2021 Game Awards: Everything you need to know from the annual gaming showcase
This year’s Game Awards aired on Thursday night via livestreaming platforms, and as usual, it was primarily devoted to a three-hour-long showcase of new and upcoming video games. Several big projects from the Pacific Northwest made their public debut at the show, including a virtual-reality version of Among Us, a Wonder Woman game in development from Monolith Productions, and a new gameplay trailer for the Xbox-exclusive Hellblade 2.
Broadcast from the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the Game Awards have been running since 2014. After last year’s virtual performance, the 2021 Game Awards was a return to holding in-person events, with an all-star cast of both Hollywood celebrities and high-profile figures from the video game industry.
It was also, as usual, primarily about the hype. The Game Awards are arguably misnamed, as the whole show is a thin justification to put on the last big consumer showcase on the games industry’s calendar. The actual awards have increasingly been treated as an afterthought, to an extent that’s starting to get embarrassing. For what’s ostensibly an awards ceremony, the 2021 Game Awards was one of the most unceremonious things I’ve ever seen.
The Game Awards selects its nominees each year by compiling a list of nominees from a poll of over 100 global media outlets, which includes influencers, then selecting the games with the most nominations for open voting. The same outlets that provided the initial list are added to a jury, which then votes for the final nominees. While the public can vote for its favorite games via social media in the weeks leading up to the Game Awards, the public vote only accounts for 10% of a game’s final tally in most of the available categories. The jury’s votes make up the other 90%.
Here’s a full rundown of the winners and games announced at this year’s show.
Xbox Game Studios went into the 2021 Game Awards as the developer to beat, with a total of 13 award nominations between four titles: Forza Horizon 5, Psychonauts 2, Age of Empires IV, and the newest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Halo Infinite‘s campaign mode came out too late in the year to be included in the 2021 Game Awards, as it was only released on Wednesday and nominated games must have come out no later than November. However, Infinite still managed to walk away with the award for Player’s Choice, which is entirely determined by public voting.
Of the Xbox games up for awards, Forza 5 was the big winner, taking home trophies for Best Audio Design, Innovation in Accessibility, and Best Sports/Racing Game. Age of Empires IV beat out Microsoft Flight Simulator for Best Sim/Strategy, while Psychonauts 2 got five nominations, including Game of the Year, but won none of them.
Recent Microsoft acquisition Bethesda Softworks also had a big night. Its time-bending action game Deathloop got nine nominations, more than any other game at the show, but only won two: Best Game Direction and Best Art Direction.
Sony, which ran the tables at the 2020 Game Awards with The Last of Us Part II, had a quiet 2021 and only released one game of note. That game, the PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal, picked up the trophy for Best Action Game.
Nintendo was similarly low-key. Metroid Dread took home its only trophy for the night, Best Action/Adventure Game, with Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser taking the stage to accept the award.
In a surprise upset, Nintendo didn’t win Best Family Game despite having published four of the five games — Mario Party Superstars, New Pokemon Snap, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and WarioWare: Get It Together — that were up for nomination.
Instead, Electronic Arts and Hazelight Studios’ It Takes Two, a cooperative puzzle/adventure game about a couple on the verge of divorce who get transformed into toys (it makes a little more sense in context), took home Best Family Game. It Takes Two also nabbed the Game of the Year award, beating out major hits like Metroid Dread, Psychonauts 2, Deathloop, and Capcom’s survival-horror game Resident Evil Village.
Host Geoff Keighley promised that this year’s Game Awards ceremony would feature a ton of big reveals from all over the world, which ranged from indies to imminent blockbusters. As a result, the show lasted three hours, plus a 30-minute pre-show hosted by Sydnee Goodman, with a new world premiere or big announcement every couple of minutes. It actually rushed through maybe a dozen of the major awards, like Most Anticipated Game, to make more time for trailers.
The biggest news out of the Pacific Northwest at the Game Awards was arguably Wonder Woman, a new project from Monolith Productions in Kirkland, Wash. Despite Wonder Woman’s status as one of the major superheroes in the DC Universe and her two recent Hollywood movies, this will be the first time she stars as the main character in a video game; in all of “Wondy’s” previous game appearances, such as Injustice, she’s been one part of a large roster of selectable characters.
While nothing was shown of Monolith’s Wonder Woman besides a short teaser (above), Monolith has built a reputation over the last decade with sprawling open-ended action games set in the Lord of the Rings universe, such as Shadow of Mordor. If Monolith is just making another game in that vein, but with Wonder Woman, it seems like an easy slam dunk.
The Bellevue, Wash.-based Bungie, makers of Destiny 2, released a new trailer for its forthcoming expansion The Witch Queen. Planned for release on February, Witch Queen features the return of Savathûn, a major antagonist from the original Destiny. In addition to adding new dungeons, a new weapon, and a new Legendary difficulty setting for single-player content, The Witch Queen will expand on the Darkness powers for players that were introduced in Beyond Light.
Bungie is also celebrating its 30th anniversary as of Dec. 9, and has opened up a number of free rewards for current Destiny 2 players. This includes two new legendary weapons, a shotgun and grenade launcher, which are designed after two of Bungie’s earliest games, Marathon (the direct predecessor to Halo, sort of; it’s complicated) and Pathways into Darkness. (Now give me the belt-fed machine gun from Oni.)
In game-adjacent news, the Game Awards saw the debut of a first-look trailer for the TV adaptation of Halo, starring Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) as the Master Chief. While the trailer offers little more than a glimpse of the show’s sets and characters, it does showcase several recognizable elements of the Halo universe, including a surprisingly faithful rendition of the Master Chief’s trademark armor.
Halo will air on the Paramount+ streaming network at some point next year. 343 Industries’ Bonnie Ross, Kiki Wolfkill, and Frank O’Connor are attached as executive producers, alongside Steven Spielberg.
Another surprise came from Innersloth, headquartered in Redmond, Wash., makers of the social deduction game Among Us. In a short trailer, Innersloth revealed that it’s teamed up with the Pittsburgh-based AR/VR company Schell Games (I Expect You to Die) to create Among Us VR for PlayStation VR and the newly-rebranded Meta Quest 2.
The VR adaptation of Among Us, according to its official site, promises online play for four to 10 people, with all the mechanics of the mobile and desktop versions of the game. In Among Us, players are Crewmates, spacesuited explorers trying to keep their ship in one piece, but at least one of them is secretly an alien Impostor who’s out to stealthily eliminate everyone else.
In a quieter Among Us announcement from just before the Game Awards, the developers of the fast-paced indie fighting game Samurai Gunn 2 revealed that the Crewmate would join its roster as a crossover character. Debuting on Dec. 16, the Crewmate brings several Among Us mechanics to SG2. This includes throwing trash at people, ducking into vents, and if they’re able to accomplish a set number of tasks, mutating into a much more dangerous Impostor.
A new trailer for an Xbox exclusive came courtesy of the Microsoft-owned studio Ninja Theory, which showed off the first gameplay from its upcoming psychological action/horror game, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II.
The original Hellblade won multiple awards, including five gaming BAFTAs in 2018, for its portrayal of Senua, a Pictish warrior who’s either on a journey to save her dead lover or going insane with grief, possibly both. Rather than being a simple fantasy hack-and-slash, Ninja Theory went well out of its way to portray Senua as realistically suffering from mental illness, which drew widespread critical acclaim.
Hellblade II once again features Senua, in a story that’s being kept firmly under wraps, and is being built in the newest version of Epic’s Unreal Engine for Xbox and Windows. Going by the details of the original Hellblade, it seems like Hellblade II is a relatively new concept: it’s the video game equivalent of “Oscar bait.”
In a short trailer during the show, Bethesda executive Pete Hines made an appearance to announce that the company is hiring across all of its various satellite studios, such as Arkane (Deathloop), id Software (Doom), Tango Gameworks (Ghostwire: Tokyo), and Bethesda Game Studios (The Elder Scrolls Online). Since Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda, these are all also part of the Xbox Game Studios network. Interested applicants are encouraged to check out Zenimax Media’s official jobs site.
Other big announcements from the 2021 Game Awards included:
- Lucasfilm Games has teamed up with the controversial French developer Quantic Dream to create Star Wars: Eclipse, a game set in the Republic Era of the Star Wars universe. All was shown was a trailer, with no release date, but Quantic Dream specializes in creating games with deep, weird narratives and a focus on players’ choices.
- Bandai Namco and From Software released a new trailer for its upcoming action-RPG Elden Ring, due out Feb. 25. Co-written by George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones), Elden Ring promises to mix Martin’s style of dark fantasy with the tough-but-fair gameplay that From Software has honed in releases like Sekiro and Dark Souls. Elden Ring is far and away the most hyped game of 2022, and won the 2021 Game Awards’ Most Anticipated Game trophy for the second year running.
- Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, co-stars of the upcoming fourth Matrix movie Resurrections, appeared to present a new trailer for the film as well as a short teaser for a new Matrix video game demo. The Matrix Awakens is effectively a showcase for the cutting-edge Unreal Engine 5 toolkit, and is currently available for download on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It’s a short technology showcase with a little driving, a little shooting, and an open-world section where you can manipulate a few city blocks like a bored god.
- The Amazon-published MMORPG Lost Ark will be free to play on the weekend of Feb. 11.
- Alan Wake II actually exists and will be out in 2023. The Washington-set horror game from Remedy (Control, Quantum Break, Max Payne) will once again follow the title character on a surreal trip that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Unlike the original game, however, Alan Wake II will mark Remedy’s first venture into the survival horror genre.
- Sony released a new trailer for its upcoming open-world game Horizon: Forbidden West. The direct sequel to 2017’s hit Horizon: Zero Dawn, Forbidden West will arrive in Feb. 2022 as a PlayStation 5 exclusive.
- Keiichiro Toyama was the director and co-writer on 1999’s Silent Hill, one of the most influential horror games of its console generation; he later went on to create Siren and Gravity Rush at Sony Japan. Toyama’s new indie studio, Bokeh, is behind Slitterhead, a new game (with a silly name) that re-teams Toyama with Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. For horror fans, this is like John Carpenter abruptly coming out of retirement; it’s a very big deal.
- Nightingale, from Inflexion Games in Edmonton, Alberta, is a first-person action/survival crafting game with a focus on cooperative play. After a group of humans from the Victorian era are accidentally teleported to an alien planet, they must find one another and work to find a way home. Notably for game fans, Inflexion is a new studio founded by Aaryn Flynn, who was previously a manager at BioWare and worked on games like Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, and the original Mass Effect trilogy. Nightingale is planned to release next year, only on PC, in Early Access.
- Cuphead, the indie action game that’s known for both its mock 1920s animation style and its high difficulty, is getting an expansion next June. The Delicious Last Course sends Cuphead and his friends to a new adventure on what is actually named “DLC Island.”
- Rocksteady, the developer of the Batman “Arkham series” of action games, premiered a gameplay trailer for its next release, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. Starring the “Arkham-verse” versions of Harley Quinn, Deadshot, King Shark, and Captain Boomerang, the game puts the Squad up against several mind-controlled members of the Justice League, including Superman and the Flash. After all, it’s called the Suicide Squad for a reason. The game is planned for release next year.
- The English actress Ella Balinska (2019’s Charlie’s Angels) took to the Game Awards stage to introduce a new trailer for Square Enix’s Forspoken, due out on May 24 for PlayStation 4/5 and PC. Balinska voices and provided motion capture for the protagonist, Frey Holland, who is unexpectedly transported from New York City to the fantasy world of Athia and must master its magic to survive. Developed in-house by Square Enix, Forspoken also features a script by Amy Hennig (the first three Uncharted games) and Gary Whitta (Star Wars: Rogue One).
- For the first time in 20 years, someone’s making a video game based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. Spice Wars is a real-time strategy game from Funcom and Shiro Games that will enter Steam Early Access next year.
- Google Play Games will introduce a feature in 2022 that will allow users to play their mobile games on a desktop PC.
- Epic Games and Iron Galaxy have teamed up to create RumbleVerse, for the Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox Series X|S. Billed as a 40-player “brawler royale,” RumbleVerse is a free-to-play social game about customizable fighters getting into good-natured fistfights. Players can sign up for early access on Dec. 10, which will open on all platforms on Feb. 8, 2022.
- A Plague Tale: Innocence was a surprise indie hit in 2019, which followed two French children, Amicia and Hugo, as they struggled to survive both the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. Its sequel, Requiem, provided an early look at its gameplay at the Game Awards. Set a few years after Innocence, Requiem picks back up with Amicia. She must navigate both hostile British invaders and the plague, while trying to keep her sanity intact. It’s scheduled for release at some point in 2022.
- While Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 has gone back to the drawing board, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any Vampire video games in 2022. The new Swedish studio Sharkmob is making its debut with Bloodhunt, a battle royale set in the World of Darkness that pits vampires against hunters and each other in the streets of Prague.
- The co-op horror shooter GTFO abruptly left Steam Early Access during the Game Awards, upgrading to version 1.0. Made in Unity by the Swedish studio 10 Chambers, GTFO forces players to work together to survive in a dilapidated zone called the Rundown.
- The final trailer of the night was for ARC Raiders, the debut game from the Stockholm-based developer Embark Studios. Founded in 2018 by several games industry veterans, including former DICE CEO Patrick Söderlund, Embark has built ARC Raiders as a free-to-play cooperative shooter with a visibly ’80s sci-fi aesthetic. You and your friends must defend humanity against a seemingly endless army of invading robots, using whatever you can wring out of your environment to survive.