Everyone loves to hate Game of the Years. It’s all much ado about nothing.
Shakespeare’s homophonic pun about the fuss we make about ‘noting’ and ‘nothing’ just about sums up the critical but contentious role that game awards have in our collective psyche.
The reactions of incredulity, frustration, anger, pride, or joy were inevitable.
Six nominees, all excellent games in their own right, and each carrying their own meanings and baggage, up against a panel of more than a hundred journalists: a deadly concoction of differing attitudes and expectations.
Ultimately, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) clinched Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2020 (and from many other publications and award-giving bodies). These days, many media outlets, including non-gaming specific publications, such as Forbes, Empire, and Times, also bestow upon games their own Game of the Year award. Along the way, Naughty Dog and its team also picked up several other awards, much to the protestations of some, and congratulations of others.
So here’s a little secret though - all six nominees for The Game Awards’ highest honour of Game of the Year (the only category accompanied by a full orchestral medley) are worthy winners in their own right.
While games like Final Fantasy VII Remake and Ghost of Tsushima showcased excellent technical achievement and story-telling in beautifully imagined (or re-imagined) worlds, Hades and Doom: Eternal delivered high-octane action unrivalled in recent years. Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost single-handedly carried our spirits through a global pandemic, while The Last of Us Part II pushed important boundaries in narrative, representation, and inclusivity.
When faced with a pool of such excellent candidates, it is inevitable that any winner would receive an outpouring of love from its supporters and hate from its detractors - and in this case the hate is not entirely blind. Not too long after TLOU2’s sweep of seven awards at The Game Awards, critics began to question its eligibility for awards such as Best Direction, an award offered for “outstanding creative vision and innovation in game direction and design”.
Developers at Naughty Dog were reportedly put through an intense development crunch in order to complete the game in time for launch. There is, and should be, tension present when a studio wins an award for outstanding vision and direction, especially when achieving that vision requires developers to work twelve-hour shifts, work on weekends, and inadvertently sacrifice their health, relationships or personal lives.
Meanwhile, Hades developer Supergiant Games denounces crunch and has enforced breaks.
Yes, TLOU2 is a technically excellent (and beautiful) game which had some exceptionally bleak story beats. It also pushed the limits of what its audience would want to feel by unceremoniously writing off a principal character early on, and then used several reversal of fates to bring throughlines to a screeching halt - strategies often employed by celebrated writers like George R. R. Martin. These same narrative steps were deeply powerful for some, but felt like poor pacing for others. Naughty Dog achieved all this while housing 60 different accessibility options, from vibration cues for hearing accessibility to high contrast modes for vision accessibility, allowing more gamers to experience the game than can be said for any game before.
These story beats, along with its clear intent to appeal to a more diverse range of audiences, was the source of much discussion, with both sides unable to reconcile their differences of whether the game’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters constituted ground-breaking writing or was instead “pandering”. The critics voted in favour of these decisions, handing TLOU2 both the Best Narrative Award and the Innovation in Accessibility Award.
It was no surprise that a panel made of journalists and critics, who had given the game 10/10s earlier in the year, chose TLOU2 as their Game of the Year. Truthfully, their priorities for the industry are different from the everyday gamers’, who crave escapism, enjoyment, and fun - a desire amplified further by a global pandemic. Here’s a quick analogy: while Avengers: Endgame (which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture) was the cinematic event of the year for many, Parasite engaged with the higher calling of what film can do on the technical, societal and cultural levels so much more.
As a result, the closest contender in Ghost of Tsushima, which matched almost blow-for-blow with TLOU2 in the nominations department, instead clinched the Players’ Voice Award - an award determined entirely through public voting. These two games locked horns in more than one series of game awards, and it closely represents that difference between a critic’s choice and public opinion.
Apart from Ghost of Tsushima’s gorgeous aesthetics, the game was also a technical marvel with user experience innovations and razor-sharp combat mechanics/effects. The game launched without major issues (sadly a rarity these days) other than that it loaded too quickly for people to read loading screen tips (for real). Before the year closed, it even managed to add a pretty well-made multiplayer mode in Legends, wiping the sour taste of Marvel’s Avengers from our collective palates.
What further cemented Ghost of Tsushima as the better option for many fans, ironically, was the odd decision by Neil Druckmann (Naughty Dog’s Creative Director) to tweet for TLOU2 fans to “activate” and vote for his game. This resulted in a retaliation of reverse votes from the internet mob who were eager to make their opinions about TLOU2 known, and who felt that there was an overwhelming media narrative pushing for TLOU2 to win. Newton’s Third Law gave detractors of TLOU2 some avenue for schadenfreude while giving fans of Ghost of Tsushima something to celebrate and hold on to as a victory. Eventually, Druckmann removed the tweet and explained that he had meant it as a joke.
Meanwhile, there’s also a legitimate case to be made about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, not because of its technical excellence (it has infuriatingly archaic matchmaking) or the presence of any deeply engaging story (there is none). Nintendo could not have chosen a better year to release a game about escaping to a deserted island, and what Animal Crossing: New Horizons managed to do for gamers around the world during a very difficult year warrants recognition of its own.
However, bodies such as The Game Awards qualify that GOTYs are given for games which “[deliver] the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields [our emphasis]”, which makes it easy - but not necessarily “acceptable” - to see how the contenders, including a remake (Final Fantasy VII Remake), an indie game (Hades), and a no-frills shooter (Doom: Eternal) were not destined for the award.
Awards are ultimately a matter of aggregated opinion, and it would do us well to pay more attention to what we can gain from them than to focus on whether a game we liked or hated won. For example, vision, hearing, or motor accessibility options are things some don’t notice unless the need for them exists. For many who are not looking out for them, such options remain in the background until they are given the right media traction - as is the case when a notable game awards show inaugurates an Innovation in Accessibility category. While such an award does not drastically change public perception about the plot of a game like TLOU2, it does recognise the efforts developers have made to include such options, and signals to the larger gaming ecosystem that such changes are possible or even ideal.
The same can be said about the Games for Impact Award, which honors “thought-provoking [games] with a pro-social meaning or message”. Games nominated under this category, such as Tell Me Why (developed by Dontnod Entertainment of Life Is Strange fame) and Spiritfarer often go beyond simple escapism and engage deeply with social issues.
Tell Me Why, a narrative adventure game, is the first game by a major studio to feature a playable transgender character, and also engages with issues such as the juvenile criminal system. On the other hand, Spiritfarer is a construction and management simulator where one plays as the ferrymaster to the deceased, dealing with themes such as compassion, grief, death, and dying.
Such games often have smaller marketing budgets and exist on the periphery of the triple-A launches. They command less sales than many of the Game of the Year contenders, too, and the causes they represent could easily fall by the wayside as publishers chase profits and consumers gravitate toward big releases. In the history of The Game Awards, only indie platformer Celeste, which explores issues of depression and anxiety, has ever been nominated for both the Games for Impact and Game of the Year awards.
Furthermore, within the Games for Impact category every year, it would be challenging for anyone who has played more than one of the games to safely say which was the “best” game for “impact”, because our connection to such themes would undoubtedly be deeply personal. It is often the case that you see developers in this category mention the amazing work done by their fellow nominees, even as they accept their own awards. The presence of such an award signals to the public that games can be more than profits or escapism: they can be about change.
And then, there are also the occasional sleeper hits which emerge over the course of the awards season. How many gamers have heard of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, which was nominated for the Best Narrative Award for ‘outstanding storytelling and narrative development’? Visual Novels are a pretty niche genre which often exist on the edges of the collective consciousness, and it certainly raised some eyebrows when it was named alongside games such as Final Fantasy VII Remake and Ghost of Tsushima.
This is perhaps what game awards are the best for: representing the brightest stars of gaming, even if they are mobile hits such as Among Us or proverbial phoenixes rising from the ashes such as the sandbox simulator No Man’s Sky. They remind gamers that there is a world of gaming out there that exists beyond their individual tastes. For those who simply cannot stomach Battle Royales, the nomination streak of Fortnite within the Best Ongoing Game category over the years affirms the immense impact that such games have on modern society. Fortnite, which ultimately lost the award to No Man’s Sky, was the platform for a Travis Scott virtual concert with more than 12 million attendees this year.
Game awards also highlight the larger aspirations that gamers and game developers should look forward to, whether it is in areas of accessibility, aesthetic direction, or engagement with social issues. The robust debates that follow these awards also nudge us to investigate issues such as development crunch and the issue of day one patches or, in the case of No Man’s Sky, day 700 updates.
The end of the year awards season are less about classifying games as the absolute best - an impossible feat to begin with - and more about noting significant achievements and developments. It helps to highlight to us what to expect in the coming years, and to affirm the excellence that exists.
So let’s all take a step back and give our noteworthy games the fanfare they deserve, while easing up on the fussiness of who won what. After all things are considered, the awards themselves are full of sound and fury, and signify nothing.