Despite my many misgivings, harsh criticisms, common sense, and prior threats to boycott them this year, I went ahead and watched the Video Game Awards when they aired via Spike TVs livestream. For those who are unaware, the Spike TV Video Game Awards are held annually every holiday season. Most people who follow the industry write off the award ceremony because the show usually announces the awards in the background and places a major focus on the announcements and trailers for upcoming games in their stead. While this is no less true for this year's ceremony and the VGAs were still very groan-inducing, something happened which may prove to be significant in the coming years: The Game of the Year of 2012 was revealed to be Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was chosen over Assassin's Creed 3, Dishonored, Journey, and Mass Effect 3. While some might argue that this is largely irrelevant, I would strongly disagree. This week, I will explain why this decision to make The Walking Dead Game of the Year is great for the medium. (Note: I do not intend to spoil anything about The Walking Dead and will be speaking in broad strokes. Those afraid of spoilers should not be worried.)
One of the first reasons that this is a big deal is that unlike previous Games of the Year for the Spike TV VGAs. The Walking Dead is not a AAA game. Up until now, the Game of the Year has gone to a AAA published game without exception. Previous awards have gone to Madden '04, GTA: San Andreas, every Bethesda RPG since Oblivion, and Uncharted 2. While these are all well made games that deserve some sort of accolades (even Madden, despite my total lack of interest in sports games), they are all games that come from the biggest publishers in the industry. Given the nature of the VGAs as more of a hype machine than an awards show, this makes sense and is something to be expected. However, this year, the title did not go to one of the ingrained and well-established names in the industry or one that has a very high brand recognition. It went to Telltale's take on a comic book franchise that receives a fairly positive reception, but it largely irrelevant to the industry at large. This defies the trend of previous VGA awards. Many people, myself included, figured that Game of the Year would go to one of two established franchises in the running, either Assassin's Creed 3 or Mass Effect 3. The Walking Dead is a game that is produced on a lower budget and on a much lower scale than most of the other games released this year. This proves to developers and publishers that AAA-style extremely high budgets are not required in order to game a great game that can achieve a high level of popularity and profit, which is something I have complained about more than one.
The next reason that The Walking Dead “walking” away with the trophy is a good thing is that unlike other previous winners of Game of the Year, it does not have a high emphasis on action. The Walking Dead is very much a game about talking to people, making decisions, and observing the emotional impact these decisions have on the ensemble cast of characters that players meet. It also has a slight emphasis on puzzles, going back to its roots as a point-and-click adventure game. This is not the kind of game that one would expect to win Game of the Year. Those types of games usually have a large focus on other types of gameplay. Bethesda games tend to focus on exploration of the world and dealing with the enemies and obstacles that confront them on a regular basis. Uncharted 2 is a very solid third-person shooter/platformer hybrid. Bioshock, which won in 2007, is a very tightly polished shooter. The Walking Dead is a massive change from all of these. While it does have “combat,” it is incredibly rare and takes the form of quick-time events. Players will mostly be talking and solving simple puzzles. What this communicates to the industry is that games do not always need to involve violence and killing waves and waves of mooks. It is okay to experiment with mechanics and try to make games that involve minimal killing or violence on the players part. Gamers are willing to give new ideas and concepts a chance. In the past, many people have criticized our medium for its focus on violence. Knowledge that we can experiment with this is a very healthy for the industry. Maybe one day we can see a game where protagonists can be less violent than the usual fare.
The last reason that The Walking Dead's victory is a great thing for the industry is that unlike other games who have won the award in the past, the primary reason to play The Walking Dead is its story and how players interact with it. This is directly contrary to years past, where the winning game's real draw was the mechanics and the gameplay associated with them, which were almost always completely divorced from the story. In Bethesda RPGs, the plot is rarely ever of great significance. The real reason to play is to explore the world that Bethesda has crafted and see what players can find. GTA games are well known for giving players the ability to disregard the campaign in favor of screwing around and playing in a open-world sandbox. Uncharted 2 and Bioshock do have an emphasis on story, but they are mostly referred to by their gameplay mechanics and their nature as shooters. The Walking Dead is not a game that is heavy on “gameplay” as much as it is “interactivity.” (This is going to get a little confusing as the vocabulary used to describe video games is decidedly limited.) Characters and their interactions are very much at the forefront of the game. Players are encouraged to talk to people and get to know them. Although it is a “point-and-click” game, puzzles are not the real reason to play it. The message this sends to the industry is that we encourage developers to meddle with the definition of a video game. It is not vital to include quick-time events or puzzles so that something is “technically” a video game. After all, those parts of The Walking Dead tend to be the least interesting, but not necessarily bad, parts of the game, especially in Episode 1.
To me, the VGAs are indicative of what the average gamer's perspective. The enthusiasts like myself sometimes forget that while we love the industry and are highly involved in it, we are not the only ones in the industry. Most of the people who are gamers only buy one or two games per year, probably a Call of Duty and another game, and mostly play those. It is these people who the VGAs cater to and there is nothing wrong with that. Looking at it through this lens, the fact that a game like The Walking Dead was able to win the Game of the Year is truly astounding. It means that the average gamer is willing to branch out from their normal gaming routine and try something new and different. This can only be a positive thing. While I know this is not going to dethrone the major shooters of the industry, it is a great start to instilling some sort of change. It is a small victory that will allow us to press on and aim for larger changes. Do not think of it as a large victory so much as a shift in momentum. A small victory is still a victory and we should celebrate while we can. Now that The Walking Dead game has been achieving so much and doing so well, it allows us to call into question many deeply-entrenched beliefs and practices of the industry.