Thought Bubble: The Canadian Videogame Awards Need to Level Up

I’ve been to a handful of video game-related events, but none quite like the Canadian Videogame Awards.

The fifth annual awards show was held at the Carlu on Nov. 29, an historic site covered in Art Deco details harkening back to the 1930s. The stage had a cinema-sized screen showing footage of the nominated video games, and scrolling marquees that showed the names of the winners in giant font.

Unlike other game events that revel in promotional otherworldliness, the CVAs offer a different kind of pomp and circumstance – the red carpet kind, dripping in glitz, glamour and whatever slice of celebrity we can carve out of an industry whose most well-known faces are, well, animated. Instead of company employees dressed as space marines, or Rabbids, or Yoshi, co-workers and friends came in their formal best. TIFF-calibre style and sexiness took to the red carpet, and for a brief moment David Hayter and Jennifer Hale were introduced as themselves, instead of Snake and Commander Shepard.

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(photo courtesy CVAs Facebook page)

 

Games front and centre…right?

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The CVAs were a blast to attend for the first time. It’s a genuine treat to see creators get their well-deserved praise for the games they`ve made over the last two years. It`s a breath of fresh air.

Better yet was the lack of any hype, the World Premieres that the Spike TV Video Game Awards (and to a yet-undetermined level, the upcoming Game Awards) are known for. It was about the games and the people that made them, a way for their peers and their fans to thank them.

That said, it wasn’t a perfect production. While Mass Effect’s other Commander Shepard, Mark Meer, was a charismatic host, with the right jokes at mostly the right times, I got the sense that the show’s producers don’t yet know what tone they want to present to the audience.

While video games in Canada obviously don’t have the lengthy history of self-congratulatory segments like we see at the Academy Awards, the corny “Talk to a Supervillain” segments with Meer as a Dollar Store Red Skull, alongside fellow voice actor Elias Toufexis, was an unfunny waste of both talents that did not go over with the audience.

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I understand the pressure not to make this a heavily buttoned-down, sober affair that takes itself too seriously, but at least try to keep the tone of the presentation consistent. At the very least, why not feature the characters that the voice actors play in the video games presented, and not raid the costume department for comic book faces who aren’t even represented in most of the nominated games?

Meer had a tall challenge though, because this year’s CVAs were, in effect, a double show. As part of the move from Vancouver to Toronto, the awards were also moved from the spring to the late fall. As a result awards for both 2013 and a truncated 2014 were given out at the same ceremony, making for a near-four-hour show. Canadian games that launched in the holiday window, particularly Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 and Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, didn’t make the cut and will have to wait until next year for their presumed moment of maple-syrup-coated glory.

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CVAs host Mark Meer. (photo by Jorge Figueiredo)

 

Scattergories

The show’s identity again comes into focus – and confusion – when looking at the award categories. Most of them come from a production perspective: there were awards for Best Audio, Best Game Design, Best Visual Arts, and so forth. But I had a hard time understanding what the categories mean.

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When they talk about Best Game Design, does that mean the geometry of the levels? The fine-tuning of the gameplay? The ways in which the game’s narrative reflects, or doesn’t, the protagonist or player character?

2014’s finalists for Best Console Game were Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry (a DLC episode to a AAA game), Watch_Dogs (a AAA game) and Chariot (a small co-op independent game). In what way are any of these games comparable? What makes one the better console game over the others?

And what in the world does the Best Technology award mean?

Frequently it felt like the categories ended up favouring the games with the biggest development teams – and therefore the most money – behind them. By that metric, Ubisoft, the giant multi-national, multi-studio elephant in the room, picked up far more nominations and awards than any other studio of any size. Watch_Dogs alone was nominated in nine out of 16 categories for the 2014 awards, and won three.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and its stand-alone DLC Freedom Cry were counted as separate entries, earning them 18 nominations and 6 awards total. That screams to me that either there are too many awards, too many categories that are too similar to each other, or categories that inherently favour the small handful of Canadian-made games with AAA-size budgets.

On Twitter, some cheekily called the night the Ubisoft Videogame Awards. In the end, the publisher’s creators took home almost two dozen trophies from three (four depending on how you count them) games. Only one, Child of Light, wasn’t a top-budget game.

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(photo by Jorge Figueiredo)

 

Raise your game

I want to like the Canadian Videogame Awards more than I currently do. It’s a shame that these niggling problems of inconsistent tone and category bloat weigh down what is otherwise a crucially important part of the video games industry that absolutely needs to grow.

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This year, at the show’s first outing in Toronto, we got the announcement that 2017 will bring the CVAs to Ottawa. Mayor Jim Watson made an appearance, dropped a stone cold joke about former mayor Rob Ford, and celebrated video games as a valued part of Canada’s culture and economy, ahead of the nation’s 150th birthday celebrations.

As it stands, the CVAs feel more like an industry-first party, like the National Newspaper Awards, or the non-televised portion of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It needs to adopt some of the more fun-loving aspects of shows like the Junos or even the Much Music Video Awards, without turning into an advertisement-filled promo reel like Spike TV’s VGAs nonsense.

Otherwise, I fear people tuning in by 2017 won’t have a clue why Mayor Jim Watson made such a big deal bringing it to the nation’s capital to begin with, and the staggering amount of talent and creativity in our country will have missed the chance to showcase to the public why their work is something to be enjoyed and celebrated.



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