The morning after the VGX, it's striking to see gamers once again arguing, ruminating, caring so much about a spectacle that seems to care so little about them. Or, if last night was an indication, itself.
Ripping the Video Game Awards — which got a format and name change to "the VGX" this year, no explanation what the X means — is an annual tradition in hardcore, hyper-critical gamer culture. Each year seems to retread the sentiment that this show is the worst it's ever been — except for the previous year's show, which becomes the best ever.
The usual discussion hotbeds, NeoGAF and Reddit, are today full of earnest efforts to fix this program and make it show a little more self respect. Yeah, there will always be gainsaying and nitpicking of any show's choice of host, and of the entertainment offered, some of which will hit and some won't. The ongoing criticism of the lack of substance at the VGA/X is more valid, but it pushes the show in a direction in which it was never meant to go.
This is the fundamental "problem" we encounter every year when Spike's awards program sends us all home feeling like we're only valued for the eyeballs we turn to an advertisement. Deservedly or not, Spike's awards program is taken by the mainstream to speak for this medium in the same way academies of film, television and music speak for theirs. And the show — which this year added taglines like "Binge Responsibly" — often sends the message that we're easily enthused by the usual B-roll of fighting, explosions, robots, and fetishized environmental detail.
There are ridiculous, self-indulgent spectacles for industries other than video games of course. The MTV Video Music Awards and the ESPYs are perhaps bigger presences in their subjects than the VGX is to ours. But they're not thrust into the same position of authority, of speaking for the best of the year and the best that's yet to come.
At least in the cases of the VMAs or the ESPYs, there's a recognisable constituency being served by the broadcast. The VMAs is purely a vehicle for provocative celebrities, a prime opportunity to become a mainstream trending topic for the next week or two. The ESPYs' client is purely ESPN, never missing a chance to reflect on its own importance.
The client at VGX is ... who again? Is it Spike/MTV Networks? Doubtful, as their ratings continue to slide and this year's coffeehouse production was an obvious move to cut costs. If Spike really wanted to serve itself — without bailing out of the show altogether — why not do a year-end bonus of GameTrailers TV, doling out awards and, yes, cajoling publishers into participating in the same mini-E3 of hype trailers and announcements.
The client doesn't appear to be publishers and developers, given how this year they seemed even less interested in participating than before. Ubisoft's "Snowdrop Engine" trailer for The Division was a perfect example. This is a game people are fired up to see. How on earth is an engine demo going to do anything but make viewers' eyes glaze? Even if Nintendo's big announcement — Cranky Kong? Seriously? — hadn't been leaked, it still would have been a terrible night for news. The "winner," if there was one, was Hello Games, dropping jaws with a wildly expansive science fiction game, No Man's Sky, that is being developed by just four guys. The difference between their enthusiasm and the boredom of the major publishers was palpable. And the audience responded in kind.
But the client doesn't seem to be gamers, either. Last year saw a bold choice, honouring The Walking Dead with Game of the Year. The rest of the show was still a big advertisement, but the recognition of something so antithetical to the typical big-budget front-runner honored by the VGAs sent a message this show might be turning the corner.
Last night's VGX instead retreated into a dissonant mix of trade-publication insularity and rote quips about geek culture whose lack of effort all but openly insulted the audience. Joel McHale, the actor and comedian, was a poor choice to accompany Geoff Keighley, whose role in years past was more in backstage interviews and news coverage. They had no chemistry, making their three hours together seem like six, especially through a painfully long fill of five extra minutes between the musical number and the night's final trailer.
McHale's fuck-it approach to reading his scripted lines was alienating; the rest of his material indicated he didn't know the difference between laughing with someone or laughing at them. He made an indecipheral crack about "NBA 2K-oh-Five" when NBA 2K14 won best sports game (a category whose finalists — the usual four Good Sports Games of NBA 2K, FIFA, NHL and MLB the Show — show how little the genre had to offer this year). After Randy Pitchford of Gearbox Software and Kevin Bruner of Telltale Games revealed Tales from the Borderlands, and had a little mutual-admiration-society dialogue about each other's work, McHale utterly bombed an ad-lib, asking if their new game would be available on the Atari 2600.
In fairness to McHale, though, I don't know how I'd comment on the game without making some kind of inside joke like "Kenny will remember that." It's two studio heads talking about an upcoming project that doesn't even have a release date. How often do you see actors and directors talking about incomplete work on a talk show, much less at an awards show? The choice to go in this direction paid almost no dividends, and were a fount of unintentional comedy and awkward moments.
With so few good moments, the show's three-hour length became even more glaring. At times, Keighley looked like he wanted to disappear into the earth. McHale signaled his desire to be anywhere else so clearly he should have been holding semaphore flags. Why not, a prop joke wouldn't fall any more flat than his others. The comedy sketches from Internet regulars like Pewdiepie and Mega 64 were shrill abuses of a single joke or theme; had McHale warmed up the room, maybe they could have gone better, but I doubt it.
Yet still, gamers care — they care what this show thinks of them, and they care what it thinks of itself, too. They care enough to offer their own show plans, ones that are a little more subdued, observant of the night's ostensible purpose, and still deliver the extravagance of world premiere trailers and new announcements that are now an inextricable part of the VGA/X's character.
McHale made a passive-aggressive remark about reading viewers' dissatisfaction with VGX live over Twitter. His tone was unmistakable: I don't care. That was the problem all night long. I don't know how you put on a good show if you don't care. Ordinary gamers do care. Maybe that's why fixing the show seems so easy to them the morning after.