It’s been exactly a year and the GDC Awards have announced their 2018 nominees. In what is probably now a tradition, I’m going to comb through the list and pick out a few categories and entries that lay within my particular myopic games purview.
Mirroring last year’s format, I’ll jump into it and start off with Best Audio. The obvious frontrunner would be Cuphead, as the throwback 1930s-era blistering jazzy score compliments its similar cartoon visuals and frenetic gameplay extremely smoothly, to create an aurally enjoyable affair. It’s definitely a standout among recent soundtracks and is a big part of what makes the title work in combination with its other elements. However, I think there is also a strong case to be made for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. While Cuphead goes for a playful musical mood overall to match its aesthetics, Hellblade’s intent with its sound design rests on a murkier precipice altogether. Best played with a solid pair of headphones, the effect of hearing Senua’s troubled psyche manifest as different versions of her inner voice constantly whispering a flurry of thoughts ranging from fear, doubt, despair, encouragement and hope (often in rapid succession) all in your own ears is something truly unique and unnerving all at once. I’m not qualified to speak for the accuracy of how true to life this may be in terms of what those who suffer from any form of psychosis experience (as my own insanity is of a different beast) but I can say it is intense and startling in this game. Even after hours of play, it never gets comfortable enough to ignore. Which is sort of the point, and I think it was able to achieve that unsettling atmosphere. It’s certainly not for everyone, but Hellblade attempts to portray something often shied away from in its sound design and that deserves recognition.
In the end it’s a close call between these two, but I would lean towards Hellblade, even though Cuphead’s ST is still great to put on in the background in almost any scenario. (Try it at your next party.) Distant thirds are Horizon: Zero Dawn (although I think it stands out in other categories more than this one) along with Zelda: Breath of the Wild due to its sheer popularity, but both of these games are more likely to win in other categories. Or at least, shouldn’t really win here. But I’ve been wrong before.
On that note, moving onto Best Debut. At this point I’m a little more unsure on this category. Cuphead is one of the breakout titles of the year for sure, so it may be able to snag this one. But there’s also been a lot of buzz for Night in the Woods, which unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to play, and have been avoiding spoilers for so that I only know generally what it’s about. Beyond that, Hollow Knight was also supposed to be very solid, but I would say based on the general amount of attention, that it’s probably between the first two, and I’d give the edge to Cuphead simply for familiarity.
Similar to last year, Best Design contains some stiff competition. I’ll take that as a good sign that the industry is doing well in that regard, but that makes it hard to pick a likely winner. It also usually depends on what takes Game of the Year since this award and that one pretty much go hand in hand. I suppose it comes down to whether the trend of sprawling multi online shoot-em-up-fests carries enough weight to combine with the immense popularity of their newest iteration in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, or whether epic sandbox single-player adventures like H: ZD and BotW will return to the spotlight. I can easily see any of the three taking the spot in a photo finish and if I had to pick I would hand it to H: ZD for what it managed to do by taking a fairly standard design formula and making it feel new. Finally, while I wouldn’t call Super Mario Odyssey a dark horse per se, but again the strength of the field might nudge it out.
Within the Innovation Award entries, my choice head and shoulders above all others is What Remains of Edith Finch. I attempted to convey exactly why earlier, but really everyone should just play it to see how it is able to pull off what does, and in such a gratifying way. PLUNBG, if it doesn’t take some other categories, could also snap this up. BotW appears again, but I’m not heavily convinced it’s all that ‘innovative’ in the sense that normally applies here, though perhaps the case can be made that it is so in regard to its long-standing and beloved series. Still, as I mentioned above, I think it’s more likely to win elsewhere.
Best Narrative is by far the tightest race (another good indication that there is some great work being done in this aspect of the field) and thankfully I was able to play 4 out of the 5 games recognized. If Edith Finch doesn’t get the above win, then it should absolutely take home this one. My alternate/runner-up choice would be Hellblade. Not to say the other two I did play, H: ZD and Wolfenstein II, were weak by any means. In fact all of the titles I played subverted many of the clichés and tropes that normally go along with their respective genre’s territory, it’s just that I think the former two represent a bolder and more mature direction of story/narrative evolution within games as a whole.
Lastly as always, the big kahuna-- Game of the Year. My actual choice (to be revealed when we do our Top Games episode in the spring) was nowhere to be seen in the entire range of nominees. Which, given its nature, I’m not surprised by, so with what the GDC does list, I’m going with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s just such a complete game, using familiar conventions in a fresh way to create a memorable setting/world with top-notch mechanics to boot. What I think is actually going to win though is BotW, which wouldn't rankle me in any way, I’m simply admitting my bias is for H: ZD if it wasn’t clear before.
Looking at a few of the honorable mentions, I would’ve liked to see Resident Evil 7 included in more actual nominations, since it went a long way towards reenergizing its franchise. Arkane continued its streak of producing solid FPS/RPG hybrids with Prey and that too would’ve been nice to see make it into a category or two. These are small nitpicks though and overall the actual nominees are all perfectly fine and worthy choices.
A couple of other titles that I have yet to play as of time of writing are Nier: Automata and Gorogoa, which snagged multiple nods themselves, but for now I’m unable to comment much on them directly, other than how they were received, which generally was quite well.
So once again, there you have my choices/predictions for the 2018 GDC Awards. I’ll be back in March when the winners are announced to see how I fared and offer further armchair critiques of games and their respective awards.