The Game Awards always inspires me to think about the possibilities of gaming. The show looks into the past year, which now seems like a century ago, to review all the games that deserve awards. And it looks ahead with world premieres that promise us good things to come. The games that show up in the rear-view mirror or on the road ahead tell us where the game industry is going.
The Last of Us Part II swept many of the honors last night, surprising no one. I love that game, and I love that both critics and fans felt the same way. Naughty Dog’s seven awards showed that the studios that make the biggest bets and the most ambitious games can be rewarded with the highest honors and riches. The game was so polished that I didn’t see any flaws when played through it several times. The story is memorable, and the execution on graphics and the action is so good. The musical performance of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, singing “Future Song,” which Joel performs with its symbolic guitar, brought home so many emotions for me about how the game connects characters through music.
The game made me stop and think about violence, revenge, and the assumptions that I make about the good people and the bad people. It raises the art form to another level, with drama, acting, and writing that beats just about any art form in any medium. This is the kind of game that elevates the opinion of games in the world as deserving the attention of adults and the best of us. And while the worst of us — internet trolls who hated its diversity and transgender messages — tried to bring it down with hater tribalism, The Last of Us Part II prevailed. It’s heartening to see this victory reinforced as Microsoft and Dontnod’s Tell Me Why won the Impact award. That game has a transgender main character, and it focuses on a theme of mental illness. Tell Me Why’s win showed that gamers are embracing diversity.
Based on data from social media monitoring firm Spiketrap, The Last of Us Part II’s stiffest competition was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a simple title that takes us back to gaming’s roots in toys. Animal Crossing is cute and addictive and repetitive. It has no story arc, but it was such a great solace to so many people during the pandemic. And it was far more social than its creators ever intended, prompting people like Gary Whitta to create popular talk shows inside the game. But its defeat on Thursday night doesn’t mean we’re leaving the toy world behind. The game industry is vast, and it contains multitudes.
I like to think of “what if” scenarios. In 2018, the focused title of God of War beat the sprawling epic of Red Dead Redemption 2. This year, I wonder what would have happened if Cyberpunk 2077 had come out earlier, as planned in the spring or in September, rather than December 10. It was really too late to be a contender for The Game Awards, and I’ve barely made a dent into it. But I’m pretty sure that The Last of Us Part II would have trounced this game in a direct competition. Cyberpunk 2077 is loaded with bugs that CD Projekt Red could not quash despite three delays during the pandemic. While both games were hard to bring in for a landing, it’s clear that Naughty Dog kept enough control on the project — with a tight focus on just a single game platform, the PlayStation 4 — while CD Projekt Red was ultimately felled by the challenge of making the game for the PC and multiple console platforms. That is a lesson for companies that fly too close to the sun with their dreams of making ambitious games on every platform.
I loved how small games like Supergiant Games’ Hades won the best indie and action game awards. And it was funny to see a tiny indie game, Among Us, win three awards and beat the mightiest game of all, Call of Duty: Warzone, in the multiplayer category. That was a David vs. Goliath fight, and the little guy won. I would have liked to see Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout win an award, but Animal Crossing defeated it in the family category. Still, indie games scored enough victories to demonstrate that originality and creativity are thriving in 2020.
The world premieres
The bridge between the past and the future was Respawn’s Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, which debuted on Thursday night at the show. The virtual reality title is one that could push VR further into the mainstream, and I’m looking forward to playing it. It could be the last big game that acknowledges the sacrifices of the last living veterans of World War II, and it will be the way that many young people learn about history.
Looking forward to next year and beyond, I was impressed with ten of the games that I saw. I liked them all for different reasons. Back 4 Blood from Turtle Rock Studios will serve the fans of Left 4 Dead, who have been left behind for a long time. But that four-player co-op zombie-killing game stood out for its fast action and high-fidelity graphics that were worthy of the new game consoles. It’s amazing what you can do by taking the same game and making it shine with next-generation graphics that intensifies the action.
Crimson Desert from South Korea’s Pearl Abyss also looks like a visual feast. Coming off the success of Black Desert, it’s one more example of a big Asian company — this one with 800 employees — ascending to the global stage to make games that are appealing to everyone. Or at least everyone who likes realistic graphics.
We didn’t get to see much gameplay from the cinematic trailers of some of the triple-A games. But I was excited to see Microsoft’s The Initiative unveil Perfect Dark, a beloved franchise that we haven’t seen as an original title since 2005 with the Xbox 360. It’s about time Microsoft got back to it. Electronic Arts triggered the same emotions with its debuts of trailers for Dragon Age 4 and Mass Effect. Those games could be a long way from being finished, but I almost imagined the cheering we would have heard if we had an in-person event instead of the all-online virtual show as the trailers hit the screen. While EA’s BioWare division has had its shake-ups, it’s good to know it is able to show progress on the franchises that so many people care about. Even if they don’t come out next year, those titles will help keep us assured that triple-A has a bright future.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Ark 2, but that dinosaur-fighting game had a clever cinematic debut, with actor Vin Diesel playing a tribe leader fighting his way out of a trap where you couldn’t tell if the sword-fighting creatures or the dinosaurs were the worst enemies. The brand-new map of Call of Duty: Warzone, coming on December 16 with a brand new battle royale map, got me excited about how Call of Duty will be a year-round franchise with an ability to reach a far larger number of players than ever before. Even if it got skunked on the awards, Call of Duty will win at the bank.
I liked the look of some of the smaller games, like Oddworld: Soulstorm, which is bringing the train home and finally has a launch window in the spring of 2021. And I liked Annapurna and Fullbright’s Open Roads, which looks like a good tale that depicts a mother-daughter road trip. That’s a new twist on the buddy tale.
If you asked me what I’m most intrigued by, it was The Callisto Protocol, from Glen Schofield’s Striking Distance Studios. That game is coming in 2022, and that’s an ambitious schedule for a new triple-A studio. Schofield, the co-creator of Dead Space, had to start his studio under difficult conditions as the lockdown went into effect. But flush with money from PUBG Corp. (Krafton), maker of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Striking Distance Studios has been able to build up to 150 employees in a very short time. If they can launch the game on schedule, that would be a very short timetable for a survival-horror game that makes us feel like we’re playing a modern Dead Space.
And I also laughed at the EA Original title, It Takes Two, coming from Josef Fares’ Hazelight and Electronic Arts. This two-player co-op game is set in a cute fairy-tale style universe, where a couple is trapped and is forced to work together in order to escape from the world. Fares, who famously said “F*** the Oscars” in 2017, was funny in his mocap suit. And he gave me something to smile about for the future.
If I look at the totality of The Game Awards, I’m glad it gave us a night to reflect on the diversity of titles in the past year and to look forward to the future slate. Gaming is still in very good shape, and we can look forward to a lot of fun as we struggle to lift ourselves from this accursed pandemic.