The Trouble With Lists

When Tom very kindly invited me to write for the Junkyard, he asked me for a quick list of my top three Dreamcast titles. Its funny, but despite writing about video games and the industry for many years now, I’d never really sat down and made a real list. You know, taken time out to carefully and methodically try to ascertain what were the titles that spoke to me, the few games out of literally hundreds that I would choose. In the end I did manage to narrow it down, however it was no easy task.

And that got me thinking about the entire mechanism of listing, how in video game culture creating that ideal, definitive list is seemingly so important. How placing down games in a rigid numerical order is not only revered so much by gamers, but is a kind of active, self re-affirming process for both individuals and the wider gaming collective. After some thought, I feel the process has both a positive and negative bearing on the culture.

So what about that listing process? Well, firstly what strikes me is that essentially the entire concept is deeply flawed. To create any list, say, such as the top five games ever made on Dreamcast, firstly you need criteria. The important pillars of quality that your potential list is to be based on. And it is here that you hit your first issue. What are the criteria to be? Should a game be ranked according to its graphical fidelity or its plot? Should a title be scored on the tightness of its control mechanics or on the professionalism of its voice acting and soundtrack? You can of course select a variety of criteria, score the games, and aggregate a final list from that, however that handily assumes that the criteria chosen are definitive. It also raises issues such intra-criteria quality definition - for example, should Street Fighter 3: Third Strike score lower than Dead or Alive 2 in the graphics criteria because it is 2D rather than 3D, or does its superb animation make up for that?
Should all 2D fighters score less in a 'graphics' criteria as they are only 2D?

If the rigidity and strict definition of that form of listing process is its downfall, then how about a process built around vaguer and more loose concepts? If we drop hard criteria such as ‘graphics’ or ‘sound’ and use things like ‘fun’ and ‘longevity’, do we get a clearer system of ranking? Unfortunately, this system is also flawed for the primary reason of falling too far into subjectivity. The criteria of ‘fun’ sounds like a great idea to base a top ten list on, but then how do you even go about defining it? Just because I think exploring Yokosuka for hours on end in Shenmue is the last word in fun, that doesn’t mean the next gamer does. To them the lack of narrative pace and game progression may see it classified as boring. From too rigid to too loose, both these listing systems seem to fall down pretty quickly as soon as their surfaces are scratched.

Would all gamers agree that Shenmue is 'fun' to play?

Progression however I think can be made by re-evaluating the importance of lists, and it is here where what I see as the empowering part of list making can be salvaged. If lists are seen less as a tool for making definitive, rigid rankings of titles - rankings that will always be negatively fought over due to the aforementioned issues - but more as a type of mechanism for individuals and the gaming culture in general to hold some, albeit ill-defined, image of what the best of the industry can be, then not only can an elevated level of consensus be reached, but gamers themselves can help reaffirm the legacy of the best games of all time.

In many respects I think what I'm trying to say is that by not thinking about games in the strictest, most black and white terms, but more in a loose and intangible manner, I end up arriving more naturally at a list that I agree with subjectively, and has the possibility of being true objectively.

N.b. That all said, anyone who says that Shenmue is not the best game on Dreamcast should be automatically fired out of cannon into a pool of enraged wasp-piranha hybrid mutants.

1 comment:

Tomleecee said...

What a thought-provoking and brilliantly written post. I suppose what makes a game great to one person isn't the same for the next. Also - the wasp-piranha hybrids don't tend to venture out in the daylight around here. They mostly come out at night. Mostly. XD