I don't watch a lot of television. Oh, I certainly spend quite a bit of time staring at TVs, but the standard offering that comes in through my DirecTV dish doesn't really hold a lot of sway over my life. It used to not be this way, of course, but then, our choices for entertainment used to be a lot narrower. These days, I tend to spend that entertainment time in front of a computer screen, and the rise of Netflix's streaming service and DVRs means that I can afford to let people sort of "beta test" actual television and pick the best of it to watch later. Or, at least, that's the basic idea. In reality, I never actually get around to watching most of the shows that get recommended to me unless it's comedy written in a very specific style. I still haven't watched The Wire, for example, despite buying DVDs full of episodes. But after seeing one episode of it, I sought out, recorded, and watched as much Jon Benjamin Has a Van as the law would allow.
I suppose you could take that to mean that I have pretty specific tastes, but I'm really just taking the long way around to tell you that I don't have an especially high opinion of television programming. It's hard to describe that without sounding like I'm some sort of elitist snob, but I don't take too kindly to the way much of it is presented. If you'll allow me to further generalize, television feels like it's being presented to the lowest common denominator, with much of it being written by people who seem to have absolutely no respect for the people who might later go on to watch these shows. Parts of Spike TV Video Game Awards broadcast sort of reinforce my feelings on the medium, which is too bad, but ultimately I didn't really expect it to go much differently. The restrictions in place when producing a show like this almost ensure that, as one of those Internet-loving assholes who inherently distrusts marketing and finds most TV to be ironically enjoyable at best, the deck for liking such a show is sort of stacked against me.
Or to put it yet another way, did you really think that a show put together by the production company that brought you shit like Survivor, The Apprentice, and Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? was going to offer you a quiet, introspective look at video games and the creative minds behind them? Did you really think that a show built in that way would ever air on Spike TV?
Maybe I should add a bit more to that list of obvious questions. Like how about... do you really think that award shows are great to begin with? Because the quiet, respectful show that people seem to be begging for across the Internet this morning usually comes across as two things: BO and RIIIIIING. Back when I was living with a crew of college girls, I was induced into going to an Oscars Party. It was insane! They were dressing up all nice specifically to hang out in our living room and watch the Academy Awards! Afterwards we made it out to a bar and I think the night ended with a couple of us trying to eat a cake that had fallen on the floor. That's beside the point. My point is that traditional awards shows are unfuckingwatchable. The only awards broadcast I ever really connected with was MTV's Video Music Awards, which was fascinating when I was a kid, mostly because it was a weird chance to see modern pop stars of the 1980s mingling together, but really because it was a live broadcast and I was always interested in seeing people swear on live TV. Did the awards themselves matter back then? Not really. I mean, yes, they almost certainly mattered to the people winning them and, to some extent, the industry behind those people. But as a viewer, I was tuning in to see an entertaining show. This, as far as I can tell, is the blueprint that the VGAs are operating under. They probably want to produce an entertaining show that people will watch, and if they can celebrate games along the way, then great! Right?
The problem is that I just don't think they're executing well enough on the entertainment side.
I think most of the blame for that falls squarely in the laps of the people responsible for writing the show. The gags, some of which tried to trade off of standard gaming tropes like health meters and such, fell flat. It had a recurring bit about teabagging that wasn't funny the first time around, making all of the callbacks spread throughout the show almost painful. Some cursey YouTube guy got brought into the fold and turned into another lame bit where he sat next to some Spike executive. Am I supposed to know or care about who either one of those guys are? An award winner got teabagged. So irreverent, right? From a comedy perspective, the closest the entire production got to being on the pulse of gaming was when Daniel Kayser spit out the whole "arrow to the knee" thing before talking to Todd Howard during the preshow. Sadly, that whole thing seemed to have set some sort of record for fastest time from "this is funny" to "this is tired," so the reference ended up being like two days too late or something insane like that. Then again, the Internet continually proves that it's mostly good at complaining about things, so I guess that shouldn't be used as a barometer.
The "talent" side of things didn't really help, either. You know... I'm sure getting Charlie Sheen to show up seemed like a really fun idea six months ago. But wow, could there have been a more miscalculated choice? At least his obligatory "games are awesome" bit wasn't as embarrassing as Will.i.am's, who sounded like he was trying to justify his presence with every word out of his mouth. Here's a tip on that front: games are huge. Billion-dollar huge. Going out of your way to talk about how much you play them--and this extends to the host being consistently billed as a "huge gamer," too--makes you look like you've never played one in your life. Or, at best, it makes you look like one of those "well, I really like the Call of Duty and the Madden" types, which is probably worse if you're trying to get actual game aficionados on-board. Obviously, this is a pretty hard problem to fix because finding an array of people that actually connect with the gaming audience is tough, especially when said people need to be big enough stars to hopefully draw in a wide enough viewing audience to make the whole show worth doing to begin with.
With better writing, I think the rest of the show absolutely falls in line, though I tend to agree that not enough time was given to the awards themselves. That's probably a pretty tough thing to balance out. Also, this is probably the part where I should state that I'm one of the judges that helps pick nominees and winners for many of the award categories, so perhaps I have some sort of hidden interest in seeing my contributions get more airtime or something. But if you're going to put "Video Game Awards" right in the title, burning through the bulk of them in a quick montage seems completely disingenuous. But I suppose it's harder to get people on-board if you were to title the show "World Exclusive Mania: Game Trailers You Ain't Seen Before: The TV Show." It's telling that the online-only pre-show did much better at giving out awards and letting developers speak for a bit than the entire two-hour TV broadcast.
That leaves the exclusive trailers, weirdly enough, as the part of this show that absolutely shines. Say what you will about the advertising-like nature of releasing a bunch of trailers and giving them better placement than the actual awards, but it gives the VGA broadcast some actual content--some actual news is made at the show every year. That doesn't happen at other awards shows. As someone who professionally talks about the video games, it's nice to actually have something new to discuss in December, which is usually pretty dead. Without this award show, that wouldn't happen, and games like Command & Conquer: Generals 2 would probably go on to get lost amid a sea of bigger announcements at E3. And Tony Hawk HD would get announced in a press release, at best. This show is a good platform for those announcements. It just needs to be better balanced with the actual awards.
It's the morning after the live broadcast, and I'm sure that the people that watched last night's show are full of wide-eyed, unrealistic ideas about how they would "fix" the show. I've offered mine, and I think the people behind the scenes really do get closer to finding the right balance every year. But maybe the right approach for those of you who seem to get filled with total outrage over all this is to stop treating this awards show like it's the only game in town and remember that this is an industry where every individual publication offers their own version of the year's best games and the industry itself has places like GDC and DICE where the speeches run wonderfully long and the jokes are 100% inside. There's room for all of it. Hell, if anything, there are probably too many different sets of awards out there! But I guess my point is that you shouldn't expect an increasingly dated medium like television and its desire to speak to the wide, mainstream audience that is slowly blinking out of existence to provide a good home for this idyllic awards show you've cooked up in your head. Because they've got soft drinks (FOR MEN ONLY) to sell.