Obviously I love looking back at movies, games, books, television series – darn near anything under the umbrella term “media” – and celebrating what makes them so memorable. Heck, that’s effectively the mission statement of this blog.
Awards shows seem purpose-made to do just that, so in theory I should be completely and totally on-board with them.
Turns out: not so much.
And it’s not because the Oscars seem to categorically blow off the entire category of animated films, which I find to be an ongoing source of embitterment.
…okay, so that’s part of it.
There’s the obvious sticking point about all the pomp and circumstance involved, which can feels almost more about spotlighting the personalities of the celebrity presenters than about highlighting all the technical, artistic, and professional achievements that everyone is there to award. Which, to be fair, you can’t really nag The Game Awards about that too much that this year, since from what I hear they did a much better job at highlighting the nominees, especially through their choice of music featured by the live orchestra. Regardless, it’s a bit of a recurring symptom of awards ceremonies.
You could also argue that the implied focus on looking back makes the reveal of – let me check my notes – sixteen new games during the show feel invasive, like they’re elbowing their way into our attention in order to feed the Perpetual Hype Machine instead of cooling our heels for a second and appreciating what we’ve already been given. Which, yes, I get it, Sayonara Wild Hearts looks deadly stylish and I’m very excited for what Obsidian is doing with The Outer Worlds, but I’d prefer to have discovered them during another venue; injecting them here feels like these upstage a show that was built to honor other works.
And you could complain that they go on far too long for what they are (three hours?), or in the other direction that there’s not enough time to reasonably and properly give a respectful highlight to every nominee (leaving many swept aside, so to speak), or especially that the nominations repeatedly gravitate toward a handful of wide AAA releases each year. All valid problems.
But there’s a more fundamental problem with these shows, I feel, which kind of puts a damper on the whole shebang:
The nomination categories themselves aren’t especially useful.
I mean, just look at these three from the “Best Art Direction” category. They’re barely even running in the same race:
All three of them are very distinct, and deserve praise within the same broad discipline, sure, but they’re also doing their work in such wildly different ways that drawing any direct comparison between the three just doesn’t really do any of them any favors. Even if you add the other contenders up there, you end up pitting historical fiction against a total re-imagining of a mythological setting, for which you would have to refer to people with two different graduate degrees to validate their accuracy.
It’s like comparing an oil painting to a molded urn to a carefully-cultivated bonsai. All technically “art direction”, certainly, but none of the three nominees above are really crafted using the same tools or mindset, and you can understand on an intuitive level why they’re not typically displayed in the same space in a museum.
Okay, that’s one example, and the most visually-illustrative one. But you can raise largely the same point of contention with a wide swath of the remaining categories in one word:
Genres have never really had clear lines between them, and nowadays, it can be increasingly unclear what falls into which bin, with many, many games dabbling in both.
Choosing an example from this year’s awards again, let’s look at three of the “Best RPG” honorees:
The bottom two of these (Pillars of Eternity II and Dragon Quest XI) represent two distinct approaches on role-playing video games (Western and Japanese) that have been on somewhat separate tracks for decades now, which imperils this category from step one. But then you have Monster Hunter World between them, which doesn’t feel a thing like either – and should it even qualify?
The moment-to-moment gameplay in Monster Hunter handles much more like a carefully-paced, mission-based action game than either style of RPG, to be sure (“action” being another category that can feel like a crowded grab-bag). And while there is stat-based character progression and equipment management to degrees far beyond what’s present in most modern action-adventure games, it also doesn’t indulge in the usual role-playing loop of directly “leveling up” your character, learning new active skills, or even interacting with NPCs to drive much of a story – heck, the most recent Assassin’s Creed is more RPG-like in all three of those respects.
So, technically, yes, it has all the elements of a Role-Playing Game; but functionally, no, it isn’t built nor perceived as the normal conception of one? Still, its structure and crafting loop is so unlike the other contenders in an action category that they don’t belong in the same box, either, which leaves us with no peers against which you can reasonably do a point-by-point comparison. But hey, let’s try and do that anyway, because we have to arbitrarily choose one as “best” every year.
God help us if we should have to put Katamari Damacy into a similar box.
Again, there’s an intuitive reason why the closest that most film awards shows get to a real genre-specific category is “Documentary” – it’s the easiest one to put a set of qualifiers on by a country mile, and even that can have some edge cases.
We’re even seeing a bit of this same genre-blending problem creep into the mass-market movie space with next year’s The Lion King: it’s purportedly filmed using green screens and techniques based in live-action techniques, but what seems to be every single asset in it conceived by way of animation, albeit in a photorealistic way. So does it qualify for an animated picture or not?
And a better question: are we going to bother to split that hair, or just be grateful that James Earl Jones is back as Mufasa, because no human could hope to fill his shoes?
I tend to get antsy when I try to compare any two works as their wholes; instead, I find it more useful to aim at very particular, like-minded elements, and of just two or three works at a time. It’s that very reason why my essays here key in on more specific themes and takeaways from any given subject, and why I’m not comfortable writing (let alone ranking) a “Top 10” list of anything.
Putting any one over the other not only shortchanges whichever work is just slightly less knock-your-socks-off fantastic, but it also implies that the two are so alike that their comparative quality becomes quantifiable. And that’s just almost never the case.
So let’s just give them all a round of applause for their ingenuity.
They’re good games, Brent.