Hello again, thawing readers. I can finally open the window next to me as I type this, the snow still on the ground but the air a very agreeable 41°F. As we move into one of the first major release schedules for 2015, I would like to address something that has been on my mind in one form or another since the wrap-up days of 2014 and early 2015. It will be on my mind again once this year trudges on, through the summer drought and into the next busy seasons of September and November, so I would like to plant the germ of this idea now that it might grow big and strong for the coming winter.
Lists are a common lazy format for articles, particularly the ones that simply supply items on that list with little to no supplementing information. But regardless of how effective or easy they are as work for publications, lists are also host to another problem. When a list of the best (or worst) games of the year is generated, it is common practice to then order or rank that list as well as limit the number of slots. I find this problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that inevitably unfair comparisons between two entrants will need to be drawn to whittle the list down to five or ten or however many positions. While at first it would seem that to measure games up against others is necessary to help find the best games of that year, it ignores the fact that good games are not made in set quantities every year.
“Best of” lists are composed on the idea that the list represents the top games made that year. But if few games were really all that good, then it means the bottom slots on the list will be made of mediocre titles. This might be a fine way to measure the output of that year’s creativity or quality, but it elevates the status of the lower games to be on par with potentially better games that occupied the same slot in the year previous. In a top ten or top five list, this problem is probably not going to occur too often, as even some of the worst years in games has about five good ones worthy of being recognized. At this point, good games need to be shaved off of the list and this is from where most of the debate comes. When faced with a difficult choice, something must be cut and the logic follows “if there is no easily seen reason to cut this game, then which other games on the list can be cut?” It is then that a concession is made, and it is often founded on uneven comparisons.
To evaluate games like this will mean the quality of one game’s story will be measured up against another game’s visuals, or one entry’s gameplay will have to be compared to another’s soundtrack. It is arbitrary at best when conclusions are drawn based on the merits of different categories like this, and it is all for the sake of making a list with a round number. Ranking the entries on that list then presents yet another problem about which game can be called categorically better than another. Even among sites that employ numbered review scores, these numbers are not always considered as proof of one game’s superiority over another. At the very least it serves to further question the benefits of scored reviews, and at most it proves that these “Best of” lists are about as valuable to the medium as rolling dice to determine a winner.
I would rather think the games industry and the talented people working in it would be better served by generating an unranked unlimited group of games that the evaluating body can agree are among the standouts of that year. This way, while different games may get into this group for different reasons, those reason are not pitted against each other for tangential purposes. Evaluation of games that get into this group should then be done in as detailed a manner as possible. Instead of adding or removing games from a small list for the sake of the size of that list, this group of games will be composed of however many games can be argued to be excellent in what they set out to achieve.
The result would likely be a much greater number of games in this group than a simple five or ten that populate most of the lists that currently get made, and this might seem like a lowering of standards. The reality is that this group represents (ideally) all of the great games of that year with none of them being arbitrarily sacrificed for an unnecessary sake of brevity. And it could be entirely possible than an evaluating body only appoint three games for the whole year on the argument that only three games proved their worth in that time. While I suspect this will not be the case should most major outlets adopt this practice, the idea is that it removes as much of the unnecessary limitations on accolade as possible. They should instead be replaced with a more rigorous justification for the honor of “Best of” and while I fully expect these groups would still vary between different people or groups of people, the results will approach a closer recognition of excellence that might not always fit neatly into a predetermined box.
It may not be the season to discuss wrap-up articles, but perhaps that is the best time to do so. We are not clouded by thoughts of which games should be honored as so few games have been released in the year. Does this idea miss the point of these lists? Can you identify any problems in the idea of a limitless unranked list of best games? Give me your approval, give me your refusal, just make sure to give me something in the comments!