Yes.  Game of the Year.  I can already hear you wondering, “Who cares, it’s October?”  I know these things don’t really matter, but Game of the Year kind of means something.  Not that it really means something – and in video games it means even less than in other mediums as there’s no singular video game award that reigns supreme like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys. Instead, Game of the Year is a strange little collection of hive minds all screaming out their choices and having one name overpower all others in internet space.  For instance, last year seemed to favor The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as the Game of the Year for most publications and the one most loudly shouted in conversation (with respect to Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Fallout 4, and Undertale).

If you want to muddy the waters even further, take a look at 2014.  The first full year of the next-gen platforms saw a mixed bag in terms of big profile games and the conversation for Game of the Year was mixed between Nintendo darlings like Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8, flawed action games like Bayonetta 2 and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, and middling offerings from legendary studios like Destiny and Dragon Age: Inquisition.  

I could go on, but I think you’re already seeing a trend – indie games rarely make it into these conversations.  Even last year, Undertale rarely got mentioned with so many big names to drown it out.  The year of 2012 was one of the few years indie games really saw any mention in Game of the Year circles with The Walking Dead and Journey stacking up against Dishonored, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, and Far Cry 3.

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The answer to why indie games struggle with Game of the Year recognition seems easy: indie games don’t see the same market penetration as games like The Witcher 3 or even Bayonetta 2.  They’re small, often short, and easily forgettable.  Furthermore, indie games are often geared towards a niche audience, taking advantage of making a peculiar type of game because the return on investment is a fraction of what is needed from Metal Gear Solid V.  So indie games likely grab more low-hanging fruit in terms of an audience and make it difficult to get their name out.  Take a look at one of the critical darlings from 2016: Stardew Valley.  While Eric Barone’s masterpiece has stolen the hearts of many, for many more the game is all but alien – so far removed from their gaming sensibilities that they refuse to engage with it.

However, that shouldn’t really be a problem, right?  People voting in Game of the Year circles or assembling top ten lists should be well-versed in enough genres that they can at least try to play a title that is so heavily praised.  But that’s not entirely true.  Video games are a clumsy medium for the uninitiated and sometimes switching genres is as difficult as picking up a controller for the first time.  For instance, driving games are a genre where I am completely lost.  Even a well-loved series like Forza Horizon doesn’t interest me.  It’s not only that I don’t get the appeal of driving games, but they use a lexicon and layered mechanics that are completely foreign to me..

However, most indie games can’t afford to have such deep mechanics, with a development team that is forced to forgo really complex systems for design that is easier to handle with a small staff.  That’s why we get games like Gone Home, Undertale, or LIMBO – games that use simple controls and have limited depth.  In fact, you would think that this would make it easier for indie games to get played by more critics and voters.  Even difficult games like Hotline Miami aren’t really that mechanically complex.  But this tends to backfire on indie games as their simple mechanics usually end up making them “weird”.  People raise questions about how much games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Tales from the Borderlands really engage players and how much of it is just perfunctory button-pressing to reach the end of the story.  Instead critics tend to opt for more traditional games with mechanics that are more familiar.

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Perhaps the biggest turnoff to most people when it comes to indie games for Game of the Year voting is that they have trouble justifying praise for simple aesthetics.  The pixel art era has suffered from overexposure, but it’s easy to dismiss the stark emptiness of a game like SOMA – even when such design is intentional to create tension and fear.  Critics still seem to find it easier to praise highly-detailed landscapes filled with equally detailed action-figures, than admiring more simple and thematic art-styles.

But the real reason that indie games rarely see much love in terms of Game of the Year voting is that they still haven’t found a way to become a socially acceptable norm in the video game conversation.  Sure, indie games are an important layer to the business of the industry, but it’s still considered a strange offshoot from the blockbuster releases that really bring all corners of the gaming world together.  You find a couple indie games that appeal to your specific sensibilities, but fail to see how they could speak to a more robust audience.  Not everyone can discuss the pros and cons of Firewatch, but it’s a pretty good guess that almost anyone who keeps an eye on the Holiday release schedule can tell you that Dishonored 2 is coming out in November.  

I’d like to end on a hopeful note, telling you that there’s a future where brave, little games like Her Story will find their way into end of the year conversations – but I don’t actually think that.  Mostly because I don’t think the people making those games care.  Like I said at the beginning, there is no definitive award that developers chase after – and if there was it would likely be the Game Developers Choice Awards, which is a relatively understated event occurring long after the year has ended and most people have moved on to the next big thing.

  • It depends on whose “Game of the Year.” Such pronouncements are really meaningless I think. Person of the year? Really??? It’s all very tasteless. But in general, no video games rise to the occasion. “Indie games” can’t for obvious reasons. It’s not about their audience base, as just the fact that they are inadequate at what they do, as you say. Their teams are too small or unorganized to do anything remarkable. You have to be delusionally generous to even tip your hat to what they do. Either they have to get better, or the tools/resources will have to get better, so that video games can be more of a one-or-two person craft.

    It feels so strange to talk in such abstractions. If you look at the average credits roll for a film of any stripe these days, it’s oppressive. The mind boggles at the sheer number of peoples involved. That it can all be choreographed. It makes you feel very small to even comment on anything like that. Or it should. That it so often works (outside of video games) is nothing short of miraculous, each and every time. I think the 21st century is going to see these behemoths unraveled. Taken down by a thousand digital knives until the spirit that animated them is all but forgotten. How we adapt to a new digital (decentralized, democratized,can’t be fucked-wise) artistic and cultural landscape will be the most interesting thing to watch.

  • Louis

    Just earlier this year, you wrote an entire article about the insignificance of video game awards in the first place. So I think you’ve basically answered your own question here.

    • Josh Hinke

      Well played, sir. But my point here is more about what prevents indie games from getting the same exposure as bigger games. I’m not saying indie games need awards for validation, but rather poking at why they often get overlooked. But I could write a piece on what video game awards do matter as well. Opinions always have counterpoints, that’s why arguments exist.