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Review: The Game Awards wants to take video games seriously, but is the industry ready to follow?

The Game Awards were presented live from a Hollywood soundstage.
The Game Awards were presented live from a Hollywood soundstage.
(Frank Micelotta / Picturegroup)

If video games truly want the cultural resonance of film and television, then game studios need to start acting like they’re making art.

Showing reverence to the past has not always been the game industry’s best quality. New updates and new systems have long had a tendency to render earlier works obsolete.

So maybe in this pandemic year the annual Game Awards, a life-long labor of love from producer Geoff Keighley, would take a step back and go for a calmer tone?

After all, the show booked Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to perform the somber “Future Days,” a song featured throughout “The Last of Us Part II.” And with a greater prevalence of real-life celebrities, such as Keanu Reeves, “Tenet” director Christopher Nolan and star John David Washington, “Captain Marvel’s” Brie Larson and even “Wonder Woman’s” Gal Gadot, there was an air of professionalism about the show, even if most everyone was remote.

But the Game Awards as something actually refined? Let’s not get out of hand.

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Keighley has long fought against the air of importance of the Academy Awards and is passionate that his program preview in-development games even as it honors the year that was. And thus, within the first 20 minutes of the Game Awards we were being shown a trailer for a not-yet-released game that boasts “20-foot-tall zombie monstrosities” (that’s “Back 4 Blood,” if you’re interested in that sort of thing).

Christopher Nolan and Keanu Reeves are presenting. But for Game Awards founder Geoff Keighley, putting on live show amid rising COVID-19 numbers is his biggest challenge yet.

Like the medium it celebrates, the Game Awards ceremony is a collection of contradictions, where resounding moments collide with the absurd, the silly and unfortunately often the promotional (Epic’s “Fortnite,” as we learned when “Halo’s” Master Chief was added to the game, is on the verge of losing its identity to brand partnerships).

Personally, despite happily voting in them, I wish the Game Awards were more serious. I wish they focused more heavily on games that put narrative first, and I wish they gave us deeper insight into the personalities of those who make the games.

And some of the previews definitely have me intrigued, especially “Road 96,” whose trailer took a harsh look at America, and “Season,” a game that explores a lost civilization. I also don’t deny that Keighley understands the odd mix of excitement, weirdness and flashiness that has long permeated the game industry.

The Game Awards had star power, remotely, in 2020. Brie Larson was an early presenter.
The Game Awards had star power, remotely, in 2020. Brie Larson was an early presenter.
(Frank Micelotta / Picturegroup)

But for those who got past the opening — the arrival of “Final Fantasy” character Sephiroth in Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros.” — this year’s Game Awards weren’t going to change anyone’s mind about the medium.

Keighley, of course, can’t sell newcomers on the medium alone.

Credit him for showcasing the awards that celebrate the most thoughtful games of the year on the online broadcast. He even created a “games of impact” category, which “honors socially progressive projects that have the potential to inspire real change in the world,” as Gadot put it in presenting the award.

That prize went to the deserving “Tell Me Why.” Accepting on behalf of Dontnod Entertainment/Xbox Games Studios was community manager Livvy Hall, who saluted all the games that “have used their platforms to tell stories about trans and queer people with sincerity and heart. Here’s to a future where even more marginalized people can see themselves and their experiences truly reflected in the games they play.”

But as the Game Awards quickly segued into an extended promotional preview of “Ark 2,” a game that will feature an impressively rendered Vin Diesel battling dinosaurs, I wondered if the show’s relentless focus on the future could use a little slowing down. “Tell Me Why” is one of 2020’s games that expand the interactive audience, and I longed for some extended Academy Awards-style salutes to the year’s best games.

The problem with the Game Awards isn’t Keighley’s ambition to meld awards with promotion, or even the content of the medium itself, which, like film and television, is more experimental and adventurous than the awards tell us. It’s the mainstream industry as a whole, which has the unfortunate tendency to treat video games as a product rather than art, and hurriedly wants to move on to the next thing.

No game mattered as much to 2020 as “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” But it’s not the only game that made an impact while COVID-19 kept us shut in.

Sure, it was a “get” to have Nolan introduce the game of the year nominees by comparing his movies to games — they’re both “immersive,” he said, and at least he gave lip service to the fact that “a player’s agency and choice intersect with more traditional storytelling methods” in games.

And there was little argument when “The Last of Us Part II” came away from the night with seven awards, including the top game of the year prize over “Ghost of Tsushima,” “Doom Eternal,” “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” “Hades” and the popular “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

Yet as someone who has talked with “The Last of Us Part II” director Neil Druckmann and writer Halley Gross, I know they have more to say on why the game resonated beyond the simple thank-yous they gave. I would happily spend hours talking to Druckmann and Gross about the game’s character studies and interactive narrative structure, but even the briefest reference to their insights — or their passion for the medium — went unheralded.

The reason we care about these games is because of the people who make them. We want to know more about those who care for them and the artists who try — and sometimes fail — to make games feel topical. I maintain that one reason film, TV and music get more mainstream attention than games isn’t because they’re more popular, but simply because in those mediums we’re more accustomed to talking to artists about art.

Director Christopher Nolan appeared at the Game Awards.
Director Christopher Nolan appeared at the Game Awards.
(Frank Micelotta / Picturegroup)

We need more of Naughty Dog’s Matthew Gallant and Emilia Schatz, who were separated for physical distancing reasons by a closed window, talking about the importance of accessibility and the need to remove barriers that prevent those with disabilities from playing. Such advances are worth celebrating and highlighting more deeply, especially in a year in which games became our defining medium.

If games as an art form truly want to connect on the level of film and television, it will be helpful to be able to get to know those who create these projects, and we need to be able to understand why these projects matter to them. I long for a future when the Game Awards start celebrating artists and developers rather than studios.

This is, of course, Keighley’s goal, but ultimately the Game Awards reflect the business it wants to cheerlead. And at the moment the industry seems to hold back from the sort of earnestness that gives us glimpses of an artist’s personality.

Despite the promise of seeing game creators in their homes, with little exception the Game Awards still presented an industry that’s coolly distant when it comes to talking expressively about art.

With the exception of the three-person team behind “Among Us,” in which masked developer Amy Liu was on the verge of tears in accepting the award for multiplayer game, the Game Awards, through no fault of its own, struggled at showing us the humans behind these achievements.

Ex ‘Westworld’ writer Halley Gross joins Neil Druckmann to create the unexpectedly timely story in “The Last of Us Part II” set in a virus-ravaged world

‘Tell Me Why’ breaks ground not only for its transgender lead, but for not indulging in the cliches of transphobia.

Made by American samurai-movie fans, ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ is one of the last games coming exclusively for PlayStation 4.


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