Compared to galas honoring film, television and music, awards saluting the video game industry are a more casual, T-shirt-and-jeans affair. One should also come prepared to watch plenty of clips full of splattered blood and splintered bodies.
Yet even a young and relaxed medium has heritage acts, and it was industry legends Mario and Link (the latter the hero of “The Legend of Zelda”), who were called upon to open and close this year’s Game Awards in Las Vegas. The classic characters anchored a broadcast in which venerable video game studio Nintendo stole the spotlight from more powerful, more violent competitors.
That is, if one is judging The Game Awards by the trophies awarded.
During the three-hour event, which was shown online and on each major home video game console, previews for upcoming games appeared more celebrated than the games released in the last 12 months.
The bulk of time at The Game Awards was given to teasers for upcoming titles — imagine, for instance, if the Oscars were largely a coming attractions show — and judging by the hoots and hollers of a largely male audience what the crowd wants is even more guts and glory.
Those in attendance collectively gasped when a clip of “Metal Gear Online” showed the game’s muscular star Snake, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, jump on the back of a mech and take out its driver. Arms were raised when the demons of the Victorian action game “Bloodborne” made a sudden attack, and the moderately sized crowd inside the AXIS Theater oohed and aahed at the expansive vistas in the Wii U’s take on “The Legend of Zelda.”
This wasn’t a night of reflection; it was a time to sell. Whereas the Oscars and the Grammys may spend much of the night patting its luminaries on the back, The Game Awards come with hands outstretched and palms raised toward its audience. Trophies are even given to players, as awards were gifted to a YouTube broadcaster and an eSports champion. (While some awards are voted upon by fans, most of the categories are voted upon by a panel of journalists and critics, one of which is this writer.)
When The Game Awards brought out icon award recipients Ken and Roberta Williams, forebears of narrative-driven games and co-founders of landmark studio Sierra, Roberta was apologetic she didn’t have a product to hawk. “Sorry we don’t have anything to show you,” she said, before turning the stage over to Lindsey Rostal and Matt Korba of small up-and-coming L.A. studio The Odd Gentleman, who previewed their blithely animated reboot of Roberta’s “King’s Quest” franchise.
The crowd gave Ken and Roberta a standing ovation, and the two received a passionate introduction from Naughty Dog designer Neil Druckmann, who spoke of learning English in Israel to Sierra’s games. It was not only a rare appearance from the couple, who are retired from games, but a rare Friday night inspirational speech from a designer.
One by one, designers dedicated their speeches to the fans, and designers largely came dressed as fans (rarer than a game without guns, apparently, is a video game executive with a sport coat). “This is really an award that belongs to our fans,” said Mark Darrah, executive producer of “Dragon Age Inquisition,” which took game of the year honors. “We are gamers,” said Damien Monnier, a senior designer of CD Projekt Red, which was presenting a preview of its latest game in “The Witcher” series.
After a while, the appeals to fans created the sensation of an industry with Stockholm Syndrome, one that is held captive by a desire to please its audience. There were other unfortunate moments, such as the fact that Roberta Williams, at two hours into the telecast, was the first woman of the night to appear on stage.
Dig beneath the gaudy surface, however, and there were indications of a forward-thinking medium. Electronic Arts, for instance, revealed that it is working with the principals behind 2013 indie delight “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” to publish a new title. Fullbright, the studio behind last year’s “Gone Home,” a patient exploration into the secrets of one family, teased its in-development sci-fi mystery “Tacoma” to pin-drop silence.
Each moment was indicative of an industry recognizing a maturing audience looking for experiences beyond shoot-em-ups. As were some of the awards. “Valiant Hearts: The Great War,” an emotional World War I adventure, topped the more well-known “South Park: The Stick of Truth” and first-person shooter “Wolfenstein: The New Order” in the narrative category. “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,” a free-to-play digital card game, and one that places limits on player-to-player interaction to create a more friendly community, was recognized in the mobile/handheld field.
Still, amid the noise Nintendo stood out and took top honors in the form of publisher of the year. Wii U titles “Mario Kart 8” and “Super Smash Bros.” were also recognized in the sports/racing, family game and fighting game categories.
As games increasingly have complex, narrative ambitions, Nintendo’s triumphs were a hearty vote for the enduring power of family-focused charm. Even the retro-styled “Shovel Knight,” which is modeled after Nintendo games of yore, won the top independent game prize, besting the ornate puzzles of “Monument Valley” and the flashy, sci-fi noir of “Transistor,” among others.
Yet it was one simple comment from Nintendo’s Eiju Aonuma that served as evidence the growing medium is still finding ways to make its games smarter and more approachable. Speaking in a filmed segment to introduce the new “Zelda” title, Aonuma bragged that he did not need to control Link when the character was riding a horse.
At first, this seemed surprising. After all, this is an interactive medium. Why take away control from the player? Shouldn’t the player be steering the horse?
Aonuma had an answer without being asked. “Real horses,” he said, “don’t run into trees.” The Game Awards may be on the more lighthearted end of the spectrum, but the show is still capable of dropping a few truths.
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