Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

Indie games still struggle to win recognition at The Game Awards

The nominees for the 2022 Game Awards dropped November 14, creating an annual water cooler moment for gaming fans — for better or worse. Whenever the list is announced, you can be sure to hear the word “snub” reverberate across social media as fans question why games they like didn’t get into certain categories. Of course, the reality is that there are countless games released every year and very few spots to represent them all. Only the cream of the crop are going to get in, and that’s always going to result in some sore feelings.

This year’s nominations especially sting, though. Scroll through the list of nominees and you’ll feel like you’ll see a select few games repeated over and over. God of War Ragnarok picked up 10 nominations in just about any category it was eligible for, and Elden Ring predictably grabbed seven, even netting an unexpected nomination for Best Narrative. Other big budget titans like Horizon Forbidden West and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II had strong showings, nabbing multiple nominations apiece.

The nominations weren’t quite as kind to independent games. Though a handful made the cut, some of the year’s best-reviewed titles struggled to earn recognition outside of indie-focused categories. The contentious results raise fair questions about the way we play and what kinds of games merit recognition. Is it an even playing field when it feels like only the games with the biggest budgets truly get to compete?

Scale wins

Indie games have always struggled to make headway at The Game Awards since its inception. Last year’s ceremony marked the first time an indie won Game of the Year thanks to It Takes Two, but that stands as the show’s biggest outlier. Scrub back to 2020 and you’ll be hard pressed to find too many indie games even nominated in major categories aside from Hades. Instead, titles like The Last of Us Part II, Doom Eternal, and Ghost of Tsushima filled the ballot.

It Takes Two's main characters ride frog taxis.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

This year’s show is similar, though with some encouraging exceptions. Stray picked up an impressive six nominations, while Immortality nabbed some high-profile nods in Best Narrative, Best Performance, and Best Game Direction. Smaller, but equally acclaimed titles, didn’t quite get the same recognition. Neon White, one of the year’s top-reviewed titles, only nabbed a Best Action nomination outside of its indie category placement. Vampire Survivors and Cult of the Lamb picked up one nomination each, while games like The Case of the Golden Idol and Signalis were overlooked entirely.

Even when indies do win big, the games that get recognition tend to walk in the footsteps of larger games. It Takes Two is an EA-backed project that plays like a high-end Nintendo platformer, complete with a story influenced by Hollywood animation. A Plague Tale: Requiem, a AA game that received a Game of the Year nomination this year, is essentially The Last of Us on a lower budget. Even Stray is flashy compared to something like Strange Horticulture, building on 3D adventure game tropes.

The reality of the show is that it’s currently impossible to imagine an acclaimed title like Citizen Sleeper making its way into categories like Game of the Year or Best Narrative, no matter its quality. It can leave gaming’s big night feeling like a contest of scale designed for companies like Sony to excel in.

Mass appeal

To be clear, The Game Awards isn’t at fault here. One could lobby criticism at its category choices, which favor popular genres like action while leaving less space for smaller games that think outside the box, but it offers a lot of space for a wide array of games to break through. Ultimately the awards are determined through a democratic process, with nominations picked by a massive jury of publications (Digital Trends sits on this year’s jury and submitted our own nomination ballot).

That’s where the topic gets complicated.

Kratos holds Atreus' face in God of War: Ragnarok.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s a logistical problem here that’s difficult to work around. Countless excellent games are released every year and each voter realistically can’t play them all. It isn’t like the Oscars where someone could feasibly knock out five movies in a day and still have time to get a full night’s sleep. Massive games like God of War Ragnarok and Elden Ring demand a tremendous amount of time and attention from voters who may feel like they have to prioritize them to stay up to date with the wider social conversations around games. It explains why an indie like Stray might find its way at the top of the class, as its launch generated a massive social moment thanks to its cute cat premise.

Time management tends to favor what’s hot, and that leaves limited space for someone to choose between compelling, but less popular, games like Norco or The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. The more you scale up a voting base — not just for The Game Awards, but for year-end discussions generally — you tend to see the conversation shift toward games that have some level of mass appeal. Indie titles need to campaign twice as hard to make it on the list, while AAA titles are a foregone conclusion.

All of that leaves anything like The Game Awards feeling less like the Oscars and more like the MTV Movie Awards. It’s like seeing a Best Picture field dominated by Top Gun Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Batman, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (which actually did score a nomination for Best Adaptation). The biggest marketing draws reign supreme while groundbreaking indies are left fighting for a few spots that they’ll likely lose to whatever PlayStation’s biggest release is that year.

Screenshot of a horde of monsters attacking in Vampire Survivors.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s no easy solution here, because any problem that The Game Awards has is simply a social one. Until the wider gaming industry values smaller games the same way it does a money-maker like God of War Ragnarok, any large-scale, democratized attempt to determine the best games of a given year will be skewed.

If a game you love got snubbed, the best thing you can do is champion it as loudly as you can on whatever platform you have. Share it with friends and hope that good word of mouth helps it build up the social status a game needs to earn the recognition it deserves. When a system is gamed, game it back.

Editors' Recommendations

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
For Microsoft, indies aren’t Game Pass extras. They’re the future of Xbox
A list of indie games on Xbox appears in a grid.

Xbox may be about as corporate a brand as you can find, but it’s been a surprisingly vital platform for independent developers. That dates back to the Xbox Live Arcade days of old, when small developers were given a place to easily publish their projects on consoles. Rather than pulling away from those days, Xbox has only doubled down on its relationship to indies in the years since through initiatives like ID@Xbox and a Developer Acceleration Program designed to help underrepresented developers get their games out.

Over the past few months, the brand has been on a global tour to reach small developers directly and court them to Xbox. That effort would take the company to New York City on November 18, where Xbox leadership would speak to local developers and students about how to submit to their programs (the event would also feature a questionably timed speech from New York City Mayor Eric Adams amid an FBI investigation into his campaign funds). It’s clear that Microsoft is investing a lot of time and money into signing deals with small developers, but why make the effort when it could comfortably thrive just by publishing major titles through acquired publishers like Activision Blizzard and Bethesda?

Read more
The ‘Indie’ label is losing its meaning, and that’s a big problem for gaming
Dave swimming near a dolphin confused.

"Indie" isn't a new or unique term exclusive to gaming. Music and film in particular have had decades of independent productions that occasionally break through into mainstream success. Indie games have, of course, been around since the advent of the medium itself, but only really came to prominence to the wider public in the late 2000s and early 2010s when digital distribution started becoming a major player. Just like in music and film, indie games drew attention based on that label which implied to the audience that what they were looking at was the work of a small, passionate team not beholden to the same corporate mandates as traditional games. What they lacked in budget and scope, they made up for in heart and fresh ideas.

In 2023, that term is losing its meaning. Indie is quickly becoming a loose word used to describe a type of game rather than the actual environment in which it was made -- something that's fueling a controversy at this year's Game Awards. With 'indie' being tossed around more loosely by players and gaming institutions alike, we're starting to lose what made the word meaningful in the first place: it helped provide a spotlight for games made by passionate teams without the means or money to get mainstream attention.
Fishing for attention
This indie debate picked up a lot of attention this week due to the recently released nominations for The Game Awards. Specifically, debates arose after Dave the Diver was nominated for Best Indie. Dave the Diver was developed by Mintrocket, which is owned entirely by Nexon, a multibillion-dollar South Korean publisher. That's hardly what one thinks of when they hear the term "indie," but it was an easy mistake to make on its surface. The creative, small-scale game features a pixel art style that's usually reserved for indies these days and is an experimental genre mash-up we expect from games like Slay the Spire.

Read more
The Game Awards could use some new categories, so we made them ourselves
1K looks at a cliff in The Talos Principle 2.

The Game Awards features 24 game-related categories -- and even that doesn't feel like enough every time nominees are announced. Indies and more experimental games are often overlooked as the current categories reward the biggest AAA action-focused titles. Geoff Keighley has stated that he constantly assesses which award categories should be present at The Game Awards, but the only major addition recently was Best Game Adaptation in 2022.

There are entire genres and types of games that can feel ignored every year during The Game Awards. This year, we decided to come up with a few new categories of our own, highlight some potential nominees that we think would be worth nominating for these categories if they were to have existed this year, and explain why each category deserves to be added to the Game Awards.
Best Puzzle Game

Read more