It’s that time of the year once again. Sleigh bells, carols, cheer and festive spirit are forced to share the limelight with all manner of reflections on the past 12 months and what they have held. In the realm of video games this means one thing: lists, and lots of them. Only yesterday I was listening to the first of many ‘Game Of The Year’ podcasts to arrive throughout December. With it came the first surprise; this tubby, feathered martial artist made nary a whisper of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception in any category (no complaints here, but a surprise nonetheless).
At the front end of what is sure to be a bumper yield of articles, podcasts, videos and – of course – Twitter conversations, I am not inclined to lay out my own carefully selected cream from this year’s crop. Instead it is the nature of the list, and all that it represents, that is the focus of this article. Variously employed as shortcut to typifying personal tastes of the individual or collating collective opinions of the group, a list can be both blessing and curse. To anyone who prizes the eloquence of the written and spoken word, lists might be maligned as a quick path to traffic-grabbing web content; to those who have spent a year deliberating and processing, the list can provide a dream-like opportunity to sort the menagerie of games that are trampling & scurrying for their place amongst the remembered few.
The over-reliance on list articles is an oft-raised criticism aimed at particular video gaming websites. Though lists can promote discussion of a topic or help to put a recent game or trend in the context of its precedents, it is the relative ease of writing and limited use for such lists that earn them their reputation. Like review scores, lists make for an easily digestible form in which to assess the worth of a game, but too often it is done without satisfactory justification or explanation. Take the entirety of IGN’s “Countdown” section, there’s a Top 100 for everything from Video Game Moments, Villains and NES Games to the Top 100 Pokémon (“how could we possibly whittle the list down to a mere 100?” – how indeed?). Some are the result of reader voting, some the result of hours of editorial discussion, but they are all delivered with an air of authority that, in my opinion, they have not earned.
As a quick aside, some 5+ years ago I was the
proud owner of more than 1000 DVDs. Like most collectors of… well anything really, many of these I had watched only once and some I had never watched. I avidly kept abreast of upcoming releases and frequently read DVD Review, until I read one of their many ‘100 DVDs You Must Own’ articles and had the audacity to ask “why?”. Why must I own these DVDs? If there is an inherent air of authority to such lists – or at least an implication of their being definitive – then DVD Review went a step further and made the implicit explicit. It may seem a strange thing to have such an averse reaction to, but I promptly started selling my DVDs hand over fist. I don’t think that was the desired effect of the list in question, but it speaks to their divisive nature.
Let’s return to the lists du jour: those that deal with 2011’s Game Of The Year. For the companies and individuals involved in game production this is a chance to be judged against their peers, their competition. But with so many different Game Of The Year lists, whose is most deserving of their attention? And is that even the purpose of such a list? Be it the omission of an apparently worthy contender or the marathon podcast series of Dr Strangelove’s favoured podcasting quintet, veneration and (minor) controversy are sure to follow. Veneration and controversy – two surefire ways to drive readers and listeners to a publication of any kind. A cynic would say that that’s their purpose, I take a more tempered view.
For me, this gauntlet run of appraisal has my mind casting backwards to the pre-riot summer months, specifically July. There was a good week or so when my Twitter feed was aflutter with lists of the “Ultimate” kind. Several people, myself included, were busy compiling and sharing our Top 20 Games Of All Time – the italicised portion was not necessary at the time, but it is added here for clarity. I was so taken with the idea that I catalogued all of the lists in a spreadsheet for posterity. Suddenly we all had windows into the gaming histories of one-another, and it was illuminating. Age, platforms owned and genres favoured were all laid bare, but it was the personal tastes that became most apparent.
As a group, we sixteen had such varying palates that it was tough to discern anything approaching a pattern; the notion of consensus quickly became laughable even with such a comparatively modest cohort. Certain obvious games and series were predictably fairly prominent, but the overwhelming report was one of sixteen people gloriously varied in their shared passion. Many of the lists contained games that few – or in some cases none – of the others had heard of, let alone included in their own lists. This was no tale of the battering dominance of the highly polished and bullishly marketed modern video game.
I considered providing the spreadsheet for perusal, but decided against that notion due to the intricacies of gaining ascent from those included upon it. The second, more pertinent reason for not linking to the sheet in question was the same one that persuaded me to shy away from including my own list – that these lists are not fixed, at least in a couple of ways, they are ever-changing.
As demonstrated by the back and forth to find the “right” place for each game, the validity of each list is so subjective (even to the list’s creator) that it becomes fragile to the touch of the creator’s every insecurity or indecision. Within hours, minutes even, of finalising the games and their placement, the list that for a brief time felt so solid becomes fluid once more, as though moulded from cornflour and water. Every choice made in a passing moment is bound only to that moment. The lists – of course – were accurate, but they were not made to stand scrutiny. On another day, in another mood, I and my fellow scribes would have chosen differently, with a potentially different outcome.
Even ignoring the tint of spectacles worn by the list maker, the lists may not remain intact for long. My own Top 20 list was put together on the 29th July 2011, a mere 3 weeks later it was already obsolete. This was not at the whim of my fancy, but because I had played a game that would upset the natural order of my list. That game, Deus Ex (2000), has since been joined by ICO, Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a serious contender for a place on my list.
So what of lists? Are they valid? Do they serve a purpose, and if so, what purpose? I would say that every list is as valid as any opinion or collection thereof. My own list is a valid representation of my Top 20 Games Of All Time – on 29th July 2011. That does not preclude it from changing minute-by-minute, or at least once I can add a new treasured experienced at the expense of a slightly older one.
For purpose I need only look at how much I learned about my friends. Take fellow Cane And Rinse contributor, Joshua Garrity; I know from his list that he was the perfect choice to appear on the Shadow of the Colossus episode of the podcast and that he, like me, draws a lot of his gaming experience from the post-2000 period. These lists sparked discussion, raised eyebrows and promoted a sense of camaraderie. We learned more about one-another and that strengthened the bonds between us.
And that’s the crux, taking the effect of this list-writing experience and extrapolating it to a wider context, I can see their purpose and their limits. Any list provides a snapshot, nothing more and nothing less. They are not definitive and should be treated with caution, as should all products of opinion. All are valid, none are absolute.
However, lists can be used to bring people together by promoting discussion and critical appreciation. Whatever the intent of the list, and the degree of explanation or thought behind it, it can be useful. Personally, I prefer to understand the views of the individuals behind a given list so that I may better place it in context with my own opinions. Much like a review, a list can be used to build a picture of a person’s tastes and establish a form of relationship between reader and writer, listener and podcaster. A relationship that can be used to navigate the increasingly busy video game release schedule, or as the basis of dialogue on forums and social networking sites. It is this dialogue that is important to me, so when I consider a list it will be those by people and on sites I know and trust that have the most impact.