Note: This entry was edited for structure, word choice, and length in May of 2015.
The reason these shitty list articles have flooded the Internet is because they’re cheap, easy to generate, quick to read and require no creative work; a pig with a stick in its mouth could tap one out in morse. Marketers then disseminate these shitty list articles (or mundane infographics) by emailing influential bloggers and “suggesting” links for their readers. And here’s the part that makes my heart palpitate with anger: It works.
The reason? Because most people who have blogs, websites and Tumblr accounts are too lazy to come up with content of their own, so they link to other websites with disposable content like lists. Lists are the perfect form of entertainment for a generation brought up on Twitter, because every list comes with an unspoken guarantee to the reader that they won’t have to invest too much time or mental energy in reading anything that might challenge them.
Maddox, The Best Page in the Universe, “11 Sexy Girls with Star Wars tattoos you don’t have the rights to publish”; published May 17, 2012*
Here are the things that a video game list is designed to accomplish: They are an endgame of videogame criticism, a summary of one’s thoughts on the medium. Ideally, they are the result of time spent playing hundreds upon thousands of games, reading up on the games, developing a personal philosophy of what constitutes a good game, commenting on those games, and subjecting your opinions to a proper peer review process. If your lists are done correctly, then the final results should reveal no new or surprising information to long-time readers, because you have indirectly revealed this information through reviews, analysis, and commentary. For new readers, these lists are a reference tool, an introduction to one’s writing.
This is what the video game list has become: A means for people to comment authoritatively on topics they understand little about. Incentive is generated by the incredible number of readers who flock to read these lists. These lists will do little to challenge one’s worldview, or even the expectation of an entry’s word count. But in addition, these lists empower the reader. That is to say, “This asshole is wrong! Here’s my choices, mine are so much better than his!” And sadly, people now value the assertion of authority (the Top X list) over the things that are designed to create that authority (reviews, analysis, commentary).
There are web sites which have built their entire business model around these lists, and not merely sites like Ranker and Cracked. (Hell, Cracked’s writers will format long essays into lists in order to make sure their list-addled audiences will read the damn things.) On the topic of videogames, Old-Wizard was probably the most notorious example, the site content made up almost exclusively of Top X lists. As an example of a site that still stands, you end up with UGO, featuring nonsense like “The Top Ten Ways to Kill Your Sims”*, the “Unsexiest Sexy Video Game Characters“*, and “Basketball Games Without LeBron James“*. And I’m sure they could only name sixteen basketball games because the research got so exhaustive and difficult.
Lists such as these are utterly pointless to begin with, and their place in the spectrum could be “justified” (and subsequently ignored) with a couple of simple modifiers: “I Think These Are”, “My Favorite”, “In My Opinion”, and so forth. Yes, you could also apply this criteria to the matter of “ranking games”. For instance, “My 10 Favorite Video Games of All-Time” could be a perfectly acceptable entry. (It will also be ignored, because you’re not putting your foot down and challenging everybody else’s opinion through an inflammatory title.) But I’m going to focus on the topic of “ranking games” for the remainder of this entry. If we go after the King of Videogame Lists™, the act of asserting which games that we should preserve, then every game list will burn with it.
Obviously, the easy answer is that most of these game lists don’t even supply a thesis. Go back to UGO and their list of the “Top 25 Fighting Games of All-Time”*, a chronicle of fandom in one of the most passionate and inaccessible communities in video games. UGO’s thesis? “The best fighting games of all time duked it out in a Battle Royal. Who came out on top?” Oh, well, that should clearly settle any confusion over the selection process, particularly after you placed a Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct game in your top ten, two series long reviled by the fighting game community. And then you finish the list with 1992’s Street Fighter II Turbo, outlined in a description of 1991’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, and concluding with a Super Nintendo screencap of 1993’s Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers. But you see, an exhaustive explanation of the criteria would allow for subdued disagreement, i.e. “I see how you came to this choice, but I don’t agree with it.” That’s bad for business. “I DNO’T EVEN NO HOW THIS MORAN CAEM TOO THESE CONCLUSION’S” generates far more traffic than a reasoned explanation of your selection process.
Meanwhile, nobody stops to think about the difference between “best games” (of highest quality) and “greatest games” (of highest magnitude), despite the world of difference between these two terms. If you choose to pick games based on their legacy, how do you weight certain qualities? What does popularity count for? Impact on the industry? Quality of the game? And almost all of these lists are biased and centralized around their country of origin, with little consideration given to international games that were not released domestically. So much as sports-journalism-slash-cheerleader ESPN created a list of the twentieth century’s “greatest athletes” that was explicitly centered around North American accomplishment, don’t expect any games that weren’t released in America to make it on an American’s best-of, and don’t expect to see any Western games on a list authored by the Japanese. (Good luck telling a demilitarized Japan that first-person shooters and real-time strategy games kick ass.)
But even if you adequately accomplish this, you’re still hopeless. For instance, what happens when someone says that Metroid Prime is “the fifth-best game for the Nintendo GameCube?” My response would be “I want to read his body of work as it pertains to all 638 games that got a commercial release for the Nintendo GameCube.” And if that body of work does not exist, if that body of work is not sufficient, then I have no reason to give a shit. So, you know what I say when someone tries to tell me what the ten, or twenty, or fifty, or one-hundred best or greatest video games are? A topic where one is expected to be an authority on not just the 638 Nintendo GameCube games, but authoritative on tens of thousands of commercially-published and amateur video games, all spanning dozens upon dozens of notable and obscure genres? “You’re really fucking stupid, aren’t you?”
Today, there is one “meaningful” list of rankings that I could accomplish with a defend-it-to-the-death level of authority: Blizzard Entertainment real-time strategy games. That’s it. That is five full games and three expansion packs. I know that Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne and StarCraft: Brood War would go near the top and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty would go near the bottom. (StarCraft II flame war incoming. Just the way the list-writers want it.) And even then, I would have to figure out how I rank expansion packs, and whether I give Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness bonus points for its numerous contributions to its genre.
But in the pursuit of writing about the games, there are a lot of times that I feel woefully uninformed about the medium, particularly as it applies to wonderful genres such as roguelikes, adventure games, fighting games, and shoot ’em ups. There’s a lot of games that I haven’t played, and an even greater percentage that I have not played to completion or mastery. There are a lot of cases where I will say, “I don’t know much about that game, I’ll direct you to someone who does.” I reserve my judgment on those games and let other knowledgeable players speak about them.
Based on what I’ve seen, read, and heard, there are currently zero individuals on this planet who have the acumen and authority to create a Top X Games List, and that number will remain constant for the foreseeable future. “So just get a bunch of people together and create a composite list! That way, they can take their strengths and put them all together!” Well, all you have to do is look at how the journlolism sites manage these lists to find the problem with that: The writers just bring out each other’s weaknesses. (And let’s not even go into the matter of allowing online users to vote on the choices. These are the same people that told you Electronic Arts is the “Worst Company in America”.) Everyone has their own thesis and no amount of “objectivity” will get everyone on the same page.
As it applies to the game journlolism mills, their “Top X Game Lists” are a by-committee process where those who specialize in particular genres are not going to overrule or intensely challenge peers who “specialize” on another topic, lest they get shut out of the free Chinese food that comes with creating these lists. So while someone who reviews first-person shooters for the site may have never played Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap or Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure or Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, they have played all of the Mario games, because who hasn’t played Mario? That’s because Mario is the best platforming series ever! And from there, it only becomes a matter of which Mario game will get the top ranking for platformers. (And you can fight over whether I should classify Castlevania and company as platformers instead of action-platformers, but Mario is beating them, anyway.)
In addition, these companies have created a review racket where the most visible, accessible games get the highest scores. Yes, we’ve talked about this before. So rather than watch writers admit their foolishness (where the first listing on the IGN Top 100 PlayStation 2 games begins with what is basically an apology* for their infamous God Hand review*), they have to honor the continuity and narrative of the site. While games which previously received perfect scores may not get the top spot (where IGN’s perfect score for Grand Theft Auto IV gets the game tenth place in a rundown of the top PlayStation 3 games*), but what has previously been awarded glowing praise (regardless of whether the game actually deserved it) will continue to earn that status. And by extension, less popular and esteemed genres such as shoot ’em ups, fighting games, roguelikes, and strategy games will be underrepresented, if represented at all.
By virtue of this selection process, a democratic process which values popularity over the right choice, the top of the list will always end up with some combination of the following games: StarCraft will always supplant Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, or any number of top-notch RTS games. Shadow of the Colossus and Portal will always make it, because they’re emotional and shit. BioShock will always supplant the superior System Shock 2. The Nintendo-published versions of Tetris will always beat out the superior Tengen iteration or any of the Tetris The Grand Master games, if the editors have even heard of them. From there, since picking more than one game in a series is taboo, you end up with either one of the first two Doom games, one of the first two Diablo games, and a Metroid game. (An exception may be made for Metroid Prime, since it is so dissimilar from Super Metroid.) Of course, an exception for this multiple-choice rule will always be made for the Mario and Zelda games, which may combine for as many as five of the top twenty spots (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda, 1991’s A Link to the Past, 1998’s Ocarina of Time), as they did in IGN’s 2007 rankings.*
Afterward, you get a couple homages to the beginning of the industry, with Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man usually getting a higher spot than Pong. In modern lists, there will be some half-assed concession to the “casual gaming” audience, often Angry Birds, potentially Farmville, with the recent G4TV rundown name-dropping Words With Friends, a game which will have completely disappeared from public consciousness within ten years. These write-ups discussing casual video games will tout that “this is proof video games are more popular than ever before!” Add one or two crappy indie games to cap it off, usually Braid or Cave Story. Then finally, round out your Top Fifty or Top Hundred with a bunch of games high on the MetaCritic chain of command, a mere handful of which were actually published before 1999. (And with every passing year, you can add a year to that cutoff date.)
Without fail, every single time one of these lists is done, you see all the same inconsistencies: You never see a shoot ’em up unless it’s Space Invaders or Ikaruga (and never a game made by Cave). You’ll never see a graphic adventure game unless it’s made by LucasArts or Sierra. You’ll never see a single adult video game, lest somebody complain somewhere. (If you want the medium to get some respect as an artform, maybe people should find out which adult games are worthy of serious praise.) You’ll never see a single computer video game made before 1991, unless it’s a member of the Zork or Ultima series. And if you think that’s bad, don’t expect to hear much of a word about the arcades. You can just continue from there: No light gun games, arcade cockpit games, puzzle-platformers other than Portal or Braid, 4X strategy games other than those with the Civilization moniker. Zero.
You see, I don’t even disagree with the principle behind some of these choices. It’s that every single list is the exact same, with the exact same games, making the exact same mistakes, marginalizing the exact same genres, giving the same airtime to inferior games by virtue of their popularity. “But all you have to do is find a group of real experts and have them make the list! Not those IGN clowns!” It won’t happen, because the few sites featuring people who are possibly authoritative enough to create these lists are either writing about the games they have played or playing games that they haven’t.
“But then how does one make sense of video games? How do they determine which ones are better than others?” I’m going to let you in on a secret: If your video game web site or web blog or even your random smattering of internet message board posts is worth a shit…you’ve been doing it since you wrote your first review and you gave it a score. Then, when you rated another game, you ranked it relative to the first game. Then, once you reviewed your hundredth game, you ranked your hundredth game. You were ranking games, even if you didn’t realize it, even if X number of games are tied for first all-time, all being ranked with a five-out-of-five review score. And every single game you write about, your “lists” will become better and better.
So, using examples on this web site, which uses a zero-to-five-star rating scale, I have already decided that four-star games such as Bulletstorm and Serious Sam: The First Encounter are close enough in quality that it offers me no incentive to try and assert which game is better. As far as I’m concerned, their place in history is “tied”. I just know that both of them are good, I highly recommend you play both games, neither are truly classic, and that’s enough. If you want to see this site’s “List of Classic Games“, here it is, as compiled with some help from WordPress. I didn’t have to put those games in a “list” to tell you which ones were better, and that’s the point: One is creating lists, even if they don’t consciously seek to do so. You are creating these lists the very second you organize your content.
But notice how the journalists are always creating original content for these “Best Game Lists” rather than providing a short synopsis and linking to their full review? Notice how editors and writers never link back to their site’s “Review Search” function, which can be used to list and “rank” games by score?** The reason being, nobody took the content in these reviews seriously the day they were published. Not even the reviewer, who was on a deadline and had to get something to print. The goal of these reviews is to get a footprint on the internet during the release week that people are seeking this content. It’s not about writing a good review, it’s about fucking Google’s search results in the ass.
Because it’s not important that they provide authoritative analysis. The goal of an IGN or GameSpot is to be profitable for NewsCorp and CBS Interactive, respectively. It’s absolutely ingenious what they’ve done. With a long and comprehensive list, X games can lead to X mouse clicks and generate X times the potential adclicks. 100 games can equal 100 screens, which equals 100 potential chances to click an ad on the screen. But at the same time, since nobody takes anything these sites say seriously, you can rewrite the list every year or two and completely contradict what has been written on your site in the past. Since, as the site editor will claim, your writers have a “burning desire to catalog and rank new games”. Nothing meaningful gets accomplished, people bitch about rankings, bills get paid, life goes on.
And just to make the point, I’ve been in a couple of heated internet discussions about ranking games before. Stunning, I know. On one such instance, I very specifically outlined my criteria. I noted the impossibility of ordering the medium based on “quality” and stated that it may be possible to rank games based on their significance. In response to the absolute futility of judging tens-of-thousands of games by their quality, I went with the “greatest” moniker, which would measure critical and consumer reception, impact on future games, and “quality” as some sort of “X-factor” modifier. It would be completely disingenuous to invalidate a great chunk of video game history because the game wasn’t popular, but that’s the best one can do. One person responded. His response: “Well, that would be boring.”
That’s precisely the issue. People would rather fight over bad lists than read “boring” lists which chronicle the medium and act as reference material for a site’s body of work. So fuck lists. No academic or historian is going to look at one of these shitty pieces of writing in the year 2050 and say, “Super Mario Bros. is the best game ever made? How come we haven’t played that one, guys? How could we miss out on such an obscure indie gem!?” Nobody who knows the topic today takes these lists seriously, and nobody who will know the topic fifty years from now will take them seriously. So while these big sites (and others) continue to suck at rating games, go learn more about them. I’ll be playing games I currently know nothing about so that one day, I can potentially write about them and “rank” them on this site. And hopefully, if I get good enough at this, some moron on the internet will put my body of work in their list of the Top 10 Video Game Sites. And then I can get pissed off that I was ranked lower than Kotaku.