The Game Awards 2020 showcase broke even more records this year and had no shortage of surprise reveals and guests. We recently sat down with the man behind it all, Geoff Keighley, to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes of a showcase of this size and some of the backlash that comes along with it.
The gaming community is never without controversy, and The Game Awards is not exempt from that. Last year, one conversation surrounding the showcase involved a perceived personal bias towards Death Stranding; this year, it’s about The Last of Us Part II, both in terms of the awards it won and developer Naughty Dog’s approach to crunch.
When speaking with Keighley, I asked what he thought about the recent conversation centering on the Last of Us sequel and how the public may perceive its sweep as a “celebration of crunch.”
“Yeah. Look, I mean, it’s a healthy debate and discussion,” he says. “All of the award stuff, I stay somewhat separate to, as people know last year from Death Stranding, where we let the media, of which Game Informer is a member of the jury, select the nominees and then help select the winners.” He later adds, regarding the topic of the Kojima Productions title, “That’s what happened last year with Death Stranding, right? That I was rigging it for Kojima and giving [Death Stranding] all of these nominations. And I just have to be very clear that I’m too close to the industry, because I’m working on the world premieres, I’m working on the sponsorships, and I just try and stay completely separate from that.”
Regarding The Last of Us Part II, however, the topic then moves to nominee allocation. There are a few aspects of this year’s showcase that come to mind regarding pushback from the fans: What role does the subculture surrounding a game play in its consideration? Are the awards “rigged”? Regarding the latter point, Keighley says, “It’s definitely a somewhat polarizing game, which is part of, I think, its appeal to some people, right? Is that it really is kind of controversial. And in a year with Breath of the Wild, it’s sort of unanimous, right? People are like, ‘This game is truly amazing and deserves to be celebrated this year.’ There were games like Half-Life: Alyx where it is one of my favorite games of the year. Wasn’t even nominated for Game of the Year. So it depends every year on what happens.”
“But I think what I will say about Last of Us is that we do our Players Voice award, which is a hundred percent voted by the fans, and that starts with 30 games, and the final two games that got the highest number of votes were, you know, The Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us. So it’s not that the fans aren’t out there. And I think sometimes it’s obviously controversial. I see all the ‘The Game Awards is rigged’ talk and all these other comments online. And sure, people can say it – they can say what they want – but there’s no evidence to support that. I do think there are a lot of fans out there that really do care about that game. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, the critics are opposed to what the fans think.’ And a certain percentage of the fans, which if you look at our Players Voice, that’s why we do that, it’s a hundred percent voted on by the fans, and Last of Us came second to Ghost of Tsushima. It’s obvious there are a lot of fans out there.
“It is tough sometimes to just see people naturally assume that there’s some rigging or I was paid off by Neil Druckmann. It’s just so absurd, but people are allowed to have that opinion if they want. There’s no basis in truth around any of that stuff, of course, but, you know, people are passionate about games and this industry, and I think it’s great to express your opinion around it. And it’s okay to disagree with who wins the category. That’s fine. And it’s not objective. It’s like, ‘This is the opinion of the people that voted that this is what they think is Game of the Year.’ I get that our show is so big now and prominent that people really care about the winners. So I’d much rather have that passion than just apathy around the show and not caring about the winners. So it’s a healthy debate, and yeah, we certainly saw a lot of that.”
Earlier this year, numerous reports broke out regarding the culture around Naughty Dog. “Crunch” is an aspect of work culture that impacts numerous industries, including gaming. Naughty Dog was just one of several notable studios under fire for reports of mismanagement and stress put on the developers in order to meet deadlines. With that conversation regarding the Last of Us Part II studio breaking out earlier this year, many have wondered if a show celebrating games should be “rewarding” titles that succeed on the backs of reported crunch.
“The second point on the zeitgeists around a game and the studio and the culture, it’s a healthy conversation to have,” says Keighley. “It’s a difficult thing to really determine sort of how to adjudicate that on the award side of things like how does a game become ineligible, or how does that factor into the voting? You know, I think it’s totally fair game to discuss these things, to have these conversations, these news articles about this stuff. I’m sure it factors into people’s perception of a game, both in terms of the public and the jury. And that is part of the process.
“So I think it’s fair to discuss. It’s hard for me, though, to think of, on the show side, how we start to factor that into our eligibility criteria for games. It becomes a slippery slope, right? Because then, do you look at the diversity of studios and decide, ‘Well, this game is eligible, this game isn’t eligible?’ So we tend to just say, ‘Everything’s eligible’, and it’s up to the voting body to decide how those things factor into their voting and decision-making.”
He adds, “It’s just tough because something like crunches is obviously an issue in the gaming industry, but I don’t know how we can sort of objectively look across the entire industry and make determinations on whether a game should be eligible or not, or should be knocked down points because this game had crunch around it or other issues with the studio. So I’m open to discussion, but I don’t know that we’re at a point that we can really figure out how to approach that. But we’re open to ideas and feedback from people on it.”
Regarding the previous show’s big debate, Death Stranding had a shockingly disproportionate presence at the showcase, both opening the show with a musical debut and throughout the award categories. Due to Keighley’s known friendship with Hideo Kojima and his role in the game itself, many believed that the bias was present throughout The Game Awards 2019 and that the line between celebration and personal whims was crossed. “I’m really interested in the feedback across the board, like I said,” Keighley says. “And yeah, sometimes it’s disappointing when people are like, ‘This is rigged.’ I went through that last year with Death Stranding, where there was sort of this perceived controversy that I had somehow rigged the nominations for Kojima. And that was hurtful to me personally because it’s just not who I am and not how we run things. And I think then when, finally, Death Stranding didn’t win Game of the Year, people were like, ‘Okay, I guess it wasn’t all corrupt.'”
There is also a nuance with these conversations that are often missing in limited Twitter character counts as well. One difference noted is The Last of Us vs. the current CD Projekt Red situation. “The Last of Us conversation is different than, say, the Cyberpunk conversation that’s going on now, where it’s sort of like, you know, there are technical issues and challenges with that. The Last of Us, I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that it’s immaculately crafted as a kind of story experience. It’s just, people have concerns around the character choices and story choices in that game. And look, I have my own opinions about that too, but there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of craft that went into making that game.”
“Because the show is my brand, you know, I produce it, I host it, like you said, inevitably, it’s like, ‘Oh, Geoff picked this for Game of the Year.’ I get all that in my feed of, like, ‘How could you select The Last of Us as Game of the Year?’ And it’s like, I didn’t select The Last of Us as Game of the Year. It’s the group of people that are empowered to do that. And that church and state separation are important, but you make a great point that people just assume somehow that, as you said, I’m making all these selections. And yeah, I would select differently probably than the panel on certain categories. And that’s fair game.”
To further that point, he pointed to his own personal pick for GOTY, adding: “I was personally bummed when Alyx wasn’t nominated for Game of the Year. I always have to divorce myself from the nominees and the winners because I have no say at all. So when we see the results, they are what they are.”
As the show continues to grow and as the gaming community itself continues to expand, there will be more hits and more misses along the way. The conversation surrounding celebrating games is important but this year has been a vital time for our industry in regards to the darker aspects of it coming to life. Crunch, abuse, assault; many truths have been coming to light and those issues will bleed into any ceremony meant to celebrate this community we love.
To learn more about what goes into making a show of this scale, you can check out our full interview here. A video version can also be seen at the top of the article.