Mike Kim

At Summer Game Fest, a hush fell over the crowd as the theatre went dark. “There’s nothing more powerful than imagination,” a familiar voice boomed from 137 speakers suspended around the cavernous room, just as an ominous trailer began playing on a massive screen. One minute later, the owner of that voice stepped onstage in an absinthe-green suit with wide peak lapels: Nicolas Cage.

“I’m so happy to be invited to your very, very cool club,” Cage said to a roar of laughter and applause. He wasn’t talking to members in Soho House West Hollywood’s screening room but to a raucous crowd of video game professionals at the fourth annual Summer Game Fest in the YouTube Theater.

“When I make movies, one of my favourite genres is horror,” Cage continued. He was onstage to promote his cameo in a survival horror game called Dead by Daylight that had already sold more than twice as many copies as the megahit Elden Ring. “I play this heightened, exaggerated version of a film actor named Nic Cage,” he said, before coughing and apologizing for his seasonal allergies. More than 27 million people watched this moment via Summer Game Fest’s online stream—at least 2 million more viewers than ESPN would draw during the College Football Playoff National Championship between Michigan and Washington seven months later.

For the video game industry, Summer Game Fest has quickly become a combination of San Diego Comic-Con and the (now defunct) Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3): the single most important place for gamers to watch new trailers and for studios to show off their wares. With USD180 billion in video game revenue last year according to Newzoo—more than global box-office and music sales combined—Summer Game Fest is arguably one of the two most important pop-culture events of the year now, alongside its sister event in December, the Game Awards, which has started drawing more viewers than the Academy Awards.

But unlike Comic-Con or E3, Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards are owned, operated, and hosted by one person: Geoff Keighley, a 45-year-old Canadian journalist and Muppet enthusiast with a penchant for tailored dinner jackets.


Keighley began his career blogging about video games before covering them as a freelance reporter for Kotaku, GameSpot, and other publications. But much like Paul Rudd, Keighley doesn’t seem to be ageing and has maintained the same youthful voice, presentation style, and haircut since hosting his first video game show on Spike TV two decades ago. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him or his company. “Geoff’s a black hole of information,” one industry insider told me. I emailed Summer Game Fest to ask Keighley questions for this story but didn’t receive a response.

Today, while most people in the industry believe Keighley’s twin events are a force for good, others have raised concerns about Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards’ high entry fees, opaqueness, and celebrification, as well as Keighley’s silence on issues that have impacted game workers, like the mass layoffs that have decimated studios in 2023 and 2024.

With this year’s Summer Game Fest right around the corner, I asked more than a dozen video game professionals for their unfiltered opinions on Summer Game Fest, including what they’d like to see changed.

Dating back to the mid-’90s, E3 had been America’s unrivalled mega-conference for video gamers and professionals. But in 2020, when the pandemic forced E3 to shut down, along with nearly every other in-person event on earth, Keighley streamed the first iteration of Summer Game Fest from a spare bedroom in his Pacific Palisades home. “Someone needed to step up,” says Greg Miller, a former IGN editor turned CEO of Kinda Funny, a pop-culture video and podcast network. “That first year of Summer Game Fest brought in a whole bunch of eyeballs and exposed people to games they might not otherwise have given the time of day.”

Over the past four years, especially in the wake of E3’s permadeath in 2023, Summer Game Fest’s influence has grown exponentially—even though Geoff Keighley remains the only name listed (as chief executive officer, secretary, chief financial officer, and sole director) on his company’s most recent LLC filings with the California Secretary of State. I also emailed Summer Game Fest to ask how many people work there in addition to Keighley but didn’t receive a response in time for publication.

Jon Kopaloff//Getty Images

“E3 was usually dominated by Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft, but Summer Game Fest and [its in-person media event] Play Days have opened the floor for so many more creatives and developers to participate,” says Jasmine James, a senior PR account manager at ÜberStrategist, which represents studios as large as Bungie (Destiny 2) and as small as Serious Bros. (Imagine Earth). Participating studios in this year’s Summer Game Fest include heavyweights like Bandai Namco (Elden Ring), Epic Games (Fortnite), Sega, and Ubisoft, which are willing to pay a premium for the gaming equivalent of a Super Bowl commercial.

“These shows are really fucking expensive,” one insider says, referring to both Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards. According to pricing details shared with me by multiple marketing professionals who requested anonymity, running a trailer during Summer Game Fest’s main show this year costs USD250,000 for one minute, USD350,000 for one and a half minutes, USD450,000 for two minutes, and USD550,000 for two and a half minutes. They also say that last year’s edition of the Game Awards featured the same pricing tiers.

If you add up all of the one- to two-and-a-half-minute trailers aired during last year’s Summer Game Fest, those price levels could translate into a USD9.65 million haul for the main show alone. Of course, last year’s prices may have been different, and I don’t know how to account for shorter, 30-second trailers, nor the longer segments in which Keighley invites a developer onstage.

I think Geoff does a good job shining a light on indies. Could he do more? Of course, he could, but at what point does the vision for the show become mine instead of his?

For many smaller and independent studios, these sums are astronomical—sometimes far more than their entire marketing budget for an individual game. “The current pricing tiers make Summer Game Fest an unattainable goal for most indie developers and publishers,” a PR professional who represents indie games told me. But several marketing and PR folks at larger studios say these trailer premieres are worth the spend. “As far as general brand awareness, the impact is pretty huge,” one of them says. “The caveat here is that it depends on the placement and trailer length. Longer slots perform better and seem to drive more coverage, whereas short trailers don’t capture quite the same attention.”

Another marketing professional I spoke with pointed to the fact that this year, Summer Game Fest is also selling tickets for fans to attend the main showcase in the YouTube Theater, saying, “That’s another stream of revenue for Geoff, so … could he then lower the cost of entry for smaller clients to be featured in the main show?” Earlier this week, first-party tickets were still available for USD41 on Ticketmaster. But even if Summer Game Fest sold out the theatre’s entire 6,000-seat capacity at that price, it would net only around USD246,000—less than it makes from a single one-minute trailer—and the true number will likely be far lower thanks to seats reserved for invitees.

However, Summer Game Fest is more than just Geoff Keighley’s livestream. “I appreciate Summer Game Fest a lot more outside of the main presentation,” says Ash Parrish, a video game reporter at the Verge who attended the Play Days media event in 2022 and is heading back to Summer Game Fest this year. “The most memorable games I’ve played—the kinds of games that remind me why I love my job—are the ones that don’t often get the huge spotlight of the big stage and are part of the smaller presentations like Day of the Devs,” she says, referring to Summer Game Fest’s indie-only aftershow.


Speaking of Play Days, it’s a three-day “invite-only media and influencer event” where studios can purchase a “full hands-on pod” for USD150,000 or a “meeting cabana” for USD50,000 this year. “I fell in love with games I would have never considered, like A Little to the Left, Time Flies, Escape Academy, and Schism, just by walking around [and] getting hands-on with demos and talking to the developers,” Parrish says.

Attending this in-person event is free for invited members of the media, but some of them wish Summer Game Fest was a little more transparent with access. “A lot of upcoming journalists and creators ask me how they can get invited,” says Danny Peña, founder and co-host of the Gamertag Radio podcast, who’s attended Summer Game Fest in the past. “When I first started out, I went straight to the official E3 website and applied for a media badge, but I’ve never seen anything like that for Summer Game Fest,” he says.

Most of the insiders I spoke with also wish Summer Game Fest’s main show would devote more time to indie games, especially when it comes to the longer segments in which Keighley interviews developers. “I’d like to see more of a level playing field so that more indies and even midsized developers get a chance to go on stage,” one of them says. Of all the games featured during Keighley’s main show in 2023, 46 per cent could reasonably be classified as indies—roughly the same percentage as 2022 but way up from 2021, when only a handful of indies were present.

“I think Geoff does a good job shining a light on indies,” says Miller. “Could he do more? Of course, he could, but at what point does the vision for the show become mine instead of his?” Miller cohosted the eighth annual D.I.C.E. Awards this year, which are presented by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences every February. Alongside Keighley’s Game Awards, D.I.C.E. is a contender to be the Academy Awards for video games, but it’s much less commercial than Keighley’s event.

I respect that [Keighley is] under a lot of pressure and that no matter what he does or says, half of Twitter will be yelling at him.

Case in point: In February, Miller made headlines for directly confronting Embracer Group executives with a joke during the D.I.C.E. Awards after they laid off more than 1,400 game workers last year. Miller and cohost Stella Chung also addressed the industry’s layoffs in their opening monologue, asking executives to “do better caring for our workers.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Keighley’s silence on this issue during the Game Awards two months earlier drew a lot of criticism, including a sharply worded editorial from Parrish headlined “Geoff Keighley let video game developers down.” Some of the people I spoke with wondered if Keighley will address the layoffs at Summer Game Fest this year, especially since studio downsizing has only gotten worse in 2024.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” a game worker told me. “Whether [Keighley] wanted it or not, he’s now the de facto voice of gaming, and he’s benefiting from it financially. I respect that he’s under a lot of pressure and that no matter what he does or says, half of Twitter will be yelling at him. But I think he could do a lot more to be a force for good in the industry.”

Another professional in the gaming industry says, “Geoff doesn’t necessarily have to voice his own opinion. He doesn’t have to endorse any particular views [on serious issues], but he could let more developers go up onstage and raise the issues that matter to them.”

In a very recent example of a wasted opportunity to do just that, dozens of members of Keighley’s Future Class program signed an open letter asking Keighley “for a statement to be read out in our name during The Game Awards Ceremony” last December—a statement that called for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza alongside support for Palestinian human rights. But according to reporting by Wired’s Megan Farokhmanesh, no one at the Game Awards even responded to the Future Class members who sent the letter—even though Future Class participants were selected by Keighley’s event organizers as individuals “whose voices elevate, diversify, and further our art form.”

Miller isn’t sure how a discussion of the gaming industry’s issues, much less international humanitarian ones, could fit into a Geoff Keighley production. “I wouldn’t be caught dead up there not doing that, but my brand for 17 years has been saying what I feel and sometimes being wrong, sometimes being right.” But Miller also says Keighley takes feedback seriously and is constantly seeking input from peers and fans. “I’ve never met a guy who is more in the comments than Geoff. He reads everything. When I make an offhand comment on one of my shows about [his events], he’ll remember it and ask me questions about it later. He’s trying to make the best show that serves as many people as possible.”

The video game industry has reached a historically dramatic crossroads in 2024 as ballooning sales, bloated executive compensation, and pop-culture crossovers like HBO’s The Last of Us and Amazon Prime Video’s Fallout coincide with mass layoffs, low pay, and poor workplace conditions for game workers—many of whom are forming unions for the first time.

If Miller is right, all we know for sure is that Keighley will read the comments after the credits roll—and that there’s a nonzero chance Nicolas Cage will show up again with postnasal drip.

Originally published on Esquire US

If you haven't heard, the streaming-verse is about to gift us yet another video-game adaptation: Fallout, which will debut on Prime Video later this month. Its source material is a role-playing game (RPG), in which the story unfolds based on the player's decisions. It's a choose-you-own-adventure style of freedom that's largely only found in video games—which, obviously, presents a challenge once those elements are removed.

So the best way to experience everything that Fallout offers is to simply play the games. Beginning as a two-dimensional PC title, the series now plays as a modern 3D first-person shooter. It's equipped with everything that fans of Bethesda Softworks—the studio behind The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Starfield—know and love. Player freedom is vast, and gameplay systems are easy to understand. All the player must do in this postapocalyptic world is survive in the Wasteland by any means possible. Throughout five mainline titles and three spin-offs, the Fallout series still boasts a strong community. But there's only so much I can explain about Fallout in words alone. The only way to truly understand what makes the series so great is to jump in yourself.

Fallout (1997)


Way back in 1997, the first Fallout game set up everything that would delight fans for the next 27 years. But just like early entries in many long-running gaming franchises, Fallout’s top-down RPG style doesn’t exactly inspire the shock and awe of modern 3D titles. Still, Fallout told a compelling story—which is based in the year 2161, as nuclear fallout forces humanity to take shelter in Vaults. Venturing out into the Wasteland, the player searches for water while they fight the Master and his army of Super Mutants. (Don't worry: Spend a few hours with the game and you'll have its lexicon mastered in no time.)

Fallout 2 (1998)


Set 80 years after the original FalloutFallout 2's story follows a descendant of the first Vault Dweller as he sets out to create a Garden of Eden for his Vault. While Fallout 2's gameplay and look doesn't stray too far from those of its predecessor, the game features more environments from around the world.

Fallout Tactics (2001)


Fallout Tactics—the first spin-off in the Fallout series—threw everything you thought about Fallout out the window, creating a multiplayer turn-based RPG with linear story campaigns. Instead of playing as a Vault Dweller, users control six members of the Brotherhood of Steel, an in-game technology-focused faction, as they conquer the Wasteland and expand their territory.

Fallout 3 (2008)


In 2006, open-world games—such as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion—sold so well for Bethesda that the studio took the formula and (controversially!) applied it to the world of Fallout just two years later. Turns out, everyone loves an open world once they actually play it. The game received universal acclaim.

Set in the ruins of Washington, D.C., the game has your Vault Dweller once again entering a wasteland. But this time you're equipped with first-person-shooter capabilities and 3D exploration. Fallout 3 also introduced a new (now classic) combat system, which allowed players to target specific areas of the body to disarm opponents, slow them down, or even go for a quick headshot.

Fallout: New Vegas (2010)


Fallout: New Vegas is considered by many fans and critics to be the best entry of the series. Building on the success of Fallout 3New Vegas places players in a three-way faction war where gameplay choices drastically affects the story moving forward. From altering where they explore to who they fight for, New Vegas allows players the greatest freedom in a Fallout title to date. Obsidian developed the spin-off title in just under a year before eventually going on to make the celebrated 2019 RPG The Outer Worlds.

Fallout Shelter (2015)


Functioning as a free-to-play construction game, Fallout Shelter allows players to build and manage their own Vault. Though the mini-game features some annoying microtransactions, the spin-off expanded the world of Fallout and integrated a complex system of resource management.

Fallout 4 (2015)


Fallout 4 shocked many fans of the long-running series when it arrived in 2015. Abandoning the franchise's traditional RPG elements for a more streamlined story, the fourth numbered Fallout entry functions more as a shooter (and looter) than it does a traditional Fallout RPG.But even without the freedom of choice of Fallout: New VegasFallout 4 still incorporates an expansive base builder and more weapon enhancements than I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Fallout 76 (2018)


For all the bugs and disappointments that surrounded Fallout 76’s rushed launch, the massive online multiplayer spin-off eventually garnered a rich community. One group of players—collectively known as EATT (Establishment of Appalachian Taste Testers)—hunted other players and used the game's bizarre cannibalism mechanics to eat them. Another community even put an NPC on trial and let the game's users decide his fate. Even if you remove traditional RPG elements, gamers always find a way!

Originally published on Esquire US

“It is frustrating that people still think of board games as being like Monopoly, just going on forever and ever, with players sat there circling the drain until it’s over,” laughs Chris Backe, “when there’s a new generation of board games that allow us to explore aspects of ourselves we don’t generally get to explore. It’s like the movies or novels, only with games you’re not a watcher but a participant. With games, we get to step out of our skin”.

Backe is a rare beast: he’s a full-time board game designer, always working up 20 or so new concepts for his company No Box. He’s testing them, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and over recent years seeing his industry enjoy a huge revival—to the tune of USD16b in annual sales, thanks in part to the pandemic. Over his years in the business, he has concluded this: it’s not that people like to play, but that they need to play. And not just in structured ways, as with games or sports, but in manners that have no purpose at all beyond the pleasure of doing them. We’re not just talking about children here; we’re talking about grown-ups too.

“I’m a strong proponent of the idea that adults should play, by which I mean play that is defined as self-chosen and self-directed, not driven by coaches, not something you have to do,” says psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn and one of the world’s leading scholars of play. “All play in a sense has rules, maybe handed down [from] generation to generation, sometimes implicit, sometimes just made-up on the spot. But we all need to play more. Play has made us what we are”.

And not just us. All mammals play, from dolphins to dogs. One theory proposes that those mammals are capable of using objects as tools. Like a monkey using a stone to break open shellfish, for example, or the first instance when a stone is used as a toy. Utility came later. Others stress how, despite its energy expenditure, and even the occasional injury, natural selection has not weeded play out, as might be expected.

In part that’s because play is often a process of exercise or stress relief, both good for us. But it also has a much more important role. One key idea—first proposed by Karl Groos in his The Play of Man (1901)—is that play not only allows the nervous system to develop ready for certain activities later in life but it also functions as a kind of practice. Of those skills required for survival, learning to cope with unexpected events, and preparation for doing things as a competent adult.

The skills and values explored in play can be specific to a child’s culture—Groos suggested the likes of hunting, skiing, canoeing or horse-riding. It seems that children’s readiness to play at these is instinctual; they observe and mimic without being prompted. The skills can also be more universal. Play, for example, is often social—first is the need to decide together what and how to play, so cooperation and communication are essential.

In fact, animals that are more dependent on their group for survival tend to play more, with, as Gray argues, hunter-gatherer societies positively suffusing nearly all they do with play. From religion to work and ways of settling disputes, all the better to suppress any drive to dominate. In play, you have to learn to control your impulses, like in play fighting where you’re almost hitting your opponent but never actually. It’s as much mental as physical too. Being self-directed, play also fosters creativity, imagination, experimentation and independence.

It’s why, argues Rene Proyer, professor of psychology at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, while some of us play in more obvious, more socially acceptable ways—he cites those who play video games, use colouring books for “mindfulness” or who build the complex sets LEGO created specifically for adults (“Adults welcome,” as its ad has it)—we all tend to play in one way or another. Humour, fantasy, daydreaming, sexuality all offer forms of play, as does language, as the very phrase “wordplay” suggests. People often use play as a means of getting through repetitive tasks, inventing challenges for themselves, he notes.

“[If you play with children] you soon learn that almost anything and everything can be play. But, in a way, adults are more free to play because our worlds are larger [than children’s],” Proyer suggests. “And there are good reasons to continue to play as adults, even the opportunity it brings for continued learning. But the easiest answer to the question of why adults should play—and the most correct one—is that it’s fun. Play can be used to maintain alertness, or to keep you in the moment. It’s through play that you can enter a ‘flow state’.”

This idea, of being fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment, is now more commonly cited about sport or the production of art—but it was first proposed, by the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in 1990.

And yet the evolutionary necessity of play has long been side-lined, even denigrated. Sebastian Deterding, professor of design engineering at Imperial College, London, and a researcher in playful design, says play got in the way of industrialisation and its need for reliable labour. Capitalism saw play as a waste of time; play became associated not with positivity but with the Bacchanalian wildness of festivals.

“Even in the Medieval period kings would complain about peasants playing cards rather than improving their archery or doing something ‘useful’. And religions have often had bans on games because of their relationship to gambling,” he says. “Today in the [first] world the norm is to have roles and duties — as an employee, as a parent—while caring for oneself and one’s dependents. And play doesn’t fit into that. It’s seen as trivial in a culture in which everything is measured in terms of productivity. Even sleep and fitness are about improving your ability to fulfil your social role, while sport is considered to have the necessary function of being a community ritual.”

Historically some games got what Detarding calls a “free pass”: early board games—the likes of Snakes and Ladders—were morality tales dressed up as games, while chess or backgammon were associated with a kind of brain-training. Even when play is discussed today there is, he says, often some vague kind of attempt to legitimise it—it’s a way of getting the family together, or it’s for the improvement of one’s well-being, “even that the PlayStation you just bought was in the sale,” he laughs. “But attitudes to play are changing—there’s more institutional approval, for example, with big museums running exhibitions on video-gaming; there’s more questioning of the values we’re expected to subscribe to. There’s also been a lot of boredom over recent years”.

“In one sense play is on the up, especially coming out of the pandemic. People had a lot of time on their hands that previously they hadn’t, and turned to play as something to do, even as a way of dealing with the situation,” says Jeremy Saucier, assistant vice president at The Strong National Museum of Play in New York and editor of the American Journal of Play. “Sure, play has long been associated with childhood—play is ‘what kids do’—even as many adults became more open to it, and even if they might not have called it ‘play’. Yet there’s still a certain risk in revealing that you ‘play’ in modern culture. Play is still considered to be frivolous in a highly competitive world”.

Unless, of course, that highly competitive world co-opts play in the pursuit of improved efficiency in business or consumer engagement with a product: the so-called ‘gamification’ of the workplace and education, in training and marketing. This reveals a philosophical conundrum. “Play has so many possibilities and there are ways to harness it to bring all sorts of benefits. But if you assign a purpose to play, is it still really play?” asks Saucier. “The danger is to recognise that play is good for us and then trying to throw play into everything. Then it just becomes performative”.

Remarkably, even play among children is under attack. Ana Fabrega, founder of Synthesis—an educational system based on the idea that children are hard-wired to learn skills the likes of collaboration, autonomy and competence through play—was a career teacher with experience in school systems around the world. She notes how with the notable exception of the education system in Finland, time for free, unstructured play has increasingly been squeezed out of school timetables in favour of academic study and the pursuit of higher grades.

It’s not just in schools either. “We’re seeing the rise of a culture of safetyism in which parents don’t want to expose their children to even the slightest risk, even though the instinct to explore risk [through dicing with heights, speed, dangerous tools or elements, and so on] is fundamental to children from a very young age,” she says. “Play is being trained out of us, so it’s no wonder that by the time we leave education, we tend to think of it as not being serious. But we have to take play seriously—it matters, not least because it’s the engine of invention”.

According to Peter Gray, the last 50 years or so have seen other cultural influences gradually erode children’s access to free play too, notably the rise of TV and, more recently, gaming devices keeping children within the domestic sphere rather than being “free range” and out in the world. In parallel, this period has seen a huge rise in all sorts of mental disorders among young people.

“The whole reason why childhood is so long is to acquire the characteristics necessary to be an adult. You’re gradually given more and more freedom and so must learn to solve your own problems—how to keep your playmates happy, how to deal with differences,” says Gray. “Now we have generations who have grown up without that [training] and absolutely it’s had a [negative] impact on them”.

In 1955 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens (playful man) proposed that human culture arises and advances through play; that the pillars of culture, from art to literature, philosophy to the law, arise at times when adults had the freedom and time to play. It’s through play that we innovate. That might not bode so well for a globalised world in the 21st century.

Indeed, Gray says there is evidence to suggest that the good mood fostered by play allows people to perform better at the kind of problem-solving that requires novel thinking. And that, since the 1980s, curtailed childhood play has had a marked negative impact on creativity, as far as it can be measured. “Play teaches creativity, so now we’re producing far fewer creative people in an era when society really needs people to be creative,” he argues. But, he adds, we’re also seeing it reflected starkly in what he notes as the reduced independence and competence of current late teens and 20-somethings. He worries that this will likely become the norm for future generations unless the greater free rein to play, which was historically given to children, is rapidly reinstated.

“We’re seeing high rates of emotional breakdown among college students, for example, often for what would have been considered very trivial reasons a generation ago,” he observes. “Lacking the beneficial childhood experience of play, they haven’t learnt to steel themselves [against challenges], to understand that you can have a negative experience and somehow you survive. There’s an inability to accept negative consequences and to take responsibility for their own failures. Our changing regard for the importance of play [in childhood] is behind all of this”.

That also suggests why we need to take a more positive view of play more broadly, not just for tomorrow’s children and the adults they will become, but for adults today. Rene Proyer notes that the huge popularity of smartphone- and console-based video gaming—an industry that has long since eclipsed the film business, for example—suggests that the desire is there. The average age of a gamer now? 33, with players equally split between men and women. We just need to be more open about embracing the benefits of play—and to recognise that playfulness as a state of mind is a skill that can be developed.

“For a long time, it was thought that video games were just for kids. Back in the ’80s I was almost embarrassed to tell other grown-ups what I did for a living,” says David Mullich, the leading video-game designer for the likes of Disney, Apple and Activision. “Now everyone is slowly discovering how essential play is. It’s in play that we cast off our responsibilities, fears and certainties to engage in challenges that have no material outcome. It’s through play that we find catharsis. We find new meanings in the world. Without play, we wouldn’t be fully human.”


After 12 hours in transit, two connecting flights, and a meandering drive through millions of Douglas firs and ponderosa pines, I reach a small town near the border of Idaho and Washington State, where there are more woodpeckers than people. When I turn left down an unmarked road, one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen comes into view: a brick-and-masonry edifice surrounded by an earthen moat, accessible only by a footbridge, through an arch that looks like it was torn off the front of the building by an angry god. This is Cyan Worlds, the oldest surviving independent video game studio in America.

Founded in 1987, it produced two of the best-selling and most influential games of all time in the '90s—Myst and Riven—which are still celebrated three decades later for their visual storytelling. I’m here because throughout 2023, gamers and industry experts have been openly wondering if this is the best year of all time for video games. It’s a dramatic superlative, sure, but the sheer number of well-received games that have hit consoles and PCs since January is staggering.

Esquire’s Game of the Year, Alan Wake 2, combined a Lynchian horror story with live-action film sequences and an unforgettable musical number. Baldur’s Gate 3, the role-playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons, took high-fantasy escapism to new heights. Bethesda’s long-awaited space epic, Starfield, was set across nearly 1,700 different moons and planets, making it the largest explorable universe ever built. I could keep going: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Diablo IV, The Talos Principle 2, Lies of P, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, and Assassin’s Creed Mirage, to name a few more.

At Cyan, I sit across a conference table from Rand Miller, the CEO and co-creator of Myst and Riven. I didn’t come all this way just because he’s been making video games longer than most people in America, but because I think many of 2023’s best games have something in common with Cyan’s classics in the '90s: a literary approach to narrative and environmental storytelling. In addition to the blockbusters I mentioned above, this year’s smaller and more experimental games—such as Cocoon, Chants of Sennaar, Jusant, and Cyan’s own Firmament—are built around narrative mysteries in addition to their logic puzzles.

Miller agrees. “Even the shooters are adding narrative in a way that feels inherent now, not just scabbed on like it used to be,” he says. But when I ask Miller if 2023 could be considered the industry's best year of all time, he has an answer that might surprise a lot of happy gamers.

“It’s been brutal.”

Behold: the mystical-looking Cyan Worlds, which is the oldest surviving independent video game studio in America. ADAM MORGAN

On the one hand, this year feels like a turning point for video games that could herald a new era, something akin to the “Peak TV” period that began with HBO’s The Sopranos in 1999. On the other hand, thousands of game workers were laid off in 2023 despite record-breaking sales figures, while many of their still-employed colleagues say they’re suffering from low pay, long hours, harassment, and discrimination—due in part to the fact that the video game industry has no national unions like Hollywood’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA to set benchmarks for wages, benefits, and working conditions.

So which is it? Are we entering a gaming renaissance that will rival the cultural impact of the golden age of Hollywood, or was 2023 just a fluke thanks to a pandemic-delayed backlog of titles? Are gaming CEOs driving away the bright minds of the industry’s future to make an extra buck today, or are we on the brink of a worker-led revolution?

It depends on who you ask.

Gamers and critics love to argue about the medium's best year of all time, but 2023 is the first serious contender since 2017, which delivered The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Destiny 2, Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon Zero Dawn, Cuphead, and Resident Evil 7. However, most players would probably agree that this year’s Tears of the Kingdom is even better than Breath of the Wild, and Destiny 2 didn’t hit its stride until its Forsaken expansion the following year.

Before that, there was 2007 (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, Portal, Rock Band, Super Mario Galaxy) and 2004 (Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, World of Warcraft). For… ahem… older gamers such as myself, there were earlier peaks in 1998 (Fallout 2, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time) and 1992 (Alone in the Dark, Final Fantasy V, King’s Quest VI, Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Mario Kart, Wolfenstein 3D).

But if I was stranded on a desert island and could only play 10 games of my choosing from one specific year? It would be 2023, no hesitation—and I'm sure the past versions of myself in the '90s and '00s would agree if they could play this year’s slate of titles.

“2023 has been an unusually strong year for video game releases across the spectrum,” says Simon Parkin, a culture journalist featured in the new book Game Changers: The Video Game Revolution. He thinks there are several reasons for this year’s embarrassment of riches, but his primary catalyst is “the pandemic, whereby projects seeded and refined during the lockdown years have all blossomed at a similar moment in time.”

Jordan Minor, the author of Video Game of the Year who covers the industry for PC Magazine, agrees. “I’m still a big fan of years like 2017, 2007, and especially 1998. But 2023 felt like everything that had been building up during this new console transition, as well as the pandemic, finally [exploded] in a good way,” he says.

But even if 2023’s games had been equally spread across the past three years, they would still herald a shift for the medium. At the risk of oversimplifying a $365-billion industry that ranges from massive corporations to two-person passion projects, I think the main reason is story. Playing a great game with a compelling narrative used to be relatively rare.

Back in the mid-'90s, after new technologies spawned an eruption of new genres, the commercial core of the gaming industry could have headed in one of two directions: Myst or Doom—a narrative-first experience that rewards exploration, or a combat-first experience that rewards fast-twitch muscle reflexes.

Clearly, major developers invested more in the Doom direction than the Myst direction over the ensuing decades, with the dominance of shooters like GoldenEye 007, Call of Duty, and Fortnite—as well as reflex-testing platformers like Super Mario descendants, Sonic the Hedgehog sequels, and Prince of Persia.

“All these other mediums of storytelling can exist inside the world of a video game,” says Sam Lake, Alan Wake 2’s Finnish creative director. (Pictured: the game’s full-on musical sequence.) EPIC GAMES PUBLISHING

While narratively complex games certainly existed—and some even sold well, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or GTA V. Most gamers didn’t spend much time thinking about what the characters were doing off-screen and they certainly didn’t pick up a new game because they wanted to see what’s been going on in Mario’s life, or how the citizens of Green Hill responded to Dr. Robotnik’s latest environmental disaster.

But if you look closely, the gap between the Doom and Myst extremes has been closing the whole time. Video games have never been more narratively sophisticated than they are right now. Case in point: most people don’t just want to beat games anymore. They want to know what happens to the characters and better understand the world. Just like readers of fiction, or people who watch a TV series for years.

In 2023, there are more narrative-driven games than ever before and there may be no greater example than Esquire’s game of the year, Alan Wake 2. An epic survival horror and detective game set in the Pacific Northwest starring a Stephen King-esque novelist and an FBI agent investigating a mysterious “Cult of the Tree,” it incorporates filmmaking and written-word literature in ways no other game has ever done before.

“All these other mediums of storytelling can exist inside the world of a video game,” says Sam Lake, the game’s Finnish creative director. “The different art forms come together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts: a whole, deep, layered experience, seamless and fragmented at the same time, just as our lives are. And because it's interactive, the player is driving it, pacing it, immersed, fully engaged, eager to explore and sort out the elements, to chase the mystery of what the story is about. This is where the evolution of storytelling—something that is a core part of all of us—has led us.”

Live-service games are experimenting with new kinds of narrative as well. Destiny 2 first launched in 2017 but its ongoing story dates all the way back to 2013 with the release of the first Destiny. Joe Blackburn, the game director of Destiny 2 at Bungie, says story is a big part of what makes his team’s first-person shooter special. “We've been all-in on setting up the culmination of the 'Light and Darkness Saga,'” he tells me, referring to an intricate ten-year plotline that will be resolved in "The Final Shape," an expansion set to release next year. “We're excited to continue evolving the world of [Destiny 2], and we want 'The Final Shape' to stand alongside the best we've made in the entire series.”

Even the makers of the combat-forward Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III take story seriously these days. “This new release represents a first-ever back-to-back sequel for the campaign narrative that was set in motion last year,” says Johanna Faries, the GM for Call of Duty at Activision Blizzard. That’s a huge leap forward from Call of Duty titles in the 2000s, which were mostly concerned with inventing new ways to blow up the avatars of complete strangers over DSL.

Still, video games still have a lot of room to grow as a narrative medium. “Much of the writing within games sits far below the bar set in other media,” Parkin says. “It is almost impossible to imagine a video game written with the same whip-smart dialogue of, say, a Succession—and likewise we are a long way from seeing a game rival a prestige TV series in terms of the column inches written about it.”

But some critics would have said the same thing about television before the era of Peak TV, when cable and streaming companies invested in writer-driven projects like The Wire, Mad Men, and True Detective to attract new audiences. If video game companies are starting to make similar investments, is the era of Peak Video Games right around the corner? What will The Sopranos of video games be—and have we already played it?

“While video games are undeniably the most widely enjoyed entertainment medium around, there are still significant obstacles to their becoming culturally impactful,” Parkin says. “Most games are quite annoying to play, impenetrable to newcomers, tonally discordant, and exasperatingly fixated on guns. I love video games and have spent much of my professional life covering them, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to suggest we are in a golden age when there is still so much good and important work to be done.”

After 2023, the bigger question might be: How many people will still be around to do the good and important work?

The most notable exception to gaming’s layoff trend is Nintendo, makers of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. "If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease,” former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata told investors a decade ago. NINTENDO

Unlike Hollywood movies, no one knows exactly how much money individual video games make (no one outside of a studio’s C-suite, that is). But Mat Piscatella, Executive Director & Video Game Industry Analyst at Circana, says the global video game industry had raked in US$49 billion in 2023 as of late November. That’s a one per cent increase over 2022, and almost US$18 billion more than movies have generated at the worldwide box office in 2023, according to the analytics firm Gower Street.

And yet, layoffs have pummelled the video game industry this year, with Farhan Noor, a technical artist who’s been tracking layoffs since January, estimating that at least 9,000 people have lost their jobs. Many of those layoffs occurred at the very same companies where some of 2023’s best games, seasons, and expansions were made, including AAA releases like Starfield (Bethesda), Star Wars: Jedi Survivor (EA), Assassin’s Creed Mirage (Ubisoft), Diablo IV (Activision Blizzard), Destiny 2: Season of the Witch (Bungie), and Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty (CD Projekt Red).

For many game workers, the math doesn’t add up.

“Some of the executives make multi-million-dollar salaries while my co-workers are starving themselves,” says Dianna Lora, a senior licencing producer who was laid off this year. “More of that money needs to come down to those of us who are effectively making them that money.”

During the first year of the pandemic, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick was paid US$155 million and EA CEO Andrew Wilson was paid US$21.4 million in compensation packages, according to SEC filings. Meanwhile, ZipRecruiter estimates the average annual income for US game workers is US$38,600, compared to US$68,310 for the movie industry. Of course, those averages are skewed by hourly contractors and workers at tiny independent studios, so they don’t likely reflect average full-time salaries at larger studios like Activision Blizzard, EA, or even Cyan.

The most notable exception to the layoff trend is Nintendo, makers of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in Japan. “If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease,” former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata told investors a decade ago. “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world.”

Iwata died in 2015, but his successors haven’t changed tack. This February, despite reporting a 23 per cent year-over-year decrease in quarterly Switch sales and lowering its annual profit forecast, Nintendo announced a 10 per cent pay raise for its employees instead of laying them off.

“Unlike in many western studios, young designers [at Nintendo] can learn from their seniors, hone their skills over decades within the same company, all without fearing they will be let go the moment the current project is completed,” Parkin says.

Spend an hour or two in the rich, well-written, and boundless world of Baldur’s Gate 3, and you’ll know why it has critics excited about the future of the medium. LARIAN STUDIOS

But most video game studios don’t follow Nintendo’s model, and layoffs aren’t the only reason workers suffered so much in 2023. “The gaming industry makes more money than the movie industry, but there’s a lot of abuse, exploitation, and greed in video games,” adds Lora.

According to hundreds of workers surveyed by GameWorkers.org earlier this year, “unfair pay disparities within singular job titles, lack of retirement security, pressure to work unpaid overtime, low wages, burnout, and exhaustion were widespread and commonly reported,” while “less than half make it to their seventh year working in the industry.”

As a result, many video game workers have seen 2023 as a rallying cry. While the entertainment business as a whole has a long history of unions—like when theatre workers formed the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) to establish minimum pay rates and maximum working hours way back in 1893—the video game industry has no equivalent to Hollywood’s nationwide unions, like the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, and only a handful of small, individually unionised game studios.

But in 2023, “there’s been a surge of interest in organising because game workers are some of the worst-treated folks in the entertainment industry,” says Chrissy Fellmeth, the Video Games Organiser at IATSE, which added its first game studio this year. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to achieve a national game worker union that covers folks from coast to coast. There would be a master agreement that all studios in the U.S. would abide by as a template, which would set standards for pay, job classifications, health insurance, and pensions.”

Meanwhile, more than 200 SEGA employees and around 300 ZeniMax workers formed their own unions this year under a different parent organisation, the CWA. “We’ll probably keep seeing unions organised on a studio-by-studio basis for now, but over time it would be wonderful to bring multiple companies to the table and bargain collectively,” says Emma Kinema, a senior campaign lead at the CWA.

While unions can’t prevent layoffs, Fellmeth says they make the transition between jobs much easier and improve severance packages. “A great point of inspiration is the animation guild, where folks can travel between jobs and take their health insurance and their pension plan with them, and not have to worry about what happens in between jobs, [whether] you’re on staff or a 1099 freelance worker.”

Another look inside Cyan Worlds HQ. ADAM MORGAN

None of the video game workers I spoke with for this story were comfortable going on the record about unions. “We shouldn’t have to fear retaliation because it’s illegal,” one of them told me on the condition of anonymity, but nevertheless, the fear is very real.

“Game workers are terrified that they’ll lose a job they’ve worked their whole lives for, or they’ll end up on a mysterious blacklist and never work again,” Fellmeth says. “But under the National Labour Relations Act, you’re allowed to talk to your co-workers about unionism [and salaries], and to give a union representative a list of your co-workers, and you’re protected if your employer retaliates against you [for doing any of these things].”

Also in 2023, journalists who cover the video game industry were laid off in droves at The Washington Post, Inverse, GameSpot, FanbyteGiant Bomb, Vice, Kotaku, and other outlets. “In media, we’re seeing this push towards exponential year-over-year growth, which is not how newspapers and magazines and websites tend to work,” says Jen Glennon, Kotaku's new editor-in-chief, who ran Inverse’s gaming vertical until earlier this year. “The more industries that we try to force into this startup format, the more we're going to see spurts of expansion and contraction as trends come and go.”

With fewer journalists reporting on the industry, some workers are concerned there will be less transparency and accountability for studios that mistreat their employees. “We’ve started to see a lot of [media] coverage on the negative side of the industry and poor working conditions, not just the bright and shiny side of all the money being made,” says Kinema.

Still, every single person I spoke with for this story—from Rand Miller in the wilds of Washington State to Chrissy Fellmeth in the heart of New York City, and from current leaders at major studios to folks who just lost their jobs—is optimistic about the future of video games and the people who make them.

“I do think we’re heading into a golden age,” Glennon says. “There’s an overall sense of excitement for what the future holds, and there’s so much innovation and wonderful storytelling happening in this [industry].”

Minor agrees. “The biggest thing that gives me hope now is seeing more places unionise, not just game websites but game developers,” he says. “We need to give [game workers] the respect and protection they deserve in order to survive and thrive. If companies won’t give that job security, the labour movement and its collective power must take it.”

Back in Spokane, through the windows behind Rand Miller, I watch a Northern Flicker woodpecker flit between the trees and the eaves of Cyan’s headquarters.“If the ‘90s was the beginning of narrative-rich gaming, maybe it just took a new generation to push that forward,” he says.

Now 64 years old, Miller tells me he’s going to retire soon, and that his stepdaughter, Hannah Gamiel, will be one of the people to lead the next generation of Cyan. “My heart breaks into a million pieces for all the people who lost their jobs this year,” Gamiel says, but like everyone else I spoke with, she’s hopeful for the future of the industry.

I’ll be honest: 2024 doesn’t look like a particularly rosy year for video games, at least not yet.

Just the other day, ransomware hackers leaked more than a terabyte of sensitive files—including employees’ personal data, like passport scans—after failing to blackmail Insomniac Games (Marvel’s Spider-Man 2) for US$2 million.

The most beloved live event in industry history, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), announced earlier this month it was shutting down for good. The closest thing we have to an Oscars ceremony for video games, Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards, has devolved into a transactional parody of itself that’s more interested in showcasing Hollywood celebrities than celebrating game developers.

Still, we already know 2024 will bring Star Wars Outlaws, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, Destiny 2: The Final Shape, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, Avowed, and a cosy game set in Middle-Earth called Tales of the Shire that I’m already unhealthily obsessed with. Perhaps even more exciting are the things that could hit next year, like Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree, Starfield: Shattered Space, or Cyan’s reimagining of Riven with all-new locations, puzzles, and lore.

Plus, in the last few weeks alone, Halo Infinite and Forza Motorsport QA workers voted to unionise under the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, 77 contractors at ZeniMax joined the CWA and became full-time employees with better benefits, and Microsoft reached a tentative agreement with its U.S. union on six “guiding principles” for how the company will (and won’t) use AI.

For my money, 2023 was the best year of all time for video game releases, even if it was one of the worst years for the workers who make them and journalists who write about them. But I'd rather play shorter, smaller games made by people who aren't exploited or tossed aside as soon as a game arrives in the world. If the industry's working conditions don't improve, the golden age of video games will only be a gilded one.

Originally published on Esquire US