History would tell us no
For most of the games announced yesterday, the 2017 Game Awards have been a long time coming. From the moment The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild hit the Switch, we knew it was a contender. Same goes for Super Mario Odyssey and the first time we saw Mario capture a T-Rex. Horizon: Zero Dawn has been a lock as well and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has had a shot at the top prize so long as those voting could look past the fact it is still an Early Access game. Rounding out the nominees for Game of the Year is Persona 5, a milestone that is quite significant for the franchise.
All-in-all I wouldn’t say I’m that surprised by these nominees. They’re a good bunch and any one of them would make a fine GOTY winner. Any of them would, but if history is any indication, three of them don’t have a chance. Odyssey, Breath, and Persona face a system that appears to be working against them. It’s not because they aren’t beloved or well-reviewed or crowning achievements in their respective genres, because they are. No, these titles simply seem to be at a disadvantage because of where they were made.
To understand where I am coming from you have to go back to the beginning. The Spike Video Game Awards, produced by The Game Awards’ showrunner Geoff Keighley, was the first modern attempt at giving the video game industry a standard bearer of an awards show. There have been a lot of tries at shit like this over the years. Anyone remember the Walk of Game or all those failed Gaming Hall of Fames? Despite airing on a network that is the equivalent of giving a dick measuring contest its own channel, the Spike VGAs could have been a real, honest shot at a legitimate awards show for gaming right up until the moment Madden 2004 was named Game of the Year.
Now, that’s embarrassing and not just in retrospect. It was embarrassing then to bestow your most prestigious award on an annual sports title over fellow nominees Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. That’s not even including the fact Madden lost Best Sports Game to Tony Hawk’s Underground but ended up beating it for Game of the Year. A situation like that is silly but not uncommon as anyone who still watches the MTV Video Music Awards will attest to.
The whole first VGA ceremony is a mess – just look at the Best Handheld Game category – and a sports game taking the top prize hasn’t happened since. Instead, a pattern has established itself over the years on just what types of games will be nominated and win the overall Game of the Year award. It’s a pattern that heavily favors games developed on this side of the Pacific.
Here is every winner of Best Game from the VGA, VGX and Game Awards ceremonies:
- 2003: Madden 2004
- 2004: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
- 2005: Resident Evil 4
- 2006: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
- 2007: BioShock
- 2008: Grand Theft Auto IV
- 2009: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
- 2010: Red Dead Redemption
- 2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- 2012: The Walking Dead: The Game
- 2013: Grand Theft Auto V
- 2014: Dragon Age: Inquisition
- 2015: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- 2016: Overwatch
Besides that first show and maybe Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’s hard to argue against any of those games being the absolute best of their respective year. Grand Theft Auto V is a damn fine game. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t still be selling as phenomenally well as it does. BioShock is a damn fine game. Uncharted 2 is a damn fine game or so I’ve been told and will find out for myself when I go on a Coke-fueled binge of the series over the Thanksgiving holiday.
But isn’t it strange that for 14 years of award winners, despite a great chunk of our gaming entertainment coming from Japan, only one Japanese developed title has been named Game of the Year?
Actually, it’s not that strange. Keighley-produced gaming awards shows have always shown a preference for western developed titles. With three nominees this year from Japan and one from Korea, it’s only the second time there have been more eastern than western games up for the top award. Most of time Japanese games barely seem to make the ballot. Even the 2003 show, with nine titles nominated for the main prize, could only muster up one Japanese-developed game to be considered. If you think maybe 2003 was a lacking year for Japanese titles, think again. Besides The Wind Waker, that was the year we got Soul Calibur 2, Pac-Man Vs., Silent Hill 3, Dark Cloud 2, Xenosaga Episode I, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Fire Emblem, and WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames!
In the 15 years of VGA, VGX, and TGA shows, Japanese-developed games have been nominated for Game of the Year 15 times out of 77 total nominations. That’s roughly 20% and it honestly doesn’t sound too bad until you look at it on a year-by-year case. In five of those years – 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2016 – there were no Japanese games nominated. What came out in those years? For starters, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 released in ’07 and ’10 respectively. Those years also gave us Persona 3, Odin Sphere, Street Fighter IV, Demon’s Souls, Bayonetta, 999, Xenoblade Chronicles, Gravity Rush, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, and Zero Time Dilemma. Releasing in North America in December 2008, Persona 4 should have been eligible for nomination the next year, but it wasn’t.
In any category.
That list is just of games that could have been honored in years when no Japanese game got a nod. There are many more classics that failed to get nominations in years where just one or two Japanese games did. Could you imagine doing this with western-made games? If The Game Awards nominations were announced and there wasn’t a single game made in North America or Europe up for the top prize? Would there be an outcry or do we not care enough about The Game Awards to muster a shit? Because honestly, if there was any year to go that route, it would be this one.
2017 belongs to Japan. Don’t get me wrong, we got some great games from the west this year and South Korea’s Battlegrounds is a watershed title for the industry. But from beginning to end this year has been dominated by exquisite Japanese titles. In fact, I don’t think anyone would bat an eye if Horizon and PUBG were replaced at the top of the ballot by, say, Resident Evil 7. Or NieR: Automata. Or Nioh. Or Gravity Rush 2. Or Yakuza 0. Or Splatoon 2.
But that’s a pipe dream. That would never happen because at least one of the nominees is the type of game that always gets picked. Using past ceremonies as the template, a game is more likely to walk away with the Game of the Year award if it is a western-developed open-world title. So congratulations Guerrilla Games, I look forward to your acceptance speech.
Eight of the 14 winners have been open-world games, set either in modern times or a fantasy setting. Every other year either had no open-world games nominated, only Assassin’s Creed open-world games nominated, or those selecting the winners thought, “Hey everyone, let’s give our first Game of the Year award to Madden!”
Why is that? Why do Japanese games have such difficulty getting nominated, and when they do, fail to win? Have western titles in the past decade and a half been outright better than those out of Japan, or is there simply a lack of representation from Japanese critics on the voting jury?
For this year’s show, there are 51 outlets included in the voting jury. 25, nearly half, are from the United States. Japan has two. 4% of judges are from a country that produces far more than 4% of the titles released in North America and Europe. That does not seem like a good representation of the gaming landscape. While I know that American and European game critics enjoy Japanese games, The Game Awards history here is pretty clear: when push comes to shove, it honors western games.
Compare this to another organization: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2014, the voting base for the Oscars was 94% white, 76% male, and had an average age of 63. It was basically the people you see every morning at a Korean donut shop, but with fewer hats from their time in the Vietnam War. Why didn’t Brokeback Mountain win Best Picture? Probably because old, white men don’t care about gay love stories. Also, because we didn’t get to see Gyllenhaal taking a mouthful from Heath Ledger. This is why for years and years the Oscars have been boring. It’s the same boring-ass dramas nominated every year, usually about some white guy overcoming something. I’m sure we all remember #OscarsSoWhite. What started as a mockery of the Oscars’ lack of black nominees exposed a greater problem with Hollywood and its lack of good roles for people of color.
So what did the Academy do? It sought to rectify the issue. In 2016 it increased the number of members who are women or people of color. This year it did the same, potentially increasing its female membership to 28% of the total and its minority membership to 13%. A small move, yes, but a move in the right direction. Black gay beach handjob masterpiece Moonlight probably wouldn’t have won Best Picture if the voting base was made up of the exact same curmudgeons who thought The King’s Speech was a better film than The Social Network.
The Game Awards’ jury pool has grown since its inception, mostly by introducing more non-Japanese critics. From the information I could find, the Spike VGX awards didn’t have a single Japanese critic in the pool. In 2014 for the first Game Awards, there were 28 members of the voting jury, one of whom was from Japan. In 2015, there were 30 members, again with just one from Japan. I was unable to find 2016’s jury list, but I can’t imagine there was a shit-ton of Japanese judges last year who were cut down to two for this year’s ceremony.
Fair representation is exceedingly important for The Game Awards because Keighley clearly wants it to become a global event. That’s why there’s a whole category for just China. No other country gets that luxury. Best Chinese Game is fan-voted because, besides Monument Valley 2, I don’t think any of the 50 judges who aren’t from China know what the fuck jx2 HD or Gumballs are. And I’m sure, in a few years when China becomes the world’s most profitable gaming county, there’ll be discussions on either increasing the number of Chinese judges in the jury pool or simply breaking off The Game Awards: China into its own show so the rest of the world doesn’t have to bother itself with whatever free-to-play phone nonsense they’re spending all their yuan on.
However, Japanese games getting their recognition – and indie games too but that’s a whole different conversation – is a problem that needs to be addressed more immediately because they make up so much of the world’s gaming entertainment. Since the arcade era, Japanese developers have been there, producing top-quality games year after year. We can’t have the industry’s most notable award show do nothing but pay lip service to these contributions. Japanese games shouldn’t be to The Game Awards what black artists are to The Grammys.
This point goes beyond Game of the Year too. Be honest, do you think a jury pool made up predominantly of English-speaking game critics will ever give an award to a non-English speaking performer? Doug Cockle was nominated for his role as Geralt in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Was Jacek Rozenek, who voiced the same role in Polish, even considered?
I understand attitudes and tastes change over time and I get that western critics tend to have easily identifiable preferences when it comes to what games they determine are worthy of awards. I get that not everybody will look at Katamari Damacy or Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective and think, “Well fuck me, that’s Game of the Year material right there!” And I get in the grand scheme of things, an awards show that hires a giant Schick razor to hand out the Most Anticipated Game trophy or removes two fan nominees because one company threw a hissy fit over them probably isn’t ready to be taken as seriously as it wants to be.
But if the Game Awards truly wants to represent all of the industry, it needs to take whatever strides it can to not insulate itself from developers producing work that doesn’t fall into the same, tired genres we recognize every year. If a stodgy, old organization like the Motion Pictures Academy can make strides to improve itself, surely the young, hip Game Awards can do the same.