I want to establish a couple of things first, just to be absolutely plain:
- Award shows in general are fairly meaningless, more symbolic than anything, and basically a three-hour-long commercial for recent and upcoming media; the Game Awards are no exception.
- Crunch is universally bad. Crunch is unethical and never, ever, ever justified. Games should be developed at a healthy pace for its developers or they should be delayed, end of story. No caveats, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
- I adored The Last Of Us Part II. It was my favorite game I played this year, and one of my favorite games I've played ever, even surpassing the first game in terms of quality and enjoyment for me.
With those second two in mind, I'm sure you can imagine the difficulty I have reconciling the two. It's been talked about a lot in the last couple of days that The Last Of Us Part II experienced some serious crunch in the final months of development. Article upon Reddit post upon op-ed have been written about whether a game that was developed this way "deserves" to be Game of the Year.
I'd be lying if I were biased here, I wanted the game to win. Not only was it my favorite game this year, but the catharsis of seeing the reactionary gamer-bro types who genuinely hated the game because of a trans character, a lesbian protagonist, and a woman who doesn't conform to their standards of femininity react to its win was truly spectacular. Does that make me incredibly petty? Well, yes, but that's beside the point.
I think in this conversation it's important to put into perspective the point of an award. An award should be given on the merits of the recipient, not on the circumstances surrounding it. If we were going to give awards to games based on the ethics of their development, then all the Game Awards Games of the Year should have been Shovel Knight, Rocket League, Inside, Cuphead, Celeste, Disco Elysium, and Hades–those all being indie games. But something tells me a lot of people would have been up in arms if Cuphead had beaten out Breath of the Wild, Celeste had beaten God of War, or Disco Elysium had beaten Sekiro.
So, it seems that games should be recognized on their merits rather than their circumstances. The Last Of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077 both went through insanely unethical amounts of crunch leading up to their releases, but to say that that alone makes them equals in quality, in my opinion, is ludicrous. Cyberpunk released completely broken and lacking in many features promised through its eight-year marketing cycle, while The Last Of Us Part II released in an incredibly well-optimized, playable, and game-breaking-bug-free state, with the quality of gameplay and storytelling that Naughty Dog is known for to boot.
All of that said…the ethics of it all still bother me. Yes, yes, I know, most of the games we play–and most other things we buy, for that matter–are unethically sourced or created, but crunch during video game development feels particularly insidious to me. Like it's a direct manifestation of corporate ultimatums; Naughty Dog needs this game on current-gen, CD Projekt Red needs this game out by the end of 2020.
This then ties back to the notion of a game "deserving" an award. Do the developers at Naughty Dog deserve to have their work not be recognized because of an executive decision by Sony to make their lives a living hell for months on end? Frankly I think they deserve a hell of a lot more recognition for the incredible game they were able to put together under insane amounts of duress. If it makes Sony more money in the process, frankly Sony was probably gonna make that money in the first place. Hell, CDPR recouped the entire development cost of Cyberpunk 2077 in, like, a day. Multi-billion-dollar corporations will maintain their bottom line, that's how capitalism works. It sucks, because capitalism sucks.
But damn, can we at least recognize quality and effort where it's deserved?
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