in the vein of Rise of the Robots, an obscure reference that I’m guessing 99% of the audience wouldn’t have caught) out of context only further highlights what was a thoroughly baffling, totally confusing and absolutely ridiculous two hours of cynical, insistent, constant pandering and marketing that made even me forgive E3. Any year. Name it, all is forgiven.
Of course, I am reminded why The Game Awards exists; in the past, we’ve had annual big awards ceremonies for the games industry, but for the most part they were tied to GameTrailers or Spike TV. They were wholly commercialised affairs – it wasn’t about celebrating the industry, it was about making money, and the awards tended to go not to the most deserving candidates or even the best games critically, but rather the biggest selling titles in a misguided attempt to conflate quality of a product to sales figures. We all know better now.
Or do we? Because there’s one constant through all these awards shows – Geoff Keighley, The Dorito Pope himself.
In his defence, I do think that whole incident taught him there’s a limit to how much of yourself you sell out. Thing is, he’s still selling himself out far too much, and this year he turned what in the last couple of years was a promising idea of a show and turned it… well, back into the thing we hated, the thing he was hoping to escape from and the thing that only serves to undermine an industry that still doesn’t really have a big awards ceremony that anyone cares about. He went Full Dorito Pope, again, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. His profession of love for Hideo Kojima – who got the Industry Icon award (subjectively weird, but perhaps more kicking Konami whilst its down which in itself was an odd decision) – just dragged on and felt uncomfortable after a while. If I thought Keighley’s Metal Gear was going to get down with Kojima’s Solid Snake, I’d have cheered it on. Hey, it’s 2016 and we need some good man-on-man loving, considering Naughty Dog bottled Bill’s tale in The Last of Us to instead have girl-on-girl action (which wasn’t brave, people. It was pandering and marketing, there’s nothing taboo about lesbianism in entertainment mediums). But as it was… there was to be no smoochy night in a hotel room, so I just sighed and took it as it was.
There was the hard, cynical marketing. And not just of video games, or those razor blades (I know, so weird…). The new Assassin’s Creed movie, and its VR Accompaniment, got pushed hard to the point that it was obvious UbiSoft and Facebook had thrown a lot of money into this. And no, I don’t believe Assassin’s Creed will be the movie to break the Game Movie Curse. Nor do I have any inherent interest in VR, a product that’s super-expensive and a lot of us couldn’t see correctly anyway. Coupled with two back-stage presenters who were trying -WAY- too hard to be excited about things, it all looked laboured and forced and like… well… paid-for advertisements. Product Placement, front and centre.
The PS4 Online Sale was also pushed very hard. Funny how Sony needs another sale a week or so after the Black Friday Sales week. Well, not even a week, Cyber Monday was only a few days beforehand. I mean, did we really need another sale so soon after a long, protracted marketing stunt where for a week we’re encouraged to spend pretty much every penny we have because corporations are trying to shift last seasons stuff before the Winter Season comes along? What, you thought it was all about Thanksgiving? Aww, that’s cute.
Music was also pushed hard. Turns out Rae Sremmurd, who are still a thing and I don’t know why after their terrible last singles, have a new album coming out or something and so they had a set-piece here too. Not game related or anything, they didn’t even give an award or talk about their love of games or anything. Just another dire music performance – seriously, Microsoft, you guys were involved in this. Did you learn nothing from that Usher stunt a few years ago? There was a DOOM performance so obviously staged and mimed I had a good laugh, and some other rap-duo who were to utterly terrible I went to the toilet. And they were still going when I got back from my throne room.
Also, we were told this year there’d be less emphasis on trailers. We were promised gameplay, gameplay, gameplay.
I guess it was too much to hope for that Keighley would stick to that. Indeed, from Death Stranding onwards, it was clear a lot of what was shown was pre-rendered, pre-recorded, pre-production nonsense. You know, the same thing that No Man’s Sky did last year. The thing that Keighley said we needed to learn from. The thing he was adamant we weren’t going to see. Seriously, I don’t care if it’s done in-engine, a pre-recorded setpiece can get away with murder. It only needs to render the animations and the bits you can see. It doesn’t need to worry about AI, rendering an open-world, about transitional effects on the fly or anything complex that could challenge the CPU and GPU. Sure, Death Stranding was done on a PS4 Pro. And chances are you could have done that entire setpiece on a Wii U. It isn’t challenging on the hardware – so stop lying to us, Keighley and Kojima. It’s not a good look.
Of course, many of the awards were not explained well. It seemed many of these games went to the main donors, or the biggest sellers, and the awards show was so blatant about this that I almost shot a clot out of my nose. Pokémon Go won Best Mobile/Handheld Game. Alright, but against Fire Emblem: Fates and Monster Hunter: Generations? Two actual games, with tons more content, requiring much more prolonged development and with their own unique art direction? Look, I’ll defend Pokémon Go – especially as its convinced more people to buy Pokémon Sun and Moon, which is brilliant – but this was downright bizarre as a choice. Heck, Severed is a better choice and was also nominated.
By the end of it, most people I was talking to online were just sick of it and couldn’t wait for it to be over. Indeed, many didn’t wait – they checked out after the Zelda footage, gameplay teasers so brief that calling it foreplay would be a gross exaggeration. The big reveal of the night – Mass Effect: Andromeda – is already mired in controversy over its poor animations, stunted combat, curious similarities to Dragon Age: Inquisition stuff and it seems completely dropping the dialogue wheel because now they’re just going to follow their story. Absolutely amazing how little BioWare have learned in recent years.
And yes, I always keep coming back to The Dorito Pope.
Largely because this is his baby, and he has at least some control over it. The man has been doing these annual awards shows now for a decade or so, and the fact he hasn’t learned anything or even come to the point where he rightly vetoes some of the more egregious stuff… well, most people can and do learn from their mistakes. His inability to do so, taking The Game Awards down the dark paths that killed his previous awards shows outright, would be kind of funny if it weren’t so desperately depressing. Once again, we’re just struck by how little respect for the audience there is, how little respect for the medium there is – the tonal shift from the emotional award to That Dragon, Cancer (a game designed by a man whose son was and sadly did die from this crappy disease) was whiplash-inducing.
I do believe, deeply, that this industry needs an annual awards show – just perhaps not so early in December, before the much-vaunted Christmas Releases have had any time to shine. I believe this is an industry that has every right to celebrate its achievements, and its leading figures. I’m even fine admitting that the awards themselves, though they seemed very strange at times, are entirely subjective. You don’t have to agree – heck, we go through the same thing with The Brits, The Emmys, The Oscars… it’s impossible to always agree on who is more deserving of an award at the best of times. It is right that an industry as big as the games industry, which brings entertainment and enjoyment to millions of people across the world, has one night of self-congratulatory smugness. It has earned that right.
My personal viewpoint, however, is that Geoff Keighley needs to be surgically removed from the process. It is now clear to me that he is the root cause of the problem; in his hubris, his desire to make the show bigger and better, he has lost sight of celebrating the games that need to be celebrated. He is making it more and more about himself, or rather his position in the games industry, and that’s a big no-no. He is a journalist – or so we’re told – and his position should not be more important than the content. Or even making himself non-negotiable; that way lies the death of many a career.
There have been so many amazing smaller-scale games this year and so few of the ones I have played and really enjoyed this year (Furi, Salt and Sanctuary, Grim Dawn, Stardew Valley) even got a mention. Whilst I get you cannot cover all the bases, snubbing these smaller developers and focusing mostly on the big publishers and developers just comes across as missing the point, as the market rejects the “Triple-A” tier in favour for middle-market and budget offerings that are starting to outpace and out-innovate the lumbering behemoths that seem to be struggling to adapt to a new world where graphics aren’t the be-all and end-all.
Future awards need to drop the awkward marketing stunts, pick better sponsors and ultimately be punchier. Ditch the backstage nonsense, focus on the industry, have a little more focus on the lower tiers of the video game market and bin the musical interludes that aren’t at all necessary, particularly if they’re not even game-related. Celebrate games; don’t make it a time to sell games, make it a time to remind us of the many wonderful things of the past year. There’s no need for so many new game teasers – show us games we should all be going out to buy, right now. Ones we missed. Ones we need to try. Reveals should be kept to E3; that’s the right place and time for big game announcements, not the desperate rush to outshine those getting awards that night.
(It would also make E3 far more relevant again, but yeah, now I’m pointing out the obvious here and it’s making me sad.)
This will require someone with a stronger spine and stomach than Mr. Keighley has shown himself to have. Someone who can stand up to the industry and say, “No, this isn’t right. Go back to the start and try again.” It needs someone who can get the balance right between the obvious commercial interests at play – because all awards ceremonies are marketing to some degree – and the need to respect the audience in the process. It’s not impossible. I’m sure this can be done.
In doing so, maybe we can be taken seriously again as a medium. Right now, though, it needs another thorough rethinking. New eyes. Fresh ideas. An awareness of how others do these things, and how they get it right (and wrong). And then we’ll have something we can truly be proud of.
And stop treating us like we’re idiots. That Hydro-Bot thing? Keighley, that was you insulting our collective intelligence.
Would you kindly go and do fun exciting things with a chainsaw?