Death Stranding's Nominations at the Game Awards Can't Help But Raise Questions

By Heather Alexandra on at

The Games Awards is the largest video games awards ceremony of the year in large part because it’s full of new game announcements, but the industry takes the awards seriously as well. This year, with Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding nominated for a number of awards including Game of the Year, viewers are openly wondering whether or not that’s related to The Game Awards producer Geoff Keighley’s very public relationship with Kojima. Keighley says he doesn’t nominate or vote on awards, but there are plenty of questions here.

Death Stranding released earlier this month to a split critical reception. In my review for Kotaku, I called it a “fantastic mess.” Meanwhile, IGN gave the game a 6.8 out of 10. It’s a divisive game with plenty of detractors among the broader gaming audience. But it’s also a high budget game made by one of the world’s most well-known directors, which would typically prime it for awards season. Sure enough, it has been nominated for seven awards this year including Game of the Year and Best Game Direction. These nominations, received so soon after release, have drawn some attention as show producer Geoff Keighley has been a friend of Kojima’s for years, talking about him on Twitter and bringing him on stage at various events, including previous iterations of The Game Awards. Keighley even appears as a non-player character in Death Stranding.

This appearance of impropriety has led to questions from critics and fans. In a large thread on the popular message board ResetEra asking whether it was appropriate for Death Stranding to rack up so many awards, conversations got heated. Keighley also spent some time on Twitter explaining to questioners that he did not himself vote on the awards.

The public friendship between Keighley and Kojima kicked off in 2015. Early that year, reports circulated that Kojima would be parting ways with Konami, although the specific nature of his status with the company remained opaque. By the end of the year, it was clear that the relationship between Kojima and Konami had been shattered. When Kojima’s newest game, Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain, won the best action/adventure game award at the Game Awards on December 3rd, Kiefer Sutherland, the voice of protagonist Big Boss, accepted the award on Kojima’s behalf. Keighley took to the stage and in an impassioned speech that went viral immediately afterwards, said Konami had not allowed Kojima to attend the awards.

It was a public black eye for Konami, who were seen as largely responsible for Metal Gear Solid V’s many flaws and the cancellation of Kojima’s other announced game, Silent Hills. On December 15th, Kojima announced that he was turning his development company Kojima Productions into an independent enterprise and that its first game would be published by Sony. That game was Death Stranding.

Death Stranding’s nominations at the 2019 Game Awards are hard to separate from that series of events, as well as Keighley’s ongoing relationship with Kojima. Kojima himself sits as a member of the show’s advisory board, which also includes major industry figures such as Nintendo president Doug Bowser, Activision president Rob Kostich, and Microsoft EVP Phil Spencer. Keighley appears in Death Stranding via likeness as the “Ludens Fan.” Ludens is the name of the astronaut mascot for Kojima Productions.

“I respect and appreciate the concern,” Keighley told Kotaku via email when asked about this appearance of conflict. “This is why we have the FAQ right at the top of the website to make the process clear. It’s also why I don’t vote on the nominees or winners. In my role as show producer I work closely with game publishers and developers on a number of levels, so [I] leave the judging to media outlets that provide a wide critical assessment.”

The Game Awards is structured as a mix between critics choice and people’s choice. Nominees are selected solely by the jury, which is comprised of 80 press outlets including Eurogamer, IGN, and Polygon. (Kotaku does not participate because the timing doesn’t work for us.) Once the nominees are revealed, the jury and viewers both vote on the award, with the fan vote counting for 10%.

The role of the advisory board, on which Kojima sits, is less clear. While the board plays no part in the voting process or jury selection, it does help “guide and advance the mission of the Game Awards,” Keighley says. When asked about the board’s specific duties, he was vague.

“Functionally, this typically includes a few in person meetings every year to solicit general feedback on the show’s direction,” Keighley said. “These are broad stroke discussions.”

In other words, Kojima’s presence on the board – and friendship with Keighley – likely hasn’t affected his game’s nominations. That’s handled by the jury itself. The appearance of impropriety remains, as so many observers have pointed out. The Game Awards, like many other big awards shows, is a quagmire of potential conflicts of interest. It is as much a celebration of the year in games as it is an opportunity to bring in viewers by showing hot new trailers and revealing big new games. The show is peppered with commercials and exclusive reveals from the same companies whose games are nominated for awards—and whose members are on The Game Awards’ board.

Of course, one look at Hollywood reveals a similar situation, as anyone who’s participated in the Oscars or Emmys might tell you. But there’s a key difference here: the Oscars and Emmys aren’t associated with a single man. The Game Awards has existed since 2014, and it’s always been produced, hosted, and promoted by Geoff Keighley. His public relationship with Kojima ultimately affects how people might read into Death Stranding’s nominations, and any eventual wins.