Shouldn’t the Game Awards be about more than just hours of trailers?

Believe it or not, this issue marks a year of Pushing Buttons. However long you’ve been a subscriber, I wanted to say thank you so much for reading. Whether I’ve been chewing over the week’s gaming news, philosophising over what games can offer us in times of crisis or just writing (again) about how brilliantly creepy Zelda: Majora’s Mask is, putting this newsletter together has consistently been a highlight of my working week. I try to bring you a balance of analysis, opinion, reminiscence, recommendations and good old-fashioned journalistic storytelling, but if you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see more of in this newsletter, hit reply and tell me. And if there are any guest writers you’d like to see in your inbox in 2023, let me know who they are and I’ll try to make it happen.

When the first issue went out, the world was still emerging tentatively from Covid-19 lockdowns, when video games had been a vital social lifeline for millions. The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt in the games world; 2022 was full of games that were delayed as studios scrambled to adapt to remote working, and I played more than one big-budget game this year that bore the unmistakeable signs of a rush to the finish. The industry also made less money this year, after unsustainably rapid pandemic-fuelled growth in 2020. In other ways, though, it’s been a slow return to business as usual, as the industry hype machine stirred back to life.

The main engines of that hype machine are the big news and marketing events that have traditionally punctuated the gaming year: E3, Gamescom and, to a lesser but increasing extent, December’s Game Awards. Insistently billed by host Geoff Keighley over the years as the video game Oscars, they are now in their ninth year, and last week’s show was at least as much about advertising as it was about the awards themselves. Over a three-hour show, I reckon two hours was either adverts or trailers – which are still, ultimately, adverts, just more interesting ones. I struggled to make it through the whole thing, though the announcements of Hades 2 and a new entry in FromSoftware’s Armored Core mech sci-fi series were welcome surprises.

I’m not about to criticise Keighley for taking large sums of money to fit in an announcement of, for instance, a partnership between PUBG and a food delivery service into the show. I did not expect anything different, to be honest. It’s fun to have some gaming announcements to brighten up December. It is also fine to have a glitzy, money-saturated ceremony that celebrates and awards gaming’s creatives for their work: this is one of the most profitable creative industries in the world, after all, and why shouldn’t it put on a show. I remain unsure, however, that those two things should be the same event. They sit uneasily together.

The Game Awards has the same problem as the much longer-running Golden Joysticks, now in their 40th year and arguably better placed to claim the title of the Oscars of video games, in that it is at heart a money-making exercise. It is very difficult to feel very much when you watch them – unlike, say, the Baftas, which are smaller-scale and less obviously profit-oriented, and which do genuinely feel like a celebration of gaming creativity. That’s partly because the voting system allows indie games to compete on a level footing with the commercial giants of the industry, and often win.

Most of the winners of the Game Awards did not even appear on stage to collect a trophy and make a speech, as the categories had to be hurried through to make space for yet more trailers. Yes, it’s boring to watch a bunch of people receive awards, but ultimately, is this show for the creatives it is ostensibly celebrating, or for viewers baying for entertainment? I don’t think it knows. The Baftas might be a more meaningful awards ceremony, but they pulls in a minuscule fraction of the viewership – 1.5 million compared to 85 million. With that in mind, the Game Awards succeeds brilliantly on the terms it sets for itself.

As Lewis Gordon pointed out in his write-up of the show, The Game awards is symptomatic of a games industry that is perpetually fixated on hype, and on the future. This is, however, increasingly irrelevant to how most people actually experience games. You might play Elden Ring for six months, or Destiny for three years; you might be enjoying The Witcher 3 – which is nearly ten years old – on PS5 or Xbox Series X, where it’s just been released. The pace of technological change has slowed and we’re not witnessing giant leaps every three or four years any more; we’re not continually looking at what’s next, at the expense of what’s here right now.

The best moment of the show, unquestionably, was when Al Pacino gave Christopher Judge a big hug before Judge made an unwieldy, heartfelt 10-minute speech on accepting the award for best performance. I think it’s telling that this is a scene that would have been more likely at the actual Oscars. Actors are, kind of by definition, interesting to watch – unlike game developers. We’re never going to get a moment equivalent to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock live at a video game awards show. At best we might get a disgruntled subtweet. For better or for worse, the celebrities in the gaming world are streamers and YouTubers, not developers. And when those folks fight each other, they sell tickets.

What to read

What to play

It’s absolute tumbleweed on the release schedule right now, but The Forest Quartet caught my eye. It’s about the spirit of a singer haunting her former bandmates, but in a sweet way, not a life-ruining way, helping them to overcome their grief anddemons to play her a farewell concert. The jazz soundtrack and moody woodland setting are perfect for a chill December evening, and even though the subject matter is heavy, it’s handled beautifully, and has the flavour of lived experience.

Available on: PlayStation 4, PC Approximate playtime: 2 hours

What to click

‘Why can’t anyone make a decision?’ My first time as a D&D Dungeon Master

Dwarf Fortress review – a grand chronicle of inevitable disaster

Infinite lives: the company saving old arcade machines

US agency moves to block landmark merger of Microsoft and Activision Blizzard

Question Block

Regular reader Iain asks today’s question:

“So the final boss has been defeated, the world has been saved and your heroes can bask in the warm glow of success as you watch the credits scroll. But now: do you want to start again on New Game Plus? It was hard enough the first time! Why suffer more?”

Iain, I’m with you on this. But then I almost never replay games – my brain likes novelty. The idea of playing the same thing again with all your hard-earned skills and abilities intact, but this time more difficult, is baffling to me. However! Sometimes there is some reward for embarking on a game again, beyond just the opportunity to expend more hours: in Dark Souls, Elden Ring and other FromSoft games, you have the chance to experiment with a different character build, and to see all the story stuff you never encountered first time around. And, infamously, the Nier games actually need to be completed on New Game Plus if you want to see the complete endings, turning NG+ into unique-to-video-games storytelling technique.

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