Last Friday, I watched the Spike Video Game Awards in their entirety for the first time in their ten-year history. Rather than instinctively killing the feed the first time I see something embarrassing, I decided to soldier through the whole show this year, no matter how painful. While it still reeked of trying too hard (never has Samuel L. Jackson been more unlikeable, and if Zachary Levi and Marlon Wayans left this planet for good, I wouldn’t mind), the general consensus is that this year’s VGAs were less offensive that usual. Aside from a rather classless move in which many disappointed winners received their awards on the red carpet, the VGAs smartly replaced onstage teabagging with a live orchestra, and a yearly championing of dudebro shooters with promotion of non-mainstream fan-favourites like The Walking Dead and Dark Souls. Personally, I thought it was okay, because while I was mostly infuriated any time someone unconnected to the games industry opened their mouth, I still think it legitimately improved upon previous shows.
The red carpet pre-show feed worked well when people like Casey Hudson and Cliff Bleszinski were interviewed, since they could actually deliver knowledgeable and interesting quotes on the industry. I thought Cliffy B was particularly well-spoken; he came across as a guy with a well-grounded, objective view of the industry, and he seemed like someone who knows exactly the kinds of games he wants to make. Compare his insightful thoughts with those of the hired movie celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson (who admitted he doesn’t play video games other than “sports” and was generally an ass to interviewer Justine Ezarik) and the indescribable Marlon Wayans (who also said he doesn’t game, spent 95% of his interview talking about his son’s pubes, and spent the last 5% plugging his new movie about “black people in a haunted house”). The poor Weird Al doppelganger that GameTrailers TV had doing the pre-show tried his best and delivered his scripted questions capably, but the guy is as charismatic as Michael Cera impersonating a dead fish, and it’s clear that his co-host Ezarik doesn’t know a fucking thing about video games. And then, of course, they handed out awards on the red carpet, which generally followed a pattern you could probably predict: GTTV personality calls nominee over for interview, personality tells nominee they won an award and hands it to them without any ceremony, winner visibly undergoes mixed feelings of surprise, embarrassment (ah, I see I didn’t get one of the important awards), and disgust. It was tough to watch, because these people deserve a lot better for their hard work. I know that even at the Grammys some awards are handed out before the show due to time constraints, but not on the red carpet, which is just embarrassing for the recipient and more or less a public shaming in front of their peers. Perhaps the worst one was the Grammy-nominated (!) composer Austin Wintory, who, upon being handed the VGA for Best Score by a journalist on the red carpet, sarcastically quipped, “Oh…what a scoop for you!” Poor guy. At least he’ll have Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Howard Shore to hang out with at the Grammys instead of fucking Marlon Wayans.
The live orchestra added a touch of class to the evening, and it made me wonder whether event organizer Geoff Keighley is perhaps more in tune with what the hardcore gaming community wants than he lets on. For some reason, gamers go apeshit over orchestral versions of just about any piece of game music, and having the live orchestra provide the soundtrack for the many game trailers shown throughout the evening was a nice touch. Having the lead violinist dress like a dominatrix was puzzling, although not unwelcome.
Another example of Keighley showing that he’s done his homework: the big reveal wasn’t a new dudebro shooter or another superhero game of questionable quality (the nerds would love it, right?), but Dark Souls II. A franchise that’s moderately successful at retail but by no means mainstream, yet critically acclaimed and well-loved by the masochistic side of the community. Among hardcore gamers, it’s cool to claim you like punishingly difficult games, and Dark Souls is one of the hardest in recent years. Everyone got excited by this, and kudos to Keighley for convincing a Japanese developer that a relatively obscure American awards show was the place to reveal their highly anticipated sequel.
And then there’s The Phantom Pain. When I first watched it, I honestly thought it looked like crap. It seemed weird and dark just for the sake of it, and the constant barrage of text was poorly written with a dramatic overuse of punctuation. And then NeoGAF started making all these connections to a hypothetical Metal Gear Solid V, and suddenly I’m staying up ’til 3 AM uncovering a vast MGS conspiracy. Amazingly, I love MGS‘ horribly convoluted story and I love Kojima’s tendency to just get wacky from time to time, so this Phantom Pain nonsense is right up my alley. Call it a guilty pleasure. Whatever this ends up being (it better not be a Vita game, so help me God), colour me thoroughly interested.
Still, the less said about some of the celebrity “guests,” the better. The running theme of the VGAs seemed to be “IT’S SAMUEL L. JACKSON, BITCH,” which ended up being about as juvenile as it sounds. His Tough Black Guy schtick is admittedly timeless, but the overuse of the Samuel L. Jackson “persona” felt like so much pandering to a teen demographic that has only just discovered cuss words. It’s about one step up from having Chuck Norris host the VGAs and tell jokes about himself the whole time. Marlon Wayans then plugged his impending train wreck of a movie again during the actual awards show, which made me sort of wish he would be teabagged. Appearances from the B-list cast of The Walking Dead were somewhat in tune with the target demographic (it’s a popular show among gamers and, well, everybody), but the short guy from the much-maligned Big Bang Theory? Little more than ill-conceived pandering to “nerds.”
Speaking of “nerds,” I cringed every time I heard some out-of-touch celebrity haughtily use that word. Ezarik used it constantly, much like the student council president that pretends to love all the cliques at school, but not-so-secretly thinks herself above the unattractive, the unpopular, and yes, the nerdy. Levi and his “Nerd Machine” cohorts were by far the worst offenders, as I don’t think Levi uttered a single sentence without talking about “nerd culture.” Gorgeous, popular, rich, and famous people like Ezarik and Levi are unquestionably not nerds, since I’d argue the word carries a certain social stigma along with it that no TV or film personality can possibly lay claim to. You can nearly hear the smugness in their voices as they almost jokingly speculate on what nerds like and how many nerds are here in the audience today and Jesus Christ. When Levi comes onstage and shouts “HELLO, NERDS,” I feel like I’m back in high school, getting picked on by the popular kids while they pretend to like me. When he speaks about how he started Nerd Machine because he feels nerd culture deserves to be shared, all I hear are the insincere ramblings of a guy who’s discovered that r/gaming is pretty popular these days and knows gamers are a largely untapped market.
Bottom line, I think there should be some kind of video game awards show because it serves as one barometer for our industry (though by no means a definitive or even remotely objective one), and I like seeing developers recognized for their work. I’m not sure if the VGAs fill that need, but they made a large step toward legitimacy last week. The Oscars are well-respected because they sit at the intersection of objective criticism and popular opinion, while everyone knows the Grammys only go to top-selling artists and are heavily slanted toward vacuous Top 40 music. But at the very least, the 2012 VGAs took a step away from the Grammys and toward the Oscars, as small as it may have been.