At the time of writing, the 2017 nominees for The Game Awards — referred to by some as “gaming’s Oscars” — have just been announced.
While it’s nice to see some high-profile Japanese games — most notably Persona 5, Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy XV and Super Mario Odyssey — get some recognition, once again the overall lineup for the awards is a fairly predictable affair that primarily boils down to “which games were most popular and/or made most money this year”.
And while there’s some merit to celebrating those games that have performed well from a commercial perspective over the course of the year, it presents a rather narrow view of the industry that leaves a number of titles underrepresented and underappreciated.
Part of the issue is that “video games” as a medium is so broad now it’s literally impossible to be able to acknowledge everything. So many new games come out every week that even the biggest commercial sites are unable to keep up with all the new releases, leaving many smaller developers and publishers to rely on word of mouth and existing fanbases to promote their products.
Alongside this issue is the fact that, with most modern commercial sites still so reliant on ad revenue and clicks from people hungry to get the most possible information about the “big games” of the hour, certain games tend to get a disproportionately large number of articles written about them, even when said articles are little more than fluff pieces. Gizmodo Media Group’s Kotaku is particularly prone to this, given that the site format as a whole is distinctly blog-like, but they’re by no means the only outlet that does this, with most of the big sites feeding the hype machine at one point or another.
Again, all this is understandable, particularly given how these outlets make their money, but it does everyone a bit of a disservice. The writers could be writing about a greater variety of games, which would doubtless lead to less cynicism and burnout. The readers could be finding out about a broader spectrum of games, which would likewise keep people interested in and excited about this ever-changing hobby. And a larger number of developers and publishers could be getting people to discover and buy their games, allowing them to make more of them.
This age that we live in now — an era of social media, user-generated content, YouTube and a wide variety of non-commercial, amateur or semi-professional sites — means that the commercial outlets are no longer the only place that people get their information from, however. As a result, we occasionally see outliers become cult hits despite little to no coverage from the big boys of the industry — at least initially. Examples from recent memory include titles such as Undertale and the Nekopara series; there’s even an argument for the Neptunia series falling into this category.
More often than not something that becomes “big” in this way will eventually get covered by the commercial press, but at that point they tend to be playing catch-up with the gaming community at large; the most recent example of this happening at the time of writing is the wonderfully inventive Doki Doki Literature Club, which initially came to prominence as a result of Steam reviews, memes and social media buzz more than anything else.
This isn’t to say small-scale independent titles don’t get any mainstream attention, mind you — but those that do tend to be from a relatively small and fashionable clique of developers who, in many cases, have good working relationships with members of the commercial press. As such, the few indie titles that get acknowledged by events such as The Game Awards tend to be those that have had almost as many column inches devoted to them as the big-budget extravaganzas of the year — titles like Cuphead, Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch, all of which have had their fair share of chin-strokey thinkpieces written about them on top of their basic reviews.
Why is this an issue? Well, the main problem is that it perpetuates a number of myths that aren’t particularly helpful to anyone, the most obvious of which that came to light this year from our perspective here on MoeGamer is the perception that “Japanese games had gone away” or “had been bad for a while”. As anyone who owns a Vita or PlayStation 4 will likely tell you, this is absolute nonsense, since these platforms in particular have played host to some wonderfully entertaining experiences, many of which have had the most cursory of acknowledgements by the big sites at best, total ignorance or even blatant misinformation at worst. And don’t even get the visual novel fans started on how little their favourite form of entertainment gets recognised, even on sites historically a lot more friendly to Japan’s gaming output!
The Game Awards are well-established and well-known as focusing on the more commercially successful end of the market — with occasional forays into only the most fashionable side of the indie sector — and thus being rather predictable. It is gratifying to see some Japanese titles put in an appearance this year, but said Japanese games are only the ones that got a lot of press attention anyway; Persona 5 in particular was frequently held up as an erroneous example of “Japanese games being back” shortly after its release, and Nintendo games such as Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey don’t typically get regarded by most people (including the press) as “Japanese games” in the same way as, say, Nier: Automata is.
Speaking of Nier: Automata, it’s curious how little of a showing this game puts in compared to some of its peers; while it is present in three award categories, it is notably absent from the Game of the Year nomination. This is somewhat curious when you consider the amount of praise that was lavished upon it around its original release earlier in the year, and even more curious when you note that the Early Access Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is up for the top award; in previous years, Early Access titles would not even have been considered for this particular nomination.
So what’s the solution to all this? Hard to say, really; you could introduce new categories to The Game Awards, perhaps specifically for games developed in Japan or Asia, but then you have to question whether you should also do the same for other regions’ distinctive output where it exists — should there also be an Eastern Europe award alongside a Japan or South-East Asia award, for example? And what other regions around the world are producing games that we’re completely unaware of?
A more specialised “alternative awards” event of some description is also an option; it’s what happens in the music and film industries, after all, and long-term this is probably going to be the most practical, effective choice. The trouble with this approach is simply getting started in the first place, because there is a lot to consider, most notably the questions of how you define what should be included (or excluded) from nominations for these awards, and how you raise awareness for the event in the first place without making it seem like some sort of small-scale thing that no-one cares about while The Game Awards continue to be the only show that the gaming community at large (and perhaps even the broader public) pays any attention to. This latter aspect would likely be a struggle for a few years at the very least!
However we go about it as a community, though, I think it’s becoming increasingly clear with each passing year that the games business as a whole needs to find more ways to acknowledge its most noteworthy titles — and to define what is “noteworthy” by more than simply commercial success. We have such an incredibly broad, diverse industry here, and yet each and every year only such a narrow slice of it gets the celebration and praise it deserves. We can do better than that by now, surely!
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