Game Awards 2023: 9 takeaways on gaming’s winners and losers

The Game Awards have always reflected the dichotomy of video games as art and commercial product. In 2023, the 10th annual ceremony, the contrast has never been more apparent.

Hosted and coordinated by former journalist Geoff Keighley, the Game Awards have become the most-watched awards ceremony in entertainment, with 103 million streams for last year’s event (by rough comparison, the Oscars struggle to hit 20 million television viewers). That success is largely due to the fact the awards ceremony doubles as a showcase of flashy trailers for upcoming games. The ceremony is also thick with corporate sponsorship — even anti-nicotine ads show up here. The buzz of new products can mean the artists often feel secondary to the art.

Here are the top takeaways, winners and losers of gaming’s biggest evening.

Larian Studios, Remedy Entertainment

“Baldur’s Gate 3” by Larian and “Alan Wake 2” by Remedy were the two most nominated games, with Larian’s title winning six (including game of the year) and Remedy winning three (including best direction and best narrative). Both games push against the trend of games chasing Hollywood’s glitz and prestige. Instead, they centered player involvement and pushed the limits of the medium more than any other titles. It’s nice when award shows actually get it right.

The legacy game publisher shocked the crowd when it debuted a trailer announcing five new games from long-dormant game series that have grown cult followings. It’s all part of Sega’s new attempt to recall its “rebellious spirit,” evoking the 1990s when Sega marketed itself as the “alternative” to Nintendo’s dominance. So many longtime game studios often forget and leave behind their old intellectual properties, so it’s a relief to see Sega finally remember that it used to make a wide variety of interesting game concepts like “Jet Set Radio.”

In reviving classic games, Sega channels its old bohemian spirit

Microsoft’s big 2023 game “Starfield” saw few nominations and won no awards. But the console manufacturer did show up with new information and trailers on upcoming projects. We finally saw more of “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II” from Ninja Theory and a release window of 2024. Xbox is teaming up with Marvel for a game based on “Blade,” the popular vampire hunter hero. And legendary game maker Hideo Kojima finally showed a sneak peek of a new project in collaboration with director Jordan Peele, “OD,” which promises to be a cinematic game experience. It’s not a lot to chew on, but it shows Xbox’s first-party studios are keeping busy.

The “Alan Wake 2” cast put on a showstopping performance of “Herald of Darkness,” a reference to the game’s sequence that’s been called the “best 15-minute stretch in a video game in years.” The Game Awards orchestra always creates sweeping, interesting renditions of video game themes in a rousing medley.

No other awards ceremony feels like a production orchestrated by one man. Keighley’s passions and personality are all over this show. He loves the Muppets, so Gonzo made an appearance. He loves Kojima and the film industry (his family has deep ties to Imax Corp.), so Kojima and Peele took up massive airtime, while other celebrities like Matthew McConaughey, Timothée Chalamet and Simu Liu stopped by. Granted, all these Hollywood cameos are related to games, but their presence is impossible to ignore.

Any hope for addressing social issues

Across the industry, developers and activists asked Keighley and the coordinators to address two ongoing issues. They wanted something to address the thousands of layoffs despite strong sales; and the war in Gaza, with a petition signed by thousands of people including members of the Game Awards’ inclusion-minded “Future Class,” an award for people who represent the future of the industry.

No, any sentiment from a video game awards show wouldn’t bring back lost jobs or move heads of state. But the show, a platform to tens of millions of people across the world, was silent on both issues. Video games aren’t just childish things, but growth comes from dealing with difficult conversations. The silence speaks to how the games industry has yet to mature, and that it has not cultivated a space big and generous enough for voices of dissent and change.

Besides a free God of War update, Sony’s PlayStation studios remain strangely quiet on plans. We are three years into the life cycle of the PlayStation 5, and we know very little about any games releasing on the back half of this generation. Sony’s biggest game this year, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2,” has seen strong sales and a warm critical and fan reception, but it didn’t win a single award. Sony studios usually rake them in. If it wasn’t for that game, the PS5 in 2023 would’ve had a very slow year, and Sony has yet to prove that 2024 won’t be the same.

No one should doubt Keighley’s passion and admiration for game developers. He has built his whole career trying to highlight their work. But Thursday evening, it definitely felt like the spotlight shied away from the people who make this industry. Each acceptance speech was rushed, with many prominent people like Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma and Alan Wake director Sam Lake being shooed off the stage. Larian Studios CEO Swen Vincke was interrupted in his game of the year speech, the evening’s final award, just as he was memorializing team members who died before they could celebrate their victory.

This issue is all the more egregious when you realize several developers, including the three named above, speak English as a second language. Keighley has since tweeted that he recognized it as an issue and tried to relax the time constraints. But this issue persisted through the evening.

Patience for the Game Awards as a proper showcase for the industry is wearing thin. “Alan Wake 2” writer Clay Murphy tweeted “skipping through the awards and minimizing people’s years of work just to play 10 minutes of bland ads is a joke.”

Keighley is trying to fuse a large-scale, headline-making convention with a prestigious ceremony, and the concept is starting to break. It’s clear that the ads and announcements draw the audience, but it is absolutely at the expense of time to honor the year’s work. I’m sympathetic to Keighley as he’s trying to do it all, but maybe he doesn’t need to. Keighley started this enterprise as a way to evolve how the games industry celebrates its work, and he’s taken us through the last decade. It’s time to evolve again.

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