We’re just breaking the edge of the holiday season, and predictions for next year’s Oscars have already taken off. There’s an award show coming up a bit sooner, though, and while not every moviegoer may know it, video gamers are a different story. Get ready for the Golden Joystricks — the largest, longest running awards show in video game history.
On October 30, the Golden Joysticks holds its 33rd annual award ceremony since its inception in 1983. Since then, the awards have grown from five categories (Best Arcade Game, Best Strategy Game, Best Original Game, Game of the Year and Software House of the Year) to 21 this year.
Not taking into account the popularity of the ceremony, the Golden Joysticks would be significant for their longevity alone. Unlike the film world, it’s hard to point to many video game-themed award shows that have withstood the test of time very well. There was Spike TV’s Video Game Awards, or VGAs, which received mixed reviews throughout its 10-year run before crashing and burning in its final year as the rebranded VGX. The British Academy Games Awards have been ongoing in some form since 1997, but fail to hold much attention or viewership. If history tells us anything, obscurity or self-destruction seem fated for most video game award shows.
The Golden Joysticks are set apart from other gaming ceremonies thanks to a recurring populist angle. Also known as the “People’s Gaming Awards,” the winning games are decided not by committee but by popular vote, nine million of which were cast during last year’s ceremony. Their voting options, of course, are curated.
It’s evident in the latest nominations list that the Golden Joysticks have put some effort into keeping up with the rapidly changing state of the gaming world today, which could be another reason why they’ve held on to the title of biggest award show. In particular, the awards have lately shifted focus towards gaming culture, as well as the games themselves. New categories this year include eSports icon of the year, a long-overdue acknowledgement of the increasingly popular world of competitive gaming. “Best Gaming Personality,” a relatively new award which appeared last year, pays homage to the legions of video streamers who now make up a large part of how games are experienced and consumed in recent years.
But it remains to be seen whether any of these categories will stick around for long. Each year, the lineup tends toward instability. Already, the Joysticks are shying away from showcasing the industry, losing the “Lifetime Achievement” category after just two years.
Previously, it would have been easy to flog the Joysticks for reflecting an ignorance of the indie gaming scene. This year, though, while the “Best Indie Game” category remains a ghetto for smaller productions, independently developed games fill out the rosters of several categories, and dominate the categories of “Best Storytelling” and “Best Original Game.”
But “Innovation of the year,” a category in which indie games should shine, focuses disproportionately on technology. One of the nominations, a first-person mode for the latest “Grand Theft Auto” game, is particularly disappointing when considering that independent games have been leading the pack on new and experimental game design for years. We might have instead seen “With Those We Love Alive,” an interactive fiction game that involves marking on your skin as gameplay, or “Dondondondon,” where you power your spaceship by blowing into a breathalyzer? Both are more compelling innovations than head tracking for the 3DS.
At least this year the full-motion-video murder mystery “Her Story,” a challenging narrative game developed by a single person, is nominated for “Ultimate Game of the Year” alongside titanous productions like “Batman: Arkham Knight,” “Dragon Age: Inquisition,” and “Destiny” — the latter of which cost $500 million to make and had a team of over 500 people developing it. There’s an impish delight to looking down the list of developers in the category and passing EA, Activision, Konami and reaching Sam Barlow, who made “Her Story” while raising his son.
The curators of this year’s Golden Joysticks do seem to be riding for it, though: appearing in eight categories, “Her Story” has the second-most nominations in the award show so far, with only FromSoftware’s “Bloodborne” beating it out at nine. Still, it might not be wise to put money on “Her Story” winning Game of the Year, not for lack of quality but lack of reach.
Ultimately, the Golden Joysticks have a hard time escaping their status as a popularity contest, and upsets are rare. Marketing dollars and name recognition mean a whole lot, and many gamers may not have even heard of “Her Story” by the time they vote.
But the most intriguing aspect of the Golden Joysticks has already come and gone: the nominations, the unveiling of new awards, the whole business of curation. It always feels a few seconds behind, an inch out of touch — the efforts of a funhouse mirror, trying to reflect back on the gaming world what it thinks players want to see.