If the Video Game Awards are actually an awards show, and not just a keynote for promoting upcoming games, then the big news from last night was The Walking Dead: The Game. Eminently quotable analyst Michael Pachter said before the show that if this title, a downloadable self-published game, took home Game of the Year, he'd eat his hat. To his credit, Pachter later tweeted out a request for one, presumably to consume.
But the surprises don't just stop there. The Walking Dead won Game of the Year coming out of the Best Adapted Game category. Except for 2003, the first year of the VGAs, when things were very different from today, only two adapted games have even been nominated for GOTY: Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, and neither won. This is a different time in games development, with publishers looking for games whose characters and stories they fully own.
Some might look to a licensed or adapted work and consider that the game derives its significance, or at least the attention given to it, because it draws on some other franchise in popular entertainment. So it's strange that a licensed, adapted work reminds us that story, and characters, and choices, and the memorable experiences they create, matters most.
Here's another surprise nugget: The Walking Dead: The Game earned its makers five Video Game Awards. The next big winner? Journey, with three (including a nomination for Game of the Year.) Borderlands 2 also took home three awards, the best haul for a traditional boxed console game.
So if you're thinking this might have been a different Video Game Awards, in its 10th year, you're probably right. Had the show given more attention to that purpose—only a handful of these awards were actually presented in the broadcast—we might be pondering it as a landmark year. The VGAs are often accused of being an industry popularity contest, but maybe this year they acquired recognizable critical heft. We'll have to see what happens next year, and the year after.
So here are the 25 winners of the 2012 Video Game Awards, plus the Game of the Decade. Two fan-voted awards gave Character of the Year to Claptrap from Borderlands 2, and Most Anticipated Game to Grand Theft Auto V.
Game of the Year
The Walking Dead: The Game
Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III,Dishonored, Journey, Mass Effect 3
Studio of the Year
Also nominated: 343 Industries, Arkane Studios, Gearbox Software
Best Xbox 360 Game
Microsoft Studios/343 Industries
Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Borderlands 2, Dishonored
Best PS3 Game
Sony Computer Entertainment/thatgamecompany
Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Borderlands 2, Dishonored
Best Wii/Wii U Game
New Super Mario Bros. U
Also nominated: The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, ZombiU
Best PC Game
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
2K Games/Firaxis Games
Also nominated: Diablo III, Guild Wars 2, Torchlight II
2K Games/Gearbox Software
Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Max Payne 3
Best Action-Adventure Game
Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios
Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Darksiders II, Sleeping Dogs
Best Role-Playing Game
Mass Effect 3
Also nominated: Diablo III, Torchlight II, Xenoblade Chronicles
Best Multiplayer Game
2K Games/Gearbox Software
Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Guild Wars 2, Halo 4
Best Individual Sports Game
Electronic Arts/EA Canada
Also nominated: Hot Shots Golf World Invitational, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, WWE '13
Best Team Sports Game
2K Sports/Visual Concepts
Also nominated: FIFA 13, Madden NFL 13, NHL 13
Best Driving Game
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Electronic Arts/Criterion Games
Also nominated: Dirt: Showdown, F1 2012, Forza Horizon
Best Song in a Game
"Cities" (Beck) for Sound Shapes
Also nominated: "Castle of Glass" (Linkin Park for Medal of Honor: Warfighter); "I Was Born for This" (Austin Wintory for Journey); "Tears" (Health for Max Payne 3)
Best Original Score
Sony Computer Entertainment/thatgamecompany
Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Max Payne 3.
Microsoft Studios/343 Industries
Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Dishonored, Journey
Best Independent Game
Also nominated: Dust: An Elysian Tail, Fez, Mark of the Ninja
Best Fighting Game
Persona 4 Arena
Atlus/Arc System Works/Atlus
Also nominated: Dead or Alive 5, Street Fighter X Tekken, Tekken Tag Tournament 2
Best Handheld/Mobile Game
Sony Computer Entertainment/Queasy Games
Also nominated: Gravity Rush, LittleBigPlanet (PS Vita), New Super Mario Bros 2
Best Performance by a Human Female
Melissa Hutchison for The Walking Dead: The Game
Also nominated: Emma Stone for Sleeping Dogs; Jen Taylor for Halo 4; Jennifer Hale for Mass Effect 3
Best Performance by a Human Male
Dameon Clark for Borderlands 2
Also nominated: Dave Fennoy for The Walking Dead: The Game; James McCaffrey for Max Payne 3; Nolan North for Spec Ops: The Line
Best Adapted Video Game
The Walking Dead: The Game
Also nominated: Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron
Best Downloadable Content
Dawnguard for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda Softworks/Bethesda Game Studios
Also nominated: Leviathan for Mass Effect 3; Mechromancer Pack for Borderlands 2; Perpetual Testing Initiative for Portal 2
Best Downloadable Game
The Walking Dead: The Game
Also nominated: Fez, Journey, Sound Shapes
Best Social Game
You Don't Know Jack
Also nominated: Draw Something, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, SimCity Social
Game of the Decade
Half Life 2
Also nominated: Batman: Arkham City, BioShock, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Mass Effect 2, Portal, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colossus, Wii Sports, World of Warcraft
Remember when you first finished Half-Life 2: Episode 2? The excitement? The shock? You were ready to set out with Alyx at your side, ready to show those alien bastards who's boss. The trilogy, and with it, the Combine's rule over Earth, would end soon.
Except it didn't. At the time of this writing, almost five years have passed since the supposed release date of the final installment in Gordon Freeman's saga. Half-Life 2: Episode Three was slated to arrive Christmas 2007. It didn't. As the weeks and months went by, confused fans tried to glean whatever information they could from Valve, but, by and large, they were unsuccessful. The company remained silent.
In this Kotaku Timeline, we follow the fans' process of dealing with Valve's silence, cataloging their forays into leaked code, and their communications with the developers. We detail the ways the gaming press interacted with Valve over the years, and list what little has been revealed. In addition, we will keep watch over the game, and take note of any events, good or bad, in the months and years to come.
There were no mentions of the final episode—called Half-Life 3 by some—between 1999, when Valve registered the domain halflife3.com, and 2006. But then, announcements were made, and names were dropped. And so this is where our timeline begins...
April/May—Gaben and episodic gaming
In the May issue of the print version of PC Gamer, Valve Software co-founder Gabe Newell talks about Half-Life 2 and its episodes (including Episode 3!), and why he thinks episodic gaming is the way to go. A full transcript is available through the link below.
While talking to RPS, Episode 2 project lead David Speyrer says the reason for not having an Episode 3 trailer is that they don't want to make promises they can't keep. (Which is ironic, considering Episode 3 was supposed to ship in 2007.)
August 12—Gabe talks to Steamcast, but doesn't have much to say
Steamcast, a (now discontinued) fan podcast for all things Valve, nabs an exclusive interview with Gabe Newell, who briefly talks about why there's been no Episode 3 news. You can read a transcript of the relevant segments below.
Steamcast: Alright, first question: this is one of the most commonly asked questions that we had received and we've tried to format it into something you might be able to answer: you'd kept Episode 3 under incredibly heavy wraps thus far; we'd like to know why have you chosen to adapt such a reclusive approach this time around, as opposed to previous releases. Was it based on the reception you'd received about letting out too much info prior to Episode 2, or just something completely different?
Gabe Newell: I think that what's going on, you know, we're sort of always experimenting, we're always trying out different kinds of things, and that has positive as well as negative consequences for ourselves and for the community—so if you look at our different products, we're trying out these different rhythms. (Ed.: Here Gabe talks about how Valve handles updates for Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead.) Right now, the Half-Life 2 episodes themselves are on a third sort of rhythm, and, you know, we think it makes sense for the product and for what we're trying to do there. The reason that we're not talking about anything is mainly that we don't have anything to say; it's not like we decided we released too much information, it's just that if we had information that we were in a position to deliver to people, we would—and right now we don't have anything to say about it. It really is a consequence of these different rhythms to release schedules we're trying out. (...) So, Ep 3 is sort of victim to our willingness to experiment, and as soon as we have stuff that we're ready to say about Ep 3, we will.
September 19—Hey, guess what; there's some new Episode 3 code out in the wild
A beta tester leaks the Dota 2 beta client. People immediately begin datamining the files, and they naturally find several bits of code related to Episode 3. At this point, one begins to wonder if Valve is doing it on purpose.
Dec 22—Here's a fresh new batch of Episode 3 rumors
~12:55am—A fairly crazy theory of a possible new game in 2012
Valve releases the unaired Video Game Awards Character of the Year acceptance speech of Wheatley, one of Portal 2's main characters. An off-hand remark Wheatley makes prompts some wild speculation about a new game.
A Steamcast co-host posts on the Steam Forums that he's been told by an unnamed informant that Gabe "has given the go ahead to drop hints for the next Half-Life game." Gabe later partly debunks this rumor.
December 23—JPL denies any involvement in Episode 3
JPL: "Wish I had better news for you. I would love to do another episode."
John Patrick Lowrie, veteran Half-Life voice actor and husband of GLaDOS' voice actress Ellen McLain, in a post unrelated to Half-Life, tells commenters that neither he nor his wife have been contacted by Valve regarding Episode 3.
Garry Newman, the man behind the vastly popular Garry's Mod, tweets a picture of a Half-Life 3 shirt supposedly sent to him by Valve. Later, he says it was only a joke. This of course kicks the LambdaGeneration rumor mill into overdrive.
September 20—Someone says Half-Life 3 is now an open-world game
French gamer site Journal de Gamer reports that, according to an anonymous source close to Valve (we certainly haven't heard that before), the series is moving away from its linear roots towards Skyrim-esque open-world gameplay.
During /v/'s birthday visit to Gabe at Valve HQ, he (shockingly) shows willingness to divulge a few facts about a new engine they're working on. Unfortunately, he doesn't really talk about what it's for. Full video of the event to the left.
Lots of reviews have compared Dishonored to Valve's classic Half-Life 2. Both titles enjoy richly-drawn gameworlds with play mechanics that let you get creative. And they've both got lead characters who don't talk. So, you'd figure that Gordon Freeman served as a model for Dishonored's Corvo, right? Not exactly.
"I hate what Valve does with the silent protagonist," said Austin Grossman, who served as writer on Arkane's action/stealth hybrid. "I find it incredibly awkward and really creepy. I find Gordon Freeman creepy as hell. The difference between Dishonored and how it works in Half-Life 2 is that it's a lot more personal. I think you get that involvement because the character has personal relationships with people from the beginning. And it's very clear that people have fucked with you in a very personal way."
Grossman offered these opinions to me when I spoke to him over the phone last week, and he made it clear that he was speaking solely for himself and not for either developer Arkane or publisher Bethesda. When I noted that Valve's crowbar-wielding hero gets a lot of people talking at him, Grossman agreed and took it a bit further. "It's people talking at him, about him and sometimes even for him. He just happens to be in the middle of this whole thing."
"I'm biased, of course, but I think Dishonored grips you much more viscerally, more emotionally. And that's on purpose. Corvo doesn't talk and I think it works because everybody knows what Corvo would have to say," Grossman continued. "His actions form a sort of speech, something like "If I could kill the people who screwed with me… And if that includes you, then I'm going to kill you right now."
Grosman may have a point when comparing Corvo to Gordon. To be fair, more is shown of Corvo's relationships in Dunwall than of Freeman's in his backstory. But you could also argue Corvo's quest for vengeance is a much more personal motivator than Gordon Freeman's guilt. Part of the reason why one silence feels so different from the other might lie in the protagonist's backstories, too. If Freeman's muteness carries an element of cold detachment, it might be because he's a scientist who's been shifted through time and space. And Corvo's quiet could seem like it contains more menace because we're told he's an assassin. Still, silence is golden in each instance, even if each game finds its shine a different way.
Pandemic is a Half-Life 2 movie made by anklove. While it's got its fair share of effects, this isn't some attempt at a blockbuster action flick. Instead, it does what Eastern European movies do best: turn the screws on a desolate, bleak landscape.
So, yeah, this isn't a feel-good project. At the end of four minutes you'll probably want to go play Half-Life 2 again, sure, but you'll also probably want to go find someone special and give them a hug. Maybe in a green, sunny park.
Half-Life 2 is a vast and interesting game. This YouTuber fragments it into 60 seconds to give you the best, most accurate and important impressions.
And by that I of course mean silliest. Do you ever just randomly talk to the games you play? Poke fun at characters playfully? That's essentially what BlackLightAttack does with his 60 Second Let's Play series.
If there's one man who knows from originality in video games, it's Viktor Antonov. He's the man responsible for the oppressive, beautiful art design of City 17 in Valve's masterpiece Half-Life 2. One of the main reasons that I'm excited about the upcoming Dishonored is that Antonov will be art director. Just check out this gallery of the man's work. He's a true original.
But Antonov is generally unhappy with the current state of video games. In an interview at Eurogamer, he laments: "It's been a poor, poor five years for fiction in the video game industry."
Antonov's observations mostly revolve around the fact that there are so few new ideas for games, and that so many games look the same. He sees the fact that the closest touchstone for this year's Dishonored is BioShock, a game from 2007 that doesn't actually have all that much in common with Dishonored, as cause for concern.
"I'm not a harsh critic of games," Antonov insisted. "I'm extremely happy of where technology has gone. But artists and art directors should make their own life a little bit harder by pushing management to take more artistic risks, and use the technology to a better, higher level. That's what I've been doing and suffering by - I've been spending as much time creating, as convincing the people who are financing games how important it is.
"We were always waiting for the next generation of great worlds or great graphics. Well, great graphics came; the worlds that came with these graphics are not up to the level of the graphics.
"Graphics used to be an excuse 10 years ago, that we can't make great worlds. Right now, we have a lot of New Yorks, we have a lot of war games. Please everybody," he pleaded, "let's do more science-fiction and more crazy worlds out there."
Antonov advises that developers stop trying to make games that are all things at once. "Now a game is trying to pack too many games - narration, music, contemplation, shooting - that they lose the experience." Instead, he suggests, developers should make more specialized games that pick one thing to do and do it well.
Read the rest of the article, which talks in-depth about the process behind Dishonored's city of Dunwall, at Eurogamer.
I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.
In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself—an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life—that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.
Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.
What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.
There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.
"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."
Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."
The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.
"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."
Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell.
"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."
"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."
In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.
Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you—sorry, Reggie—but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.
Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.
I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.
While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters—"they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic— I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and James Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.
Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.