Update Nov 17, 2021 I received some additional information since posting this which adds clarity and context as to why Forza didn't make the grade. I've included it at the bottom of this article.
The Game Awards has increasingly positioned itself as the de facto awards show for the gaming industry, turning itself into something of a mini winter E3 in the process. It's certainly starting to look that way, as more and more celebrities get involved, although the show itself for many has become a game news show, with its host and creator Geoff Keighley attracting more and more marketing eyeballs to the proceeds.
How exactly are the awards chosen, though? Well, The Game Awards uses a "jury" panel consisting of media influencers and outlets (including some of our colleagues at GamesRadar and PC Gamer, no less), who vote on the nominees for the top accolades, they also cast votes for who actually wins the awards, with a mere 10% of the vote weight going to the public, you know, the people who actually play and buy the games en masse.
If I wasn't questioning The Game Awards' candidacy for becoming The Oscars of the gaming industry before, I certainly am now, after seeing them snub the top-rated game of 2021: Forza Horizon 5.
Snubbing Forza Horizon 5 is a mistake
The Game Awards errs bias towards cinematic action games, snubbing sports games, mobile games, and well, practically anything that doesn't fit into a very specific Hollywood-shaped hole. There are rare occasions where titles rise up that can break free of this close-minded thinking, such as Overwatch, but it's unusual to see a game nominated, let alone awarded, when there isn't a big-budget cinematic story interwoven with the gameplay. This mentality betrays the diversity that gaming represents.
If there was ever a year where a racing game deserved to be nominated, 2021 was exactly it.
Forza Horizon 5 might not be a cinematic tear-jerker of a game, but it's no less worthy of being nominated. This is a game that currently enjoys a position at the top of 2021's Metacritic metascore, which averages out scores from hundreds of different review sites and YouTubers. This is a game that will probably see more players than all of the current nominations combined over the course of their lifetimes. This is a game that will touch more lives and create more friendships and relationships than all of the current nominees and is also arguably the most technically impressive game on the docket.
You might be wondering if Forza Horizon 5 is ineligible for awards based on its launch date, but alas no, since Forza Horizon 5 has found itself into many other categories, including top gongs for accessibility features and audio.
Forza is a franchise that wins top prize for racing year in, year out. Does this mean games in the subcategories are ineligible for the top prize? Will we ever see roguelikes such as Returnal hit the top spot? Will strategy games like Age of Empires ever be given a fair analysis?
None of this is to suggest the current nominees don't deserve it, but if there was ever a year where The Game Awards could prove it wasn't specifically looking for Hollywood-styled games for its top prize, 2021 was exactly it.
What makes an award-worthy game?
I often wonder if journalists motion bias towards cinematic games out of some misplaced desire for their profession to be seen as respectable as movie critics might be. That's not going to be the case until the establishment generation is replaced with gamers. No amount of playing to their rules and pandering to the Oscar-shaped box will change how gaming is viewed from a respectability perspective. Games are supposed to be fun, above all else.
To snub Forza Horizon 5 isn't just a snub for Playground Games, it's a snub of the creativity of the entire industry.
Why should Forza Horizon 5 be discredited for not having a heavy story-driven campaign? The entire point of a video game is that they can be more than movies. They can be more interactive. They can shift modalities and transcend our ideas of what entertainment is. This snub is symbolic of a game journalist's general inability to think outside of the narrow perspective of a movie critic when it comes to game analysis.
Video games are more than the stories they tell. They represent the cutting-edge intersection of culture, art, and technology. Few games represent this as impressively, as effortlessly as Forza Horizon 5, which showcases Mexico with utterly stunning visuals, laser-scanned cars, cloud-powered features. A complete package, with full cross-platform mass-multiplayer gameplay, regardless of whether you're playing on a phone, on a console, or on a PC.
To snub Forza Horizon 5 isn't just a snub for Playground Games, it's a snub of the ingenuity of the entire industry. Game journalists have unwittingly sat up and said, "Unless your games fit this specific criterion of design, we aren't going to award you," and that amounts to a dereliction of duty.
The Game Awards 'jury' failed
With Forza Horizon 5 not only the most awarded game of 2021, but also played by more gamers than any of the nominees, suggests to me that The Game Awards are hostile to the realities of game design, and want to ensure that diversity continues only along biases they ordain.
For The Game Awards to give such a heavy 90% voting weight to games journalists and media outlets is, in my view, laughable, and isn't reflective of the industry at large. Even if I'm wrong in my assumption that the jury panel is pandering to a specific subset of games, more diversity and actual expertise in the vote tallying certainly couldn't hurt the award's credibility. Game developers should be allowed to be involved in the nomination process somehow too, as they peer-review their colleague's work with more expertise than the vast majority of game journalists on the jury panel. Gamers should also have at least an equal voting weight with journalists since it is ultimately gamers who vote with their wallets on this stuff.
The Game Awards could have been a legitimate source of accolades for an industry that desperately deserves it, but its current methodology for nomination represents a huge failure towards the industry it represents.
Geoff Keighley put out a tweet this week which asked viewers to give feedback on the nominations with a conciliatory "we also have the Player's Choice award to vote on coming up!" "Player's Choice" should be the voice that matters more than establishment journalists who struggle to celebrate a video game if it isn't trying hard enough to be a movie.
Update: Nov 17, 2021
Since posting this article, I received a flurry of information from members of The Game Awards jury, as well as game developers themselves, which adds some important additional context as to why Forza specifically didn't make the grade this year.
Geoff Keighley has stated on Twitter that Forza Horizon 5 was indeed eligible for this year's awards, with the cut-off date being set for Nov. 19. However, game journalists were told they had to submit their picks by Nov. 4. Forza Horizon 5's early access period didn't begin until Nov. 5, which calls into question just how much eligibility it had in real terms.
In Keighley's defense, they do include additional information in the email pack to jury members, informing them that ballots can be altered up until Nov. 11. However, I was told that this information isn't highlighted clearly enough, and not enough time was given in general.
My take? I get it, it's tough to build award shows, to line up timings, review embargos, and all of that, on top of the existing busy Q4 period. That just accentuates my point that if jury members didn't have enough time to properly assess a game that is eligible in 2021 but won't be eligible in 2022, it calls into question the general fairness of the award process.
Veteran game developers should also be on the panel to offer their insight and perspective, which often diverges wildly from games press, perhaps partially due to how secretive the industry can be. I heard today from a musician who noted that their gaming OST work had enjoyed more streaming plays across streaming sites than all the other nominations from that year combined. I also heard that publishers' marketing departments who are familiar with the process go to extra lengths to provide access as early as possible before the ballot cut-off date to increase their chances of being of being considered.
I think, ultimately, everybody wants The Game Awards to be as good as it can be, if we have all collectively decided it is the de facto game award show. By not including game devs in the jury, by not giving enough breathing space to the games themselves, it's hard to understand how they could be considered completely fair.
Should they even be fair? Does anyone really care that much? I've never watched the Oscars personally, but hey, it all depends on what your expectations are for these types of events. It is completely my opinion that the weight of scrutiny over the years seems to favor cinematic action games, but maybe I'm taking it all a bit too seriously, and I'm not a game dev. It's like I said above, game devs of all stripes do deserve to be celebrated in a big way, but a big fair way, where the weight of opinion doesn't fall on a relatively few number of overworked, pressed-for-time game journalists who probably haven't even played most of the games that have been nominated this year. It falls on a wider conversation about the constraints of game criticism and the relationships between press and marketing in general, but I digress.
I appreciate what Keighley and his team seem to be trying to bring to the games industry, and I think most of us here do too. But, Forza seems to have been screwed by the process here. This isn't about platform wars as some love to suggest because oh no we are Windows Central after all. This could've happened to Gran Turismo, or Super Smash Bros, or any other game that you think deserved the top celebration. Keighley has shown himself to be willing to evolve The Game Awards, though, so I suspect things may change again next year.