Attendees and home viewers of the 10th edition of Spike TV’s Video Game Awards were treated to trailer after trailer for games that showcased new ways to shoot things, new places to shoot things and the post-traumatic effects of having shot lots of things. Yet despite the emphasis on blockbuster games that have yet to be released, this year’s Video Game Awards were ultimately a celebration of the little games that could.
“The Walking Dead,” a serial title inspired by the Robert Kirkman comics, was named game of the year, upsetting a host of action/suspense titles such as “Assassin’s Creed 3,” “Mass Effect 3” and “Dishonored.” Its publisher, the Bay Area’s independent Telltale Games, was declared studio of the year.
Meanwhile, L.A.’s own Thatgamecompany received three trophies for its meditative, abstract game of exploration “Journey,” including best independent game and best PS3 game. In winning the latter, it too bested such action-oriented blockbusters as “Assassin’s Creed 3” and “Borderlands 2,” titles also available for other consoles. “Journey” was a fellow game of the year nominee.
Just two years ago every game of the year contender at the VGAs was either a shooter or a hack-and-slash game. “I think there’s some fatigue in the marketplace in seeing the same types of games,” said Telltale co-founder Dan Connors outside the Sony Pictures soundstage where the awards were held.
Telltale’s style of games was first seen decades ago, as the company has dedicated itself to revitalizing the point-and-click adventure, a genre that dominated in the mid-’80s and into the early ’90s. Titles such as Sierra’s “King’s Quest” and LucasArts’ “The Secret of Monkey Island” emphasized story, dialogue and character, and Telltale, which earlier had created a new “Monkey Island” series, develops games that focus on character interaction.
The company’s growth in the last eight years also runs parallel to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. Telltale’s five episodes of “The Walking Dead” can be had for $24.99, less than half the cost of most console games, and it plays just as well on iPads as it does on an Xbox 360. Rather than dedicate its resources developing for the latest technology or creating seemingly open-world games, Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is more closely aligned with an interactive graphic novel.
There’s action in ‘The Walking Dead,” but split-second dialogue responses are more common. Instead of asking players how many zombies they can kill, “The Walking Dead” asks gamers what kind of survivor they want to be. What players choose to say and do in Episode 1 will be remembered and referenced in latter episodes, and by then it’s too late to reverse course.
“The headroom right now is in character interaction, and interacting with them in a way in which you’re not shooting them or jumping over them or stepping on their head,” said Telltale’s Connors. “There’s really not a lot of people pushing in that direction … More sophisticated characters, and characters who are intelligent, are going to change games and make games more accessible to more people. Everybody loves a good story. Not everybody loves to blow everything up.”
There are no standard-issue explosions in “Journey.” The game, which received a Grammy nomination this week for its score by composer Austin Wintory, allows players to move through a desert landscape and communicate via song. There’s no competition, per say, just exploration and flight. If “The Walking Dead” is an interactive graphic novel, “Journey” is an interactive tone poem.
“We made ‘Journey’ for you, to show you that games can be something different — independent, experimental, moving, emotional, modern, inclusive, different,” said producer Robin Hunicke when accepting the award.
If “Journey” was something of an anomaly at the VGAs, so was Hunicke. She was the one woman given prominent stage and screen time who wasn’t a) a Hollywood celebrity (Jessica Alba), b) in need of rescue (“Bioshock Infinite’s” Elizabeth) c) wearing a tank-top (“Tomb Raider’s” Lara Croft) or d) naked (“Halo’s” Cortana).
The two-hour broadcast, which paced about three awards per hour, remains a young boy’s club. Talk of weaponry dominated, as host Samuel Jackson waved around a “Halo” gun and actor Zachary Levi received applause simply for mentioning a half chainsaw/half shotgun from “Gears of War.”
There were plenty of awards given out to noteworthy games, including two to the fetchingly addictive and experimental platformer “Sound Shapes,” but most of those weren’t presented at the ceremony. Instead, Clap Trap, an obnoxiously high-pitched and borderline obscene robot from the “Borderlands” games, was granted time for an acceptance speech for character of the year.
While the Video Game Awards claim to honor the past year in interactive entertainment, the telecast largely offers a look ahead. The broadcast was dominated by teasers for 2013’s big titles, including extended looks at post-apocalyptic, father-daughter action title “The Last of Us,” the parody “South Park: Stick of Truth” and the mysterious “The Phantom Pain,” which is believed to be a red herring and was given an extended, tortuously hard-to-watch teaser featuring a disabled veteran.
There were also teasers for new downloadable content for current games, including upcoming episodes in “Halo 4’s” “Spartan Ops,” and the “Assassin’s Creed 3” add-on “The Tyranny of King Washington.” Also previewed were the latest in the “Gears of War” and “Castlevania” series.
Nominees and winners are voted upon by a panel of 25 game journalists, with the exception of fan-voted awards. Fans, for instance, voted 2004’s “Half Life 2” game of the decade.
A full list of winners is below:
Game of the year: “The Walking Dead”
Studio of the year: Telltale Games
Best Xbox 360 game: “Halo 4:
Best PS3 game: “Journey”
Best Wii / Wii U game: “New Super Mario Bros. U”
Best PC game: “XCOM: Enemy Unknown”
Best shooter: “Borderlands 2”
Best action / adventure game: “Dishonored”
Best RPG: “Mass Effect 3”
Best multi-player game: “Boderlands 2”
Best individual sports game: “SSX”
Best team sports game: “NBA 2K13”
Best driving game: “Need for Speed Most Wanted”
Best song in a game: “Cities,” Beck (“Sound Shapes”)
Best original score: Austin Wintory (“Journey”)
Best graphics: “Halo 4”
Best independent game: “Journey”
Best fighting game: ‘Persona 4 Arena”
Best handheld / mobile game: “Sound Shapes”
Best performance by a human female: Melissa Hutchison (Clementine in “The Walking Dead”)
Best performance by a human male: Dameon Clarke (Handsome Jack in “Borderlands 2”)
Best adapted video game: “The Walking Dead”
Best DLC: “Dawnguard” (“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”)
Best downloadable game: “The Walking Dead”
Best social game: “You Don’t Know Jack”
Character of the year: Clap Trap, “Borderlands 2”
Game of the decade: “Half Life 2”
— Todd Martens
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