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Game Awards, with audience in the millions, must now be bold and address industry issues

"Star Wars Eclipse" was shown as one of the in-development games at the Game Awards.
“Star Wars Eclipse” was shown as one of the in-development games at the Game Awards.
(Quantic Dream / Lucasfilm)

The Game Awards began this year with an opening that might have launched the Grammy Awards.

Sting, who has more than 40 Grammy nominations, is someone we would consider an awards show regular, but he was performing for the first time at the Game Awards, here at L.A.'s Microsoft Theater to show off his maudlin song “What Could Have Been” from the hit “League of Legends"-inspired Netflix series “Arcane.”

Have the Game Awards finally made it? Has the game industry, at long last, reached its classic rock moment?

Not quite. Sting, like much of popular culture, is late to the game. Last year’s show garnered more than 83 million global livestreams. And Sting’s opening performance Thursday was the one of the few times the Game Awards looked to the past.

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In its first 30 minutes the Game Awards spent more time on an extended preview clip of “Hellblade 2" and an early-in-development “Star Wars” game than it did on the year’s accolades or celebrity luminaries. That continued throughout the night, with teases for previously unannounced games, a “Sonic the Hedgehog 2" film trailer and an update to the nearly impossible-to-play game “Cuphead,” soon to be a Netflix series.

The Game Awards (for which this outlet votes) can be knocked as a marketing show, but they’re primarily a look ahead, a celebration of those who love games and want to know what’s coming rather than sit on the couch and watch a party they weren’t invited to.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t business to attend to.

With “Arcane,” its in house-produced animated show for Netlflix, Riot aims to put games at the center of the entertainment universe.

The 2021 Game Awards arrive at a time of continued soul-searching for the industry amid recent walkouts at Activision Blizzard regarding workplace harassment lawsuits and the revelations that followed

As much as games may be the industry’s most dominant medium, with estimates counting more than 227 million players alone in the U.S., according to the industry’s trade group, reducing them to marketing endeavors fails to take the medium seriously as art and perpetuates the myth that developers aren’t creatives on par with better-known celebrities in film, television and music — the Stings of the world.

While no one expects the Game Awards to necessarily represent the best that the industry has to offer — for that, look to smaller events like IndieCade or the Game Developer’s Choice Awards — they still reflect the pulse of the industry. Host and founder Geoff Keighley took a moment out of the intro to nod to what has been happening at Activision Blizzard, but declined to single out the studio by name or offer any specific steps of action.

“We can’t ignore the headlines that are out there,” Keighley said, not mentioning that an Activision Blizzard executive is a Game Awards advisor. “Game creators need to be supported by the companies that employ them. I think we all we all agree with that. So let me just say this before we get to any of the news or announcements or awards: We should not and will not tolerate any abuse, harassment and predatory practices by anyone, including our online communities.”

The space opera fantasy returns in ‘Halo Infinite’ with Master Chief, a grappling hook, cheesy dialogue and a gorgeous vast world that’s pulpy and timeless.

It wasn’t quite the reckoning we’ve seen come to other award shows. The Golden Globes lost their television home for at least a year while the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. addresses major financial and ethical lapses and the Academy Awards have struggled with their own issues of diversity and multiple #OscarsSoWhite campaigns. But even one of the industry’s most outspoken characters, Josef Fares, was relatively muted when accepting a surprise game of the year win for his fantastic divorce focused cop-op “It Takes Two.”

“if you don’t have children, go get them,” Fares said, thanking his family for the win.

But one shouldn’t simply single out the Game Awards and Keighley’s attempts to walk a narrow line. As the winners were read off — PlayStation 5 game “Returnal” for action, “Guardians of the Galaxy” for narrative — developers sidestepped any serious issues, largely thanking their teams and the players and reflecting the industry’s unbecoming corporate stripes. The Academy Awards this is not, as awards show speeches are a necessary piece of the format rather than anything performative.

And don’t come to the Game Awards looking for activism.

Nope, here Guillermo del Toro was given as much time to speak as any developer for his decidedly un-game-like film “Nightmare Alley,” based upon the twisted vintage book by William Lindsay Gresham. Still, Del Toro ignited as much talk as any game trailer by simply telling pal Hideo Kojima, via prerecorded video clips, that he hoped for another “Silent Hill” game (the director and the game designer were once connected to collaborate on the franchise).

A two-player conversation about the nature of gaming during a deep dive into Electronic Arts’ ‘It Takes Two,’ a game that raises questions on how we fall apart.

And when Nintendo’s action-horror title “Metroid Dread” won the action adventure trophy, we didn’t get the developers, but rather Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser offering hit-the-snooze-button marketing talking points. Then we got a trailer for an upcoming “Star Trek” game called “Resurgence,” as well as the “Fortnite"-inspired wrestling-leaning brawler “Rumbleverse.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that a highlight of this year’s Game Awards was a preview of the upcoming Paramount+ series inspired by “Halo,” which preceded the game direction winners (“Deathloop”), largely for the way in which it made an effort to bring some humanity to hero Master Chief. Or dare we say it, the appearance by Sting, or even a performance from Imagine Dragons that briefly celebrated indie studio Supergiant Games before showcasing the band’s rhythm-less tune from “Arcane,” “Enemy.”

When it came time to award the night’s final prize for game of the year — won by “It Takes Two"— it was preceded by a new clip from “The Matrix Resurrections,” with the film’s co-star Carrie Anne Moss asking if it’s now fair to ask “What is a game and what is a movie?” Maybe, but that’s a more philosophical question than most awards shows are apt to handle, especially one not only upstaged by its real-world counterparts, but ceded the floor to Hollywood players.

After all, when given a microphone it’s actors and not game developers who typically have something to say.

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

It has star power (Gal Gadot and Keanu Reeves presented awards), and compared to the Oscars and Emmys, its audience is growing exponentially. Game Awards creator Geoff Keighley weighs what’s next.


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