Every year The Game Awards disappoints us all by choosing a list of five or six games to contend for Game of the Year that usually makes little to no sense. They always nominate the arguably but not necessarily correct choice, a correct second choice when compared to the first, two or three games that are justifiable but not really contenders, and inevitably one game that just absolutely should not be there, ultimately robbing a more deserving game. For this post, I only want to talk about the Game of the Year category from The Game Awards. I won’t discuss any of the other categories.
This year the nominees for Game of the Year, listed in the order as shown on The Game Awards nomination page are:
- Death Stranding
- Resident Evil 2 Remake
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Smash Bros. Ultimate
- The Outer Worlds
As soon as the nominees were announced, the debates and vitriol started to hit social media, as is tradition. This happens to be one of those really divisive years that always happens when a Kojima game is involved. I ended up tweeting a long thread about my views on how GOTY should be picked but then I realized that writing a blog post on the topic would be more appropriate because it would let me expand and describe my thoughts on the subject better than a string of 280 character blurbs. If you’d like to see the original twitter thread you can find it unrolled for easy viewing here.
I want to clarify that the purpose of this post is not to try to tell people who to vote for specifically but rather to create an objective system for how people should approach voting for GOTY in general. This isn’t meant to be applied to any particular year of nominees but rather should act as a general guide that could be applied to any list of nominees in any year.
I think the first and most important part of choosing a GOTY is first defining what the term “Game of the Year” actually means, or more specifically should mean. As with real politics, a lot of people think GOTY means the nominee they enjoyed the most. This is incorrect thinking, in my opinion. GOTY, as with actual politicians, isn’t meant to best quantify your tastes in the options available. It’s meant to best exemplify the traits/values that define the award. In other words, you’re not supposed to vote for the thing you like but rather the thing that best exemplifies the topic you’re voting on. If you’re asked to vote which number is higher and the candidates are 5, 9, and 42, you’re supposed to vote for 42. It doesn’t matter if you like 5 better than 42. 42 is the highest number and thus the correct nominee to vote for. I believe GOTY can and should be approached with the same level of objectivity. The subjective portion is the debate about which of the nominees best meets the criteria of GOTY, but the criteria itself should be objective and the only basis of voting applied by each individual voter. That is to say, we might not agree on which game should be chosen as GOTY, but we should all agree on what GOTY is supposed to mean and be voting for whatever nominee we ultimately chose for the exact same reasons.
So let’s define what GOTY actually means, or more accurately is supposed to mean. Listed on The Game Awards page as the description for the Game of the Year category is the following: Recognizing a game that delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields. That’s what GOTY is. It doesn’t say “Game I liked the Most” or “Game that got the Best User Score on Metacritic”. It’s supposed to be the game that best exemplifies the craft of overall game design and implementation within the highly competitive and comparative medium of video games. Let’s unpack that.
I believe that choosing the GOTY, based on the described category by The Game Awards, requires looking at several factors while considering a number of key points in order to keep things fair and balanced between the nominees. I’ll go over each one, in no particular order, separately before making a final conclusion on what I believe the GOTY pick for this year should be.
A Game is made up of 5 Equally Weighted Factors
There is always debate about what matters most in a game. Is it the story, the gameplay, the graphics, or something else? Are certain factors more important than others? Can developers get a pass for cheaping out in specific areas of development? In my opinion the answer is always no. At base value a game consists of five areas of creativity that define its presentation to the player: Gameplay, Writing, Graphics, Audio, Length. None of these factors are more important than the others. They are all equally important in the creation of a video game and should all be weighted equally when comparing games. This is similar to how I have always approached reviews save for a larger focus on replay value and cost. The category isn’t Shooter of the Year. It’s GOTY. So the gameplay shouldn’t outweigh the story, because the story is no less important than the gameplay when “recognizing a game that delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields”.
A GOTY has to do all five things in tandem better than all the other nominees. The art of game development is understanding that there are limits to what can be done in each field with the time and resources available during development and deciding what can be sacrificed while maintaining an overall standard of quality higher than all the other games released that year, and ideally in previous years as well.
I’d like to take some time to discuss length specifically because it’s always a topic of debate. The appropriate length of a game is a very subjective topic that is often muddied by concepts like replay value. In my opinion, length also needs to be directly tied to actual value as defined by cost. I also think that a game being too long is just as problematic as a game being too short, but when factoring in value the longer game is always better than the shorter one. Replay value needs to be factored based on the level of direct repetition and the actual value of replay as opposed to subjective enjoyment.
A game that’s only 20 hours long that you enjoyed enough to play twice isn’t equitable to a game that’s 40 hours in one playthrough. Because it’s not accurate to say that everyone will want to replay the game. Replay value can only be counted towards length if there’s a legitimate reward of value for taking the time to replay it. This is hard for many games to do well; especially in the current landscape where nearly 100% of gamers are backlogged. There is no objective value in replaying Cuphead on the harder difficulty after completing it on the standard difficulty. If you completed it without using the easy mode then you experienced everything it has to offer content wise. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t replay the game on the harder difficulty if that’s what you want to do. But the game doesn’t magically double in length compared to the length of other games because you want to take the time to play it again. There’s no additional content, no meaningful rewards, and no alternate/additional story content gained from replaying the game on a harder than normal difficulty. It’s simply for love of the game, which can’t legitimately be applied because not everyone will love the game enough to want to play it again just for the fun of it.
Multiplayer replay value is not authentic replay value. The length should only be counted based on the time it takes you to experience it all once. An hour of maps that you play 50 times is not objectively 50 hours of added gameplay. It’s one hour of gameplay you replayed 50 times. Length should only be defined by the amount of time it takes at face value to experience all the content the game has to offer one time.
GOTY doesn’t have to be replayable. It simply needs to provide the correct amount of gameplay for the best overall experience. A well-crafted one and done is no more or less valid than a game that asks you to play it multiple times. Especially if those replays offer little in the way of actual value outside of subjective enjoyment.
Each of the five topics should be weighted equally but compared separately between games. A game with shitty gameplay and great story is not better than a game with great gameplay and shitty story. Both are equally bad and should lose out to a game with both above average gameplay and story. But again it’s best of five categories. A game that does length, story, and audio better than a game that does gameplay and graphics better should win between the two. Because it’s a 3 factors to 2 factors comparison at that point. And three is higher than two. Now ideally this isn’t what ends up happening because it would be odd if in a given year the winner had garbage gameplay and graphics but the other nominees all had garbage audio, were too short, and were terribly written.
The Nominees Are the Nominees
The Game Awards gets the nominees as a whole wrong pretty much every year. There’s always at least one that just shouldn’t be there and there’s always at least one that absolutely got robbed. Last year it was Celeste that shouldn’t have been nominated. This year it’s Control. And make no mistake, no matter how much you personally may have liked Control, it wasn’t a more qualified contender for GOTY than Devil May Cry V, Astral Chain, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I have my thoughts about why Control was nominated but it doesn’t really matter. The nominees are the nominees and we can’t change that. Rather than fight about would should have been nominated, we should just accept the nominees and pick the appropriate choice from that pre-determined list of games and make sure not to allow the off pick to win or it could have devastating long term ramifications for the industry. It would have been absolutely horrendous if God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 had lost to Celeste last year. And I’m speaking as someone who enjoys playing Celeste.
Ports, Remasters, Remakes, and Reimaginings
There is always debate about the validity and fairness of reused, rehashed, and remade games being contenders for GOTY. It’s a valid question and it’s hard to create a completely objective set of rules, but there are definitely obvious points that shouldn’t be considered debatable.
The issue comes down to comparative fairness, effort/work put in, and not allowing double counting. A game gets only one chance to win GOTY. Many games have come over the years that in other years would have definitely won GOTY. But that’s not how it works. A game has to be the best in the year it was released because all the games previously made were made with the knowledge of how the market responded to those past games. Letting a game get considered twice gives it an unfair advantage and more chances to win than every other game. It’s differentiating original games and their rereleased counter parts that’s tricky, but I say when in doubt always error on the side of caution.
The question of fairness comes down to work put in compared to other studios in order to achieve comparable results, in each category. When given two games with similar levels of quality and no clearly superior choice, the one that did more work should be considered the winner.
Reimaginings don’t really need to be debated. If it’s a true reimagining where everything is redone, rewritten, and changed to the point of it not even being the same original game, then of course it should be considered as a potential GOTY candidate. Ratchet & Clank (2016) is an excellent example of a true reimagining that was absolutely valid to consider for GOTY. Note that “considered” does not mean “had an actual chance of winning” in this context.
Ports and remasters by their very nature aren’t new games. Updating the graphics and adding a little DLC doesn’t compare to creating an entirely new game. The amount of time put into concept development, art style, visual assets, story development, voice acting, and so on just doesn’t compare to making a new game of similar quality. A port already got its chance at GOTY in its original form and shouldn’t be considered again. Remasters are glorified ports. A bit more work may have been put into improving them, but the bulk of the foundational work still doesn’t compare to all the new games released in a given year. Looking at examples like The Last of Us and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe from years past, it should be fairly obvious that like ports, remasters have no business being reconsidered as GOTY contenders.
Remakes are where things get tricky to define. There is no objective criteria for defining a remake. Some are little more than glorified remasters while others are completely new games. Some are able to reuse tons of assets while others have to start almost completely from scratch save for writing. So they need to be judged on a case by case basis. The one thing I think should be 100% undebatable is that in the event of a tie the remake should always lose out to an original release in the same year. Again, we need to take into account all five categories. The problem is that a true remake, such as Link’s Awakening, involves almost no creative development. The writing, assets, music, and length are all predefined. Yes a lot of work needs to be done to recreate those assets, but the creative aspects of the project simply don’t compare to that of making a new game from scratch. But again, it’s all comparative. If a remake looks genuinely better than all the original nominees in a given year then you give it the point for graphics. But if other games look similar or as good, then you award that point to one of the original titles. Directly ported things like writing shouldn’t be considered as valid for comparison. The points should never go to the reused content.
This year’s nominees include Resident Evil 2 Remake. At face value many people do believe it was GOTY for 2019. I have to disagree. From what I’ve heard, the only thing about it that’s truly original is the gameplay. It’s been essentially redesigned. Everything else is pretty much a spirited recreation of the original game. That’s not to argue that Resident Evil 2 Remake isn’t a good game. Not including it is more an issue of fairness than an issue of quality.
I’m sure this issue will come up again with FFVII Remake next year. The difference is that Square Enix has stated that it will be intentionally different from the original. Having already tried the gameplay myself, I can say that it certainly looks and feels like a completely different game. But until we see how much of the game has changed from both a narrative and length standpoint it’s impossible to comment on whether or not it’s actually fair to consider it.
Game of the Year Doesn’t Mean Studio of the Year
A major issue that comes up a lot when judging games is the consideration of who made the game. This shouldn’t actually matter when picking a GOTY. The studio, director, actors, and so on are irrelevant. No matter how much you love Kojima, that doesn’t make Death Stranding a better game than it is. No matter how much you hate Ubisoft, that doesn’t make Ghost Recon: Breakpoint a worse game than it is. Games should be judged in a vacuum that only takes into account the comparative quality of each nominee. External factors, with the exception of how much content is actually original in the case of remake and remasters, should never be considered when choosing GOTY.
Sales Numbers Matter, Long-term Popularity Doesn’t
GOTY implies it’s the game of the year for everyone, or more accurately a large percentage of gamers. That means that people had to actually play it, which implies they had to actually be interested in it. This is the sole reason that Control wasn’t appropriate to nominate. If a few people absolutely love a game, that’s great. But it’s not GOTY material. Because games are experiences made for an established gaming market. Making games that don’t appeal to that market may be innovative, but that’s not the point of GOTY. A contender needs to actually appeal to the community in order to be considered worthy of the title. Regardless of how much some people like a game, if few people were even interested enough to try the game then it’s not GOTY material. That doesn’t mean that the bestselling game in a given year should win that year. But there does need to be a minimum number of units sold to be able to imply that it appealed to a large percentage of gamers. Because GOTY is for everyone. Not just a small subset of people within a specific sub-group within the gaming community. Every gamer should be able to look at the GOTY and acknowledge it as a legitimate choice even if it wasn’t their favorite game in that year. That’s what was so good about the 2018 nominees. While there were two fairly clear frontrunners, five of the six nominees could have been chosen and no one would have legitimately been able to say the choice was biased. All six of the nominees were highly acclaimed and sold well. “Everyone” loved them all. Celeste wasn’t up to the standard of the AAA titles which is why it shouldn’t have been nominated, but other than that any of the games in the running appealed to gamers as a whole as opposed to a niche audience. You can’t say that about necessarily any of the nominees this year, mostly because the wrong games were nominated, but some games get closer than others. The ones that get closest are the ones that should actually be considered for GOTY.
The problem with the entire concept of GOTY is that it takes a year to decide on the nominees. That means that a game has to stay in people’s heads for a year. Honestly that’s a ridiculous ask. Because as I’ve said, one and done games are perfectly legitimate GOTY contenders. Take a game like Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. It just released in November 2019. It will be included in the running for GOTY 2020 because it missed the 2019 cutoff. The reviews are great. The public loves it as well. It might be the best EA game we’ve gotten since Mass Effect 3 and the best Star Wars game since The Force Unleashed II. But it’s ridiculous to think that we’ll still be talking about it in November 2020. Why? Because we’re about to go through a year containing Cyberpunk 2077, Nioh 2, The Last of Us Part 2, Marvel’s Avengers, Final Fantasy VII Remake, DOOM Eternal, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon just to name a few of the games coming in 2020. Even if Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is the objectively best game to release in the next year, we absolutely won’t still be talking about it after reaching the end of this gauntlet of big budget games and power house IPs. That’s not a fault of the game. It’s just the reality of an ADD ridden consumer base coupled with a constantly moving stream of new noteworthy games. It’s ridiculous to think we should still be talking about games we’ve already finished and moved on from after playing five or ten other impressive games released after it.
Currently a lot of people are saying Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn’t being talked about anymore so it shouldn’t be nominated. That’s an irrelevant point. Since that game released in March, we’ve gotten Yoshi’s Crafted World, Mortal Kombat 11, Days Gone, Judgement, Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, Daemon X Machina, Link’s Awakening Remake, The Surge 2, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Death Stranding, and Control. Of course we’re not still talking about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Why would we be? And this was considered a mediocre year by the way. It’s this thinking that I believe ultimately led to Devil May Cry V getting robbed of a nomination. It’s simply too old by this point, because it came out before Sekiro did.
It doesn’t matter if we’re still talking about a game when the awards season comes up. What matters is how the game compares in the five expressed categories compared to the other games released that same year coupled with whether or not it reached the unwritten popularity by sales threshold. Remember that Sekiro was the third highest selling Japanese game ever to release on Steam. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide within 10 days of release. It absolutely deserves to be considered as a legitimate contender for GOTY.
Innovation Doesn’t Mean GOTY
Innovation is a good thing in the gaming industry. But only if the innovation pans out as a positive thing. Games are still products made for consumers in an established market. If a product doesn’t appeal to that market, then it shouldn’t matter how innovative it is. Look at the Wii U. It was extremely innovative. People didn’t like it. We didn’t award it console of the year simply because it dared to be different. Nintendo went back to the drawing board and tried again. Now we have the Switch, which is super successful. Awarding GOTY strictly because of innovation is incorrect thinking. A game still has to appeal to the market and hit all the other points I’ve expressed in order to legitimately be considered for GOTY. Innovation is good, but a lack of innovation isn’t automatically problematic. If the people want the same old thing then a studio can and quite possibly should choose to give that to them. Because remember what GOTY means: a game that delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields. The fields never change. How studios approach them does but the same five categories are set in stone and will be for the foreseeable future. This is the question that needs to be asked about Death Stranding. A lot of people have argued that it’s the most innovative game in years so it should win. I disagree with that thinking. It may very well be the most innovative game we’ve seen in years. But does it beat out the other nominees for gameplay, writing, length, audio, and graphics? Maybe it does. If you think it actually does then that’s the game you should vote for. If you think it leads in innovation but not in a majority of the actual categories, then it’s objectively the incorrect game you should be voting for this year.
In conclusion, your GOTY vote shouldn’t be for the game you personally liked the most. It should go to the game that you believe best meets the criteria set by The Game Awards which is defined as “recognizing a game that delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields”. All the nominees should be compared based on all the major factors that make up a gaming experience: gameplay, graphics, audio, writing, and length (based on value as defined by price).
Looking at the nominees, I have to say that the wrong list of six games was nominated for this year. But as I said, the nominees are the nominees and that can’t be changed. So we must compare these six games and make a GOTY selection based on them. The fact is that Control didn’t sell well and we don’t really have any sales figures available for The Outer Worlds other than the phrase “exceeded expectations”, whatever that means. Honestly both of those games weren’t nearly as popular as they needed to be to consider as legitimate GOTY contenders. I don’t think they even need to be compared to the rest of the group. Death Stranding I actually feel like is getting hyped due to Kojima and how close to the nominations announcement it released, so I will absolutely acknowledge it as a contender but I don’t believe something that niche would have necessarily been nominated over many of the games that got snubbed if it had released earlier in the year. Resident Evil 2 remake was definitely popular, definitely well made, and definitely a safe choice to nominate. But because of the fact that it’s a remake, I believe there are games that didn’t get nominated that are at least as if not more worthy for a nomination than it was. So I won’t consider it a legitimate pick for this year either. Really it comes down to Death Stranding, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice as the only objectively acceptable picks for GOTY based on this list of nominees.
It’s interesting that two of these three nominees are console exclusives (at the time of nomination) and all three are Japanese developed games. Smash Bros. Ultimate is the most massively appealing with more than 12 million units sold the month of release as a console exclusive. But sales figures aren’t the only thing that matters. In fact, it’s not even close to the most important thing. So let’s go down the list of categories one by one.
Game of the Year 2019 Assessment
For gameplay I’d say Death Stranding is the most innovative, but it’s also the least appealing to a general audience of gamers. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has the most controversial gameplay, having spawned an online controversy about accessibility in games. Smash Bros. Ultimate has the most accessible gameplay, but I’d also say it was the least innovative because this is several sequels into the franchise. But a lack of innovation isn’t a bad thing if it appeals to the consumer base. And the amount of additional fighters has drastically impacted the gameplay, even if only marginally to casual players. So I actually think that an argument could be made that Smash Bros. Ultimate wins out for gameplay not because the gameplay is necessarily superior but because of the three it’s the most widely liked/tolerated gameplay with little to no real controversy surrounding it.
It’s easy to say that Smash Bros. Ultimate has the least impressive graphics because of the art style but it also has the largest number of characters, settings, and objects of the three games in question. Counting it out really comes down to bias for art style more than objective comparison. That being said, many of the assets used in Smash Bros. Ultimate have been recycled from past games. Death Stranding has a much more expansive map than Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but I wouldn’t argue that it’s necessarily a better looking game. Sekiro also has a lot more movement and interacting elements than Death Stranding. Between the three, I would give the win to Sekiro but I believe an argument can be made to award it to Death Stranding as well. Remember that the grading is subjective by nature. It’s the approach to grading that needs to remain objective.
Comparing these three games for audio is tough. For music, it goes to Smash Bros. Ultimate. It has the largest library of music that pretty much any game has ever had. The sound effects for this fast paced fighting game are also fairly accurate and of great quality, especially for the hardware the game runs on. I’d probably award the audio category to Death Stranding over Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but having not completed either game yet, I’m willing to acknowledge that my view on that could be inaccurate. When considering that most of the audio library for Smash Bros. Ultimate isn’t original content, I have to award the audio category to Death Stranding.
How do you compare length between a game with countless repetitive side missions, a die countless times Soulsborne title, and a fighting game? Honestly it’s hard to really define the length of any of these games and it’s even harder to decide if at least two of the games are the correct length for what they are. According to How Long to Beat, which isn’t necessarily a perfectly accurate rating system for game length, Sekiro is 27.5 hours for the main story while Death Stranding is 36. In general, longer is better if we assume neither game is longer than it needs to be. But there is an assumption that dying countless times to the same boss counts as fun. Equally so, there’s an assumption that delivering packages over and over is fun. The difference is that delivering packages is the point of the game, while dying is more of a repercussion of not playing the game well. The speedrun times for Sekiro come in at under 30 minutes while the speedrun times for Death Stranding come in at more than five hours while skipping cutscenes. So between the two I think Death Stranding beats out Sekiro for length. But we need to talk about Smash Bros. Ultimate. This is a fighting game, but it’s probably the most comprehensive fighting game ever made. There are 69 default characters plus six more DLC characters. If you play just 10 minutes per a default character, you’re already at 11.5 hours. The World of Light story mode is easily a three or more hour experience on its own. The spirit board mode is constantly updating. Plus there are a number of other modes like Classic Mode and the later added Homerun Contest all at no additional cost. Even if you never replay a single match and don’t play any online or PVP matches, you’re still getting way more bang for your buck from Smash Bros. Ultimate than you are in Death Stranding without having to arbitrarily add length to the games. So objectively speaking I have to award length to Smash Bros. Ultimate.
At a glance most people will award the writing category to Death Stranding simply because it’s Kojima. I am not one of those people. I have always held that Kojima is a mediocre writer with interesting ideas. The fact that he uses names like Die Hardman, Deadman, and Mama for his characters is proof that he’s kind of an overrated hack when it comes to writing. That being said, his general narrative ideas are fairly good. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn’t necessarily amazing writing, but it is some of the best writing to come out of FromSoftware in this genre for the simple fact that the game actually has a running narrative with a defined main protagonist as opposed to the usual character creation lore fest with no actually story they use in Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Smash Bros. Ultimate needs to be commended for having actually created a story mode that had an actual story. Was it high writing? No. But it was a huge leap forward for the franchise as far as narrative content is concerned. Really all three games can be awarded this category for different reasons depending on how much stock you put into innovation, outside the usual box development practices, and your own narrative preferences. So I actually won’t award this category to any one game and will leave it as a three way tie.
Based on my assessments, here are the final results.
- Gameplay – Smash Bros. Ultimate
- Graphics – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Audio – Death Stranding
- Length – Smash Bros. Ultimate
- Writing – Three Way Tie
Based on these results here are the final scores.
- Smash Bros. Ultimate – 3 Points
- Death Stranding – 2 Points
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – 2 Points
Ultimately I voted for Smash Bros. Ultimate as GOTY. At first glance I had chosen Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and had even tweeted as such when debating it with someone who had read my original thread. But after taking the time to really examine the games, I came to the conclusion that the objectively correct choice for me was Smash Bros. Ultimate, as I have shown here.
Now again, I’m not saying you should vote for Smash Bros. Ultimate. I’m saying that your vote should be justified with an objective criteria that adequately meets the definition of the GOTY category as defined by The Game Awards. Your vote should not simply be the game you liked the most or that was the most popular on social media. Even the game that had the highest Metacritic score isn’t automatically the correct choice. Only by comparing the games with an objective set of criteria that is fairly applied to all of them with as little bias as possible can we hope to accurately choose the GOTY. Voting for this year’s GOTY is still open until December 11th at 6PM so so make sure you vote and do your best to vote objectively.