The high point of the ninth annual Game awards arrived within its first 15 minutes. A charmingly unkempt Al Pacino arrived on stage to present the award for best performance, quickly admitting that he neither played “a whole lot of video games” nor could read the teleprompter especially well. Still, he managed to hand the gong out to actor Christopher Judge for his electrifying performance as Kratos in God of War Ragnarök. Dressed in a sparkling gold suit, Judge began his moment in the sun by hugging the Hollywood star. This was just the start of a further 10 heartfelt minutes on stage, the actor relaying the personal anguish he went through leading up to the game’s production. As the minutes wore on, the show’s producers seemingly began to fret about the night’s schedule, eventually playing orchestral music in an attempt to hurry him along. Yet this only made Judge’s words more epic – all the more affecting.
Judge’s time on stage was a rare moment of spontaneity and personality in a three-hour awards show otherwise sorely lacking these ingredients. Creator, host, and producer Geoff Keighley, had promised a “streamlined” runtime compared with its predecessors, and so Judge’s extended appearance left less time for other winners. However, this year’s glitzy event continued to show the extent to which the Game awards lack balance. The length of time given to the awards and their winners was dwarfed by that allocated for what the show calls “world premiere” trailers of new and announced games. The awards should be a celebration of the year’s interactive excellence yet the evening demonstrated the extent to which it remains fixated on a hype-filled future, often to the detriment of the creators it purports to recognise.
This was most evident in the strange sections where Keighley read out a handful of award nominations and winners in rapid-fire succession. “Here are the nominees,” he would say as the nominees flashed up on screen. An excruciating pause followed before Keighley announced the winner to almost no fanfare. Of 32 awards, 20 were handed out in such fashion. Not one of these winners was invited on stage to collect their statue.
Still, in regards to upcoming titles, fans were treated to a veritable feast of new material. The standouts were Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited sequel to open world hiking simulator Death Stranding as well as Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, the highly anticipated mech action game developed by the Elden Ring studio, From Software. As it dawned on the show’s attendees at the Microsoft theatre in Los Angeles what they were being shown, their whoops and cheers echoed across the livestream. Elsewhere, however, the energy of the show stuttered. Skits involving actor Keegan-Michael Key (playing Toad in the upcoming Super Mario Bros Movie) and The Muppets’ Animal failed to land, all while a further 43 trailers began to bleed into one another. Watching such adverts began to feel like wading through a treacly morass of blockbuster spectacle. A game such as action RPG The Lords of the Fallen, may well turn out to be excellent, but was done no favours shown in such a cavalcade format. Like the award winners themselves, it wasn’t given room to shine.
Despite being frequently described as the video games’ equivalent to the Oscars, not least because Keighley invites such comparisons, the Game awards is a more garishly commercial occasion. Everything in it, bar the awards and speeches themselves, appeared to be an advert. There were the “world premiere” trailers followed by further trailers and adverts that acted as dividers between each section of the show. Occasionally, as when Keighley announced a partnership involving PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and food delivery service Grubhub, or the opportunity to get a free Xbox Series S controller courtesy of Verizon, he was delivering the ads himself. It became increasingly difficult to tell the show apart from the adverts supporting it. Sometimes one had to rely on the tone of Keighley’s voice to make such a distinction.
Amid all of this carefully choreographed publicity, a few moments beyond Pacino and Judge will linger in the mind. At one stage, the camera cut to a sullen-faced Phil Spencer, CEO of Microsoft Gaming, on the day it was revealed that the FTC is suing to block Microsoft’s $69bn Activision Blizzard acquisition. Later in the evening, a flautist named Pedro Eustache arguably stole the show during an energetic orchestral performance of the game of the year nominees’ soundtracks. The weirdest moment, however, arrived just a few minutes prior to its end as an uninvited youth (later arrested) stepped on to the stage right after the developers of FromSoftware collected their game of the year award for Elden Ring. He said he wanted to “nominate this award to my reformed Orthodox rabbi Bill Clinton.” It was an absurd outburst during an otherwise fastidiously scripted event.
These moments were memorable because, for a fleeting few seconds, they offered a humanity that cut through video games’ corporate veneer. Next year it would be nice if the creators of games were given greater opportunities to show their personalities on stage. After all, games are made by people, a point the Game awards appear to have all but forgotten.