The games of the year, according to GDC’s award winners

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The awards ceremony at this year’s GDC was fun. At least, that’s what John told me from his seat in the crowd, where he saw the winners mount a stage some would consider too colourful for this planet. The Independent Games Festival Awards and subsequent Game Developer’s Choice Awards saw a range of trophy-grabbers, from indie students to adventure game veterans. Unfortunately for them, I was hiding backstage, skulking behind a black curtain and holding a voice recorder like a cudgel. I had one question to ask them all: If they had to give their award away, who would get it?

It’s like re-gifting, except you worked really hard for the gift and now you have to hand it over three minutes after your acceptance speech. Life is pain.

Here are the games and developers I robbed of victory, along with their personal choices for who really deserves to win.

IGF Awards

Chuchel – Amanita Design (Excellence In Visual Design)

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RPS: Hello! How do you pronounce this game?

Jakub Dvorský (Producer): Well, the official pronunciation is Choo-chel. But it’s a Czech word and as Czechs we pronounce it Hoo-hel.

RPS: Khoo-kell.

Lukas Kunce (Assistant Producer): You’re good. Usually people aren’t really good when trying to pronounce it in the —

RPS: Coo-hhhel

Kunce: –Czech, original way but… you did great, yeah.

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RPS: If you had to give this award to any of the other nominees, who do you think deserves it?

Kunce: I think we can be pretty honest w–

Dvorský: Cuphead!

Kunce: Cuphead, yeah. We were joking [about] that when we were going through the nominations, that we were quite excited to see Chuchel but then we saw Cuphead and everybody was like, “Okay, no award for us.” So that’s why we’re so surprised to get this award.

Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy – Bennett Foddy (Nuovo Award)

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RPS: Why do you make your games so hard?

Foddy: They’re not hard! They’re just frustrating. There’s a difference. A hard game is one that you will never finish, this is a game that will make you feel frustrated but eventually you’ll get there. I believe in you.

RPS: If you had to give your award to another nominee, who do you think deserves it?

Foddy: In Nuovo, I think all of those games are deserving, of course.

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RPS: Come on, we need one.

Foddy: I’m very fond of 10 Mississippi which Karina Popp made in one of my classes, there’s a very soft spot in my heart for that game.

RPS: That’s biased.

Foddy: It is biased, but you asked.

CelesteMatt Makes Games Inc (Audience Award)

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RPS: I just saw Bennett Foddy. Do you think his game should have an assist mode?

Matt Thorson (Designer): No. It would ruin that game because the whole point of that game is frustration. He was telling me that Celeste should just be like this: where if you die you go back to the start. Or have the possibility of that happening, and I was like: “I dunno, man.”

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RPS: If you had to give this award to somebody else, who’re you going to give it to?

Thorson: Probably Into The Breach, I’ve been playing that a lot and loving it. I’m just really enjoying it, it’s just a really good game.

GDC Awards

What Remains of Edith Finch – Giant Sparrow (Best Narrative)

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RPS: Which Finch had the best death?

Chris Bell (Lead Designer): Best DEATH!?

Michael Kwan (Technical Designer): Oh man, I’m really partial to, oh, what was his name, Gus? Daniel?

Bell: Kite?

Kwan: No, swing-set.

Bell: Calvin.

Kwan: Yeah! Oh my god. That was the first one that really struck me.

RPS: I like that you classify these characters by death.

Kwan: Their names changed a lot.

Bell: I’m gonna say, best death is… Lewis’ is really sad. It can be read as a suicide. He experienced the loss of his brother and then he got cloistered by his mom and had to have his imagination go somewhere and it was cool to help create that, and that meant a lot to people.

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RPS: Obviously, you won your award, but if you had to give it to another nominee who’d get it?

Bell: I blacked out, I don’t know what the other nominees are.

Kwan: Yeah, I cannot keep track of it right now.

Bell: Kids. That was an IGF nom.

Kwan: Baba Is You was probably the most interesting game I’ve seen in a long time, so I’m gonna give an award to that even though it’s not a “narrative”.

Rami Ismail (Ambassador Award)

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RPS: I’ve been asking everyone tonight who they’d give their awards to. But it seems kind of churlish to ask you to do that.

Ismail: Oo! I think the weird thing is that I don’t think I would give it to anybody, I think I’d give it to everybody that’s not here. Is that an option? Everybody that wanted to be here but is not in this room.

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RPS: Well, what do you think deserves to win Game of the Year at the end of the night? You can’t say “everybody” for this one!

Ismail: For me it was Nier: Automata, absolutely. It is so rare that a game immediately feels like it should be in the top five most memorable games of my life. And Nier: Automata through themes, through gameplay, through using my experience with games against me, using it as a storytelling method, I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m so glad I played that game.

Cuphead – StudioMDHR (Best Visual Art)

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RPS: How many references are in this game?

Chad Moldenhauer: Oh, so many that we probably forgot at least 20% of them.

Jared Moldenhauer: We definitely forgot some of them, but I’d say a good 500. They’re very loose though, we didn’t want anything that took the player out of it, made them think: “Now I’m not in the universe, this is a definite shout out to said game”. But there are so many minute details either in the patterning or visuals that are specifically about something that we loved when we were a kid.

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RPS: Who would you give your award to if you had to give it to someone else?

Jared: Hollow Knight? I put a lot of time into that… I was hoping to see them at GDC, I need to put in a little bit of work and make sure we cross paths but Hollow Knight was one of the first things I got to play after [development]… and I was very happy with it.

Chad: I think Hellblade, the visual style is amazing. Or maybe Night in the Woods.

RPS: You can’t have two. I’m taking your first answer.

Chad: Aw shit.

SUPERHOT – SUPERHOT Team (Best VR Game)

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RPS: What is the definitive ‘coolest way’ to kill a faceless dummy man?

Tom Kaczmarczyk (Producer): Right now, at least in the current iteration of Superhot VR, is to grab his gun right out of his hand and shoot him in the face with it.

RPS: Is any of this, that we’re experiencing right now, real?

Kaczmarczyk: I don’t think so, not to my knowledge.

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RPS: Who would you give this award to, if you had to give it to someone else?

Kaczmarczyk: Definitely not the triple-A guys, they have enough awards already. They’ve got buckets of awards.

RPS: So who’s getting it?

Kaczmarczyk: All the amazing indie VR developers that have actually pushed the medium forward… a whole swathe of –

RPS: YOU CAN ONLY GIVE IT TO ONE.

Kaczmarczyk: But everybody deserves it! Everybody does. I think I would just split it into tiny little pieces and send everybody a tiny little portion.

RPS: Ok.

Tim Schafer (Lifetime Achievement)

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RPS: How many games have you made so far, can you even remember?

Tim Schafer: No… no.

RPS: Give me a roundabout figure.

Schafer: I don’t know. Ten. Less than ten. Fewer than ten! Did I just make a less-fewer error?

RPS: Which is closest to your heart? Which do you think is most responsible for getting you here?

Schafer: They’re all so different, and each one was really personal. Psychonauts obviously, since we’re making another one… I just love those characters and I love that world. But Grim Fandango I think is the one a lot of people react to. But personally, it’s all over the map. Because Brutal Legend speaks to a specific personal time in my life when I was growing up and loving heavy metal, so a lot of personal dreams and fantasies are alive in that game.

RPS: I need ONE definitive game.

Schafer [whispering]: No, because Kinect Party is our best game and no one bought it – what am I gonna say?

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RPS: I’ve been asking everyone who they’d give their award to, under different circumstances. It almost feels cruel to ask you to do that.

Schafer: My lifetime achievement award!?

RPS: Yeah, but I mean, now that it’s broken…

Schafer: There’s some people who’ve done amazing work over the course of a career, like Siobhan Reddy from Media Molecule. I would love to see her get a lifetime achievement award because people in production, kind of behind-the-scenes, not the flashy designers, they don’t get a lot of attention but I would love to see her get it. So, there’s my answer.

Gorogoa – Buried Signal (Innovation Award)

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RPS: How do you say the name of your game?

Jason Roberts (Designer): Gor-oh-go-ah.

RPS: Not Guraw-gawah.

Roberts: That’s not how I say it. I say —

RPS: No, I think it’s Guraw-gawah.

Roberts: You know what? I accept your interpretation as valid…. That’s not how I say it, but that’s fine. It’s my fault for making it ambiguous.

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RPS: If you had to give your award to another game, what would you give it to?

Roberts: I think I might pick Everything –

RPS: [opens mouth to shout about choosing a single game]

Roberts:Everything, the David O’Reilly game, which I was up against. It’s just completely out-of-the-box insane. A very inspiring game.

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So there you have it. In the end, most of the folks I got the chance to interview gave up their awards quite peaceably. Who knew game developers loved other people’s games so much? To round things off, here’s the final list of the true greats. In other words: those who deserved to win, according to those who did win.

  • Excellence in Visual Design – Cuphead
  • Nuovo Award – 10 Mississippi
  • Audience Award – Into The Breach
  • Best Narrative – Kids/Baba Is You
  • Ambassador Award – Everyone who couldn’t get to GDC
  • Best Visual Art (GDC) – Hollow Knight/Hellblade
  • Best VR Game – Every indie VR developer also gets an infinitesimally tiny piece of this award
  • Lifetime Achievement Award – Siobhan Reddy of Media Molecule
  • Innovation Award – Everything

You can watch the whole double-bill awards ceremony for yourself, or just read the full list of winners here and here

21 Comments

  1. SaintAn says:

    Is Nier Automata really that good? Been trying to get into it, but so far it’s boring and the environment graphics look like a last gen game with textures improved for the current gen. I stopped when I was doing fetch quests for the little group of rebels or whatever.

    • surreal_pistachio says:

      I don’t know either… the gameplay, story, world, visuals, music, everything seemed average from what I played (around 20 hours?)

    • Nelyeth says:

      I have a very complicated relationship with it. On the one hand, it’s got bad textures, the gameplay is pretty shallow, the story doesn’t look anything special at first, and the quests are repetitive. On the other hand, the gameplay is slick, the artistic direction is great, the soundtrack has quickly become my personal favourite, and boy does that story hit hard when it finally decides to. Weirdly, I wouldn’t put it anywhere near my list of favourite games, but I am extremely glad I played though the whole thing.

      From my own experience, the game is pretty good for the first third, a repetitive chore in the second third (when the novelty wears out), and a blast in the third… third, because that’s when the story revs up.

      Then again, if you feel the soundtrack and story won’t be enough to counterbalance the whole “go there, mash the attack button, dodge when prompted, attack again, rinse and repeat” core loop, then it’s probably best you don’t pick it up again.

    • Don Reba says:

      I’m still waiting for a patch.

    • GameCat says:

      Sigh. I have mixed feelings too. Everything (except of music which is top notch) is so medicore there and getting to better part of the game is gated by one of the worst pacing I’ve ever seen in videogame.

      Try doing only main story quests for a while, if they don’t grab you then give up.
      Nier Automata would really benefit with beign linear game with its length cut by at least half.

      I’ve finished it (up to E ending) and ended up enjoying it, but that was despite its flaws.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      I wonder, do you have to already like JRPGs to appreciate Nier Automata? Because I have to admit without having played it, I very much do not see the appeal of that game either. On the surface it seems hopelessly generic, barren and bereft of personality (though clearly, if I ever care to bother trying it, I will be happy to admit if I am mistaken).

      • malkav11 says:

        I don’t agree with most of the criticisms people list above, but I think the idea that Nier: Automata has no personality is the furthest from reality by a country mile. It has that more than anything else in the world.

        I can’t guarantee you’d like it, but have no fear on that particular count.

    • zaldar says:

      You have to get to the second ending to see the ways the story plays with the medium but yes the game is that good – it is in fact one of the best games of all time. I mean even in gameplay it switches genres with abandon – but the story and the philosophical questions it asks are where it really shines.

  2. MrEvilGuy says:

    Excellent interviews

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    An amazing idea for an article! I wish this was a standard thing at all award shows! :D <3

  4. icarussc says:

    Loved it!! Too bad I’ll never be able to play Kinect Party.

    • comic knight says:

      Kinect party is really fun. My kids and I really enjoy it. But I wouldn’t so much as call it a game, I would call it a toy.

  5. Chillicothe says:

    “Foddy: They’re not hard! They’re just frustrating. There’s a difference. A hard game is one that you will never finish, this is a game that will make you feel frustrated but eventually you’ll get there. I believe in you.”

    Is it wrong that I both think he’s completely correct yet also doomed to never get recognized for this wisdom at large?

    • Harlander says:

      I feel like there’s more to say about this. Difficulty and frustration aren’t the same thing, but they’re definitely siblings.

      • zaldar says:

        I am not so sure about this. One describes the way something is, the other describes the feeling it gives you. I would certainly call them synonyms.

  6. peda says:

    Hang on, didn’t Night in the Woods win two awards?

    • sergiocornaga says:

      Several winners are omitted. I can only assume they’re the ones who managed to escape Brendan’s backstage ambush.

      • Brendan Caldwell says:

        Yeah, some winners had to go straight back to their seats, as they were up for subsequent awards. And some winners I intentionally left out because I knew I’d have to transcribe and do lots of post-GDC articles, and I was preemptively saving my pile from overwhelming me. This means I sadly missed talking with people who’ve done great work.

        But we have done a quickfire questions session with Scott Benson of the Night in the Woods crowd before, in episode 3 (link to rockpapershotgun.com). Hopefully that’ll give you a chuckle or two, if you haven’t heard it already. Thanks for listening.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Night in the Woods won two awards, but neither one was best narrative, visual design, or visual art? What on earth..?

      • zaldar says:

        I was very not impressed with the narrative of Night in the Woods but then I was definitely in the camp of “main character needs to get a job and get her life together” so it is quite likely a philosophical difference between me and the designers.

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