The Game Awards were barely 15 minutes old and already we were thinking of the holiday season that’s 12 months from now rather than the present. Synth-pop band Chvrches had opened the show with their melancholic song from “Death Stranding,” but this isn’t the Grammy Awards — they were soon overshadowed by a box.
More specifically, a monolith.
Microsoft unveiled its relatively svelte, speaker-shaped Xbox Series X, due in late 2020, the company’s home console follow-up to its Xbox One-branded machines. Only the interactive industry would put a premium on tech over artistry, but if the game biz has long struggled to have an awards show earn the cultural respect of the Academy Awards, it’s largely because the community does marketing better than it does formalities.
But show producer Geoff Keighley, whose lifelong mission has been to bring a proper awards show to the game industry and apparently is its only professional to own a tie, has over six years managed to dial in on the mainstream game industry’s mix of irreverence, promotion and blustering to arrive at a show that gives developers a rare moment in the spotlight.
Sure, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez — on hand at the Microsoft Theater to unveil the game “Fast & Furious Crossroads” — received a larger applause than most, but in more than 2 ½ hours the Game Awards did its best to represent a medium so full of niches and detours that it would probably take more than the Grammys’ 84 categories to properly represent it.
Yes, commercials still take precedence. Those who tuned in saw the unveiling of Series X game “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II,” Ninja Theory’s follow-up to the ambitiously violent “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a work that aimed to tackle issues of mental health. There also was an extended segment that included a taped appearance from “The Rise of Skywalker” director J.J. Abrams, who appeared to tease a reveal of the upcoming “Star Wars” film this Saturday via gaming sensation “Fortnite.”
Yet Keighley deserves credit for giving a microphone to independent developers.
It was estimated that more than 26 million tuned in at one point last year to the Game Awards. This year, that audience saw the show pause to honor a game such as “Gris,” awarded a “games for impact” trophy for the way in which it thoughtfully handles grief and paralyzing fear. Also recognized was the odd, wild and unexpectedly topical role-playing game “Disco Elysium.”
The latter’s Helen Hindpere thanked “The Communist Manifesto” authors Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for “providing us the political education,” and “Disco Elysium” ultimately took home four awards, including prizes for narrative and top independent game. In presenting one of them, screenwriter and co-showrunner on “Westworld” Jonathan Nolan noted that when he’s asked for his favorite story of the year, more often than not “it’s a game.”
There was plenty of narrative heft for the likes of Nolan and others to dig into among the Game Awards’ nominees for game of the year. Favorite “Death Stranding,” starring Norman Reedus and from acclaimed auteur Hideo Kojima, wraps a heartwarming story about reconnecting with others amid a complicated, sometimes tense sci-fi plot. “The Outer Worlds,” meanwhile, sets its sights on capitalism and imagines a future on other planets in which the middle class has been all but eradicated. “Control” sets up ideas of a government conspiracy and then presents a series of twists until the player — and the protagonist — are struggling to figure out their role.
The prize, however, went to “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” From Software’s title set in feudal Japan that puts the emphasis on the artistry of combat. While a beautifully difficult game, it’s arguably a showcase of game mechanics over storytelling, a gamer’s game. But then again, the Game Awards, voted upon by the global gaming media (including this writer), provide plenty of moments that are for the in-crowd only: developers, for instance, who say such phrases as “Our hero is ready to defy death and escape her fate,” or trailers for games such as “Maneater,” in which a killer shark is seen flopping around a golf course aiming to eat the rich.
Shape-shifting an interactive medium into what is a pretty traditional mass-media delivery system such as an award show has always been Keighley’s largest challenge, and increasingly the awards have sought to emphasize music when connecting games to other forms of pop art. Grimes performed her new song “4ÆM” from the upcoming “Cyberpunk 2077,” a tune that emphasized her increasingly inhuman vocals amid a digital backdrop mimicking computer circuitry (romantic partner Elon Musk gave a standing ovation). Elsewhere, a full orchestra occasionally added heft to game trailers.
Linking with music is a partnership that makes sense, for as often as the word “cinematic” is used to describe games, the user choice prevalent in the interactive medium means games are often as open to interpretation as a song, their narratives shaped as much by the player’s thoughts and actions as by the creative director. Of course, sometimes musicians just have things to promote, as Green Day wasn’t on hand solely to preview an early 2020 album; the band’s music will appear in virtual-reality hit “Beat Saber.”
But when the Game Awards slowed down and stopped focusing on what’s ahead in 2020 and beyond, the show found a way to have fun with one of the most talked-about games of 2019 in “Untitled Goose Game.”
Here, the Game Awards gave us Muppets Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, with the latter trapped in virtual reality goggles and his own game, “Untitled Beaker Game.” It was Beaker versus goose, and the Muppet wasn’t faring too well. The silly yet biting humor of the Muppets and “Untitled Goose Game” aren’t too dissimilar, and not just because Beaker and goose are kindred wordless spirits. Instead, it was easy to imagine the joy in a hide-and-seek-type game that pits the fearful Beaker against the fearless goose.
There were no fast cuts, no heavy metal songs and no “coming in 2020" placards. When the Game Awards simply took a moment to honor a recent game, in turn creating a fake one that all of social media wants to play, it showed what the industry truly lacks: a mainstream event that takes a break from the hype.