Indie games still struggle to win recognition at The Game Awards

The nominees for the 2022 Game Awards dropped November 14, creating an annual water cooler moment for gaming fans — for better or worse. Whenever the list is announced, you can be sure to hear the word “snub” reverberate across social media as fans question why games they like didn’t get into certain categories. Of course, the reality is that there are countless games released every year and very few spots to represent them all. Only the cream of the crop are going to get in, and that’s always going to result in some sore feelings.

This year’s nominations especially sting, though. Scroll through the list of nominees and you’ll feel like you’ll see a select few games repeated over and over. God of War Ragnarok picked up 10 nominations in just about any category it was eligible for, and Elden Ring predictably grabbed seven, even netting an unexpected nomination for Best Narrative. Other big budget titans like Horizon Forbidden West and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II had strong showings, nabbing multiple nominations apiece.

The nominations weren’t quite as kind to independent games. Though a handful made the cut, some of the year’s best-reviewed titles struggled to earn recognition outside of indie-focused categories. The contentious results raise fair questions about the way we play and what kinds of games merit recognition. Is it an even playing field when it feels like only the games with the biggest budgets truly get to compete?

Scale wins

Indie games have always struggled to make headway at The Game Awards since its inception. Last year’s ceremony marked the first time an indie won Game of the Year thanks to It Takes Two, but that stands as the show’s biggest outlier. Scrub back to 2020 and you’ll be hard pressed to find too many indie games even nominated in major categories aside from Hades. Instead, titles like The Last of Us Part II, Doom Eternal, and Ghost of Tsushima filled the ballot.

It Takes Two's main characters ride frog taxis.

This year’s show is similar, though with some encouraging exceptions. Stray picked up an impressive six nominations, while Immortality nabbed some high-profile nods in Best Narrative, Best Performance, and Best Game Direction. Smaller, but equally acclaimed titles, didn’t quite get the same recognition. Neon White, one of the year’s top-reviewed titles, only nabbed a Best Action nomination outside of its indie category placement. Vampire Survivors and Cult of the Lamb picked up one nomination each, while games like The Case of the Golden Idol and Signalis were overlooked entirely.

Even when indies do win big, the games that get recognition tend to walk in the footsteps of larger games. It Takes Two is an EA-backed project that plays like a high-end Nintendo platformer, complete with a story influenced by Hollywood animation. A Plague Tale: Requiem, a AA game that received a Game of the Year nomination this year, is essentially The Last of Us on a lower budget. Even Stray is flashy compared to something like Strange Horticulture, building on 3D adventure game tropes.

The reality of the show is that it’s currently impossible to imagine an acclaimed title like Citizen Sleeper making its way into categories like Game of the Year or Best Narrative, no matter its quality. It can leave gaming’s big night feeling like a contest of scale designed for companies like Sony to excel in.

Mass appeal

To be clear, The Game Awards isn’t at fault here. One could lobby criticism at its category choices, which favor popular genres like action while leaving less space for smaller games that think outside the box, but it offers a lot of space for a wide array of games to break through. Ultimately the awards are determined through a democratic process, with nominations picked by a massive jury of publications (Digital Trends sits on this year’s jury and submitted our own nomination ballot).

That’s where the topic gets complicated.

Kratos holds Atreus' face in God of War: Ragnarok.

There’s a logistical problem here that’s difficult to work around. Countless excellent games are released every year and each voter realistically can’t play them all. It isn’t like the Oscars where someone could feasibly knock out five movies in a day and still have time to get a full night’s sleep. Massive games like God of War Ragnarok and Elden Ring demand a tremendous amount of time and attention from voters who may feel like they have to prioritize them to stay up to date with the wider social conversations around games. It explains why an indie like Stray might find its way at the top of the class, as its launch generated a massive social moment thanks to its cute cat premise.

Time management tends to favor what’s hot, and that leaves limited space for someone to choose between compelling, but less popular, games like Norco or The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. The more you scale up a voting base — not just for The Game Awards, but for year-end discussions generally — you tend to see the conversation shift toward games that have some level of mass appeal. Indie titles need to campaign twice as hard to make it on the list, while AAA titles are a foregone conclusion.

All of that leaves anything like The Game Awards feeling less like the Oscars and more like the MTV Movie Awards. It’s like seeing a Best Picture field dominated by Top Gun Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Batman, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (which actually did score a nomination for Best Adaptation). The biggest marketing draws reign supreme while groundbreaking indies are left fighting for a few spots that they’ll likely lose to whatever PlayStation’s biggest release is that year.

Screenshot of a horde of monsters attacking in Vampire Survivors.

There’s no easy solution here, because any problem that The Game Awards has is simply a social one. Until the wider gaming industry values smaller games the same way it does a money-maker like God of War Ragnarok, any large-scale, democratized attempt to determine the best games of a given year will be skewed.

If a game you love got snubbed, the best thing you can do is champion it as loudly as you can on whatever platform you have. Share it with friends and hope that good word of mouth helps it build up the social status a game needs to earn the recognition it deserves. When a system is gamed, game it back.

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