IGF & GDC Awards: Indies continue to dominate GDC Awards in the face of the Indiepocalypse

2016’s Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards entered 2016 after several years of the sense that the awards were slowly bleeding into each other as the triple-A space contracts while the indie space has expanded and become more respected. 2016’s iteration did nothing to change that impression, as indie developers cleaned up in the GDC awards, with Her Story picking up five awards across both shows and Ori and the Blind Forest picking up two GDC awards. Only The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt managed to break the indie hegemony.

At the IGF portion of the night, the “indiepocalypse” loomed large in host Nathan Vella (CEO of Capy Games)’s introduction, with Vella joking by providing the audience a “survival guide” for the attendees, including advice such as “mobile developers should switch to PC because mobile is dead, and PC developers should switch to mobile because PC is dead… and if you’re a console developer, you’re already dead.”

Vella also took a pop at the current state of the app store top charts, advising developers to make sure their game featured “screaming white men” in the icon, as “millennials love screaming white men.”

It wasn’t all a wry glance at the established indie industry—the loveliest part of the night was when Microsoft ID@Xbox’s Chris Chara took the stage to introduce a video celebrating the Girls Making Games initiative, accounting that The Hole Story, the first game released through the program, would be coming to Xbox One via ID@Xbox next month, awarding the team the “Rising Star Award.”

Receiving a standing ovation, Girls Making Games’s Serena Rusboldt reflected on how strange it was that something that had started as a camp she “learned about from [her] ceramics teacher” had now led her and her team to “do things she didn’t know anyone could do.”

The Excellence in Narrative Award is where Her Story picked up its first award, beating out games including Undertale and That Dragon, Cancer. Her Story creator Sam Barlow thanked his wife for “funding 90% of the game.”

Excellence in Audio was awarded to Mini Metro, which featured music from Disasterpeace (It Follows). On the podium, the team revealed that they submitted a talk about Mini Metro’s sound design to the Indie Game Summit and had it rejected, so they “didn’t expect this to happen.”

Keep talking and Nobody Explodes surprised with a win in the Excellence in Design category against nominees including Her Story and Superhot. The team particularly thanked “all the players of the game” as by playing the game they “create memories and create stories.”

Excellence in Visual Art was similarly contested, with Gnog losing out to Oxenfree on the night, and the Nuovo Award went to Cibele from Star Maid games.

Best Student Game was awarded to Begliched, by Jennifer Jiao Hisa and Alec Thomson of NYU Game Center, who took particular time to thank NYU’s Bennett Foddy (QWOP).

Audience Choice Award—obviously—went to Undertale, with developer Toby Fox not in attendance and instead providing a cute video in which “the dog absorbed the award” with a comically fast end-credits list of “thanks.”

Her Story picked up its second award by collecting the biggest gong of the IGF, the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. Sam Barlow explained that Her Story was the culmination of his decision that  2015 was “the only year he could make it” by choosing to spend all of his and his wife’s savings.

“I wanted to make a game that explored subtext and it worked,” he said, advising facetiously that attendees “go out there and spend all [their] savings, rely on [their] partner or spouse.”

“All that information you get on how to be clever, ignore it. Do only things you would enjoy.”

Nathan Vella closed the awards—his last as presenter—by thanking the indie community for supporting his company, saying that “the games we make are the heart of the industry, but the friends we make are the soul of it.”

Host of the Game Developers Choice Award Robin Hunicke was a more straightforward host, pushing through the awards. The only award outside of the Game of the Year award to go to what would generally be considered a triple-A developer (who traditionally dominated this section of the night) was Best Technology, going to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Two awards were picked up by Moon Studios for Ori and the Blind Forest—Best Debut and Best Visual Art, beating out games in one category (Best Debut) featuring no triple-A games, and besting a category stuffed with triple-A (Best Visual Art) such as Bloodborne, Splatoon, Star Wars Battlefront and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

On winning the Innovation Award (his first of the GDC Awards) Sam Barlow quipped—referencing a previous year in which Papers, Please cleaned up the awards that if he “kept this up” he was going to win the “Lucas Pope Award for being Lucas Pope” (a true deep cut for people who’ve watched the awards for years.) He of course went on to win his second narrative award of the night, Best Narrative, and Best Handheld/Mobile Game, beating everything from Life is Strange and Undertale to Alphabear and Lara Croft: Go.

Audience Choice Award went to episodic title Life Is Strange, surprising all who largely expected it to also go to Undertale— but shocking literally no one, the award for Best Design went to Rocket League.

Most watchers expected Game of the Year to go to Rocket League as well, but in a stunning upset and a rare win for the triple-A space, the award went to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

“If you haven’t played The Witcher 3 yet,” Konrad Tomaszkiewicz joked, “then now is the perfect time. Because that’s the fucking game of the year!”

Despite that win, if it has been obvious for a long time that the split between the IGF and GDC Awards no longer entirely makes sense, then 2016’s awards confirmed it. It raises the question of how the Game Developer’s Conference can reconcile the awards into something that still makes sense and in which indie titles—and triple-A—can have a space to shine.