The Partial Vindication of Awards Ceremonies

By and large, awards ceremonies, and the awards given, are crap. Rare are the times when a ‘Best’ anything is truly the best in the given timeframe. Just look at the Oscars, which have been haphazardly picking films and actors clearly not the best in the previous year. The voting systems will invariably choose what is popular (and somewhat good) rather than what could objectively considered the best.

The video game industry is no stranger to this, and when I was able to view the Game Developer’s Choice Awards in 2007, I witnessed first hand the failure of the voters, when they chose Gears of War as the Game of the Year. Not that Gears of War was a bad game, but it’s frightfully derivative in most cases, adding only a few new elements (and pretty scenery) to a very well-established genre.

Compare that to Wii Sports, which was incredibly innovative and well designed all around, plus the ushering title to all the grand promise that the Wii brings. (I admit a bit of the shine has come off the Wii in the past year, but it’s still full of exciting potential.)

In the year since those awards, I lost any hope that a truly good game would hit the spot. In that time, I’ve heard BioShock and Call of Duty IV, very well constructed games, considered frontrunners for the top prize. Rather than spend another disheartening evening watching the awards, I chose to do other things. Sure, there was a possibility that Rock Band would win something, because it is sheer awesome, but even I’d hesitate to say it’s worthy of the title ‘Best Game of the Year’. The equipment problems, lack of a few ideal gameplay elements, and some song choices leave it just short.

Imagine my surprise when I found out what had actually won the next day. Such was my disregard, that I’d not even taken the time to look at the nominees, so I was surprised that Portal even had a nomination, much less managed to take home the prize.

Granted, in my opinion, it’s not really a close contest. Portal is, to be blunt, one of the best games every designed. The other titles were the two aforementioned refined FPS games (BioShock and Call of Duty IV, neither of which really deserved to be there. BioShock was little more than System Shock II with an Art Deco look and some critique of Objectivism thrown in for flavor. And in very few cases would I grant a game with a roman numeral in the title enough creativity and innovation to deserve such a spot.

Rock Band is a spectacularly fun experience, but it’s not perfect. And Super Mario Galaxy is a very polished platformer that shows how they can be built for the Wii, but it’s not the best work of Miyamoto’s.

The surprise missing titles, for me, were Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed.

Portal still is a bit of a surprise. I’d have expected the entire Orange Box to get such a nomination, rather than the component parts, if only because it’s often pitched as this One With Everything product, of which Portal is just the extra fun element thrown in for good measure.

Regardless, it’s a wonderful choice. True, the format isn’t original, since the greated FPS ever devised (Goldeneye) was released over a decade ago, and since then it’s mostly been tweak and refinement to appeal to a narrower and narrower crowd of fans. But since there’s no shooting, few direct enemies, and a completely different style of play, I’m inclined to accept that the FPS elements are just the medium, not the message. Valve’s a company that only does FPS’s anyway, and they can be credited for doing some very interesting things with Team Fortress 2 to get rid of a lot of the excess of the genre besides.

So, innovative gameplay, easy accessibility, some excellent framing and design (the warning signs alone are worth the price of admission), the best song to ever come out of the video game industry (coming soon to a Rock Band game near you), and the best writing I’ve ever witnessed.

Yes, the best writing. And here’s the rant part of this rant.

You see, while Portal was considered the Best Game and the Most Innovative Game, it apparently wasn’t considered the Best Written game.  For some reason, that award went to BioShock.

I’m sorry, what? BioShock? Sure, it had some excellent dialogue, a few neat character arcs, and some clever commentary on 50s culture, but the ending was absolute shit. Plus, the one big choice the player has in the game is so clearly black and white that it’s amazing Peter Molyneux isn’t on the design team.

Portal, in comparison, is an exemplary piece of writing. The character arc of GLaDOS is spectacular, the dialogue is perfect, and the small elements they throw in (“The Cake is a Lie”) are awesome.

Seriously, I’d had part of the game spoiled completely for me before I played, and the first time I saw one of the secret rooms, chills went down my back. I spent a good part of the game alternating between hysterical laughter and a desperate desire not to crap my pants.

THAT, my friends is emotional reaction. And BioShock doesn’t have any of that. Hell, they had to use mood music to tell the player when things are supposed to be creepy.

A friend of mine brought up a point about this. He allowed that Portal is well written, but it’s only about two hours long (or 18 minutes on a speed run). BioShock is many hours long and it’s chock full of great character dialogue, so that has to count for something.

I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. Portal is a short story, true, and BioShock is a novel, but it’s still a novel with a crap ending. Portal is a story stripped down to just the necessary elements to get the point across. BioShock is an excess of cleverness to the point of bloat.

To paraphrase a number of writing teachers, it’s easy to write long, it’s hard to write well.  Portal isn’t long, but I’d argue that it’s harder to write a story that short that has all of that greatness into it. Any longer, and it’s likely that the story (and the game) would suffer because of it.

I can only assume that the votes for Portal got split with Half Life 2 Episode 2, leaving BioShock the undeserving winner.

Even so, the Game of the Year award is much deserved, and brings a bit of legitimacy back to awards ceremonies.

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