Insomnia | Commentary

Leave Ranking to the Experts

By Alex Kierkegaard / August 6, 2008

To the honour of the expert. -- As soon as anyone who is not an expert starts to play the judge we should at once protest: whether the person concerned is a little man or a little woman. Enthusiasm for and delight in a thing or a person are no arguments: nor are repugnance and hatred for them, either.

Friedrich Nietzsche

So my friends at Action Button have begun a top 25 games ever countdown, and I figured I might as well take the opportunity to make an effort here to explain why such lists are an astonishingly retarded idea. This might not seem at first a very important subject, but as I will endeavor to show it sure as hell is. Because these lists are not merely an insult to the intelligence of a publication's readers (though they certainly are that too), but above all amount to an involuntary admission on the part of their authors that they have not the faintest idea of how games work. "Look at us, we are ignorant!", is what they are basically saying, and while they profess to construct these lists so as to promote knowledge of what constitutes excellence in videogames, what they in fact achieve, as we shall see, is the exact opposite.

I am, of course, referring to mixed-genre lists -- dedicated-genre lists are wonderful and I have nothing against them. The absurdity begins once you start compiling Top 10/20/100/etc. lists in which anything goes in terms of genre. Because when you do that -- get this -- you are not merely ranking games, but above all genres!

Do you read me, internet? Is there anyone on the other end of this line? Are there any even mildly intelligent life forms left online in the year of our lord 2008?

Listen to me you fucking imbeciles: When you place a game at the number one spot of your fucking retarded, worthless list, you are quite explicitly claiming that the genre that game belongs to is the BEST GENRE EVER, and moreover that the genre the number two game belongs to is the SECOND BEST GENRE EVER, etc. etc. Even if the list is not ranked -- and practically all of them are -- (i.e. if games are listed alphabetically or in chronological order or whatever, but NOT in order of quality), you are still very much ranking genres, because a few seconds' worth of counting would give us the absolute genre ranking implicit in your list (how many FPSes does it contain? how many RTSes? etc.)

Now, in itself, a ranking of genres is not necessarily a stupid idea. Common sense has it that it is, but it really isn't. At the very bottom of MY list, for example, would be JRPGs. By any remotely intelligent criteria imaginable they are the worst games ever, and this is not a result of incompetence on the part of specific developers, but inherent in the core ruleset around which the whole subgenre is built, to the extent that if you were dead set on making a GOOD JRPG you'd necessarily end up either encroaching on some other genre/subgenre, or inventing a new one: you'd have to renounce some of the core rules that define the subgenre, and thus transcend it. (This, by the way, is not to say that some JRPGs are not better than others. Just as one can judge gourmet dishes according to specific criteria, one can also judge pieces of shit according to specific criteria -- with the understanding of course, that even the best piece of shit will to all eternity remain a piece of shit. (As for the criteria, you can always come up with some; for example: Which turd smells less offensively? Which has a less nausea-inducing color and texture? Is it solid or liquid? Any marginal nutritional value left in there? Etc. etc.))

So ranking genres may not in the end be SUCH a bad idea, but if you are going to attempt to do it, you stupid fucking cunt, you better be ready to explain yourself. You not only have to explain why some random fucking Zelda game is supposed to represent the pinnacle of 35+ years of electronic game development -- more importantly, you have to explain why the 2D (or 3D) action-adventure genre is supposed to be the best genre ever! The titles of the specific games you picked are superfluous little details compared to the specific GENRES you picked -- given the magnitude and sophistication of the statement you are attempting to make by placing, say, a 3D platformer on top of your list, no one really gives a shit WHICH PARTICULAR 3D platformer you picked!

Bah, fucking dumbasses. Is there even any point in me writing these articles anymore? Nothing ever changes!

What I am saying is that an all-genre list may not in itself be a stupid undertaking, but it is an EXTREMELY DIFFICULT one, and if you fancy you have what it takes to attempt it, you must realize that you are no longer ranking games but GENRES; you must, therefore, REVIEW those genres, explaining in detail why the action-adventure or the platformer genre is in your view superior to, say, the turn-based strategy genre or the flight simulator genre. Such a comparison, I repeat, IS POSSIBLE, as long as you have invented beforehand a set of criteria on which to base your judgements. Needless to say, no one has ever so much as contemplated doing this -- a fact, of course, which in no way prevents everyone from carrying on churning out these fucking asinine lists year after year.

And thus we arrive at the true usefulness of these lists -- because they are indeed useful in one respect! -- in figuring out the favorite genres of the people who construct them (and by extension the genres in which the dumb fucks SUCK).

By the way, wanna know the reason why all those ING/LameSpot/Euroretard/etc. lists are always full of shitty Zelda/Mario/Sonic games? Why is it that the top 5 spots of all these lists are always taken up by kids' games? Have you ever seen any games up there at the top that required ACTUAL INTELLIGENCE? Any Galactic Civilizations? Any Total Annihilations? Any Universal Military Simulators? No. It's always the same old fucking kids' games -- and moreover it's always ACTION GAMES. Because of course action games have always been and will always remain superior to strategy games: everyone knows this, so why waste time explaining it? Besides, explaining stuff takes time and effort, and above all BRAINPOWER, whereas the upshot of several decades of everyone playing Zelda/Mario/Sonic games every day is that no one has got any of that left.

In all seriousness, if these people had any notion of how difficult ranking games is, of how much time, effort and expertise needs to go into such a list in order for it to not be immediately laughed at by ACTUAL PLAYERS, they'd never go anywhere near them. Even a Top 10 list of lightgun shooters -- one of the theoretically easiest dedicated-genre lists I can think of -- would be a bitch to compile. I mean how many lightgun shooters can there be in total? More than 50, 60, 100? I've played a ton of them, certainly the majority of the more well-known ones, as well as quite a few obscure gems, yet I still don't feel very confident doing the list, given that, for example, I've played these games over a period of two decades and naturally my recollection of many of them is extremely hazy. I'd need to spend at least a week or two retreading old ground, and several more weeks hunting down and playing whatever highlights I missed (and how can you be sure you didn't miss any if you don't play them all?) -- and then I'd still need to get in touch with at least a couple of other experts, to get them to share their views with me, and perhaps have them point me towards any hidden gems I might have missed. Of course there's an upshot to all that effort, this being that MY LIST WOULD BE AN ACTUALLY USEFUL ONE! For beginners it would serve as a starting point; fans of the genre would look over it and consider trying out whatever titles they might have missed; experts would sign up to the forum and contest it -- and they would BE ABLE to contest it, with rational, intelligible, discussable reasons (assuming they don't get themselves banned for rude manners or bad diction first, lol).

But the Action Button list? Or the corporate retards' lists? Of what use could those lists possibly be to anyone? Or am I perhaps missing the point of trying to figure out if a random submarine simulator is "better" than a random brick-matching puzzle game -- WHEN NO ONE HAS EVEN OFFERED A SET OF CRITERIA WITH WHICH TO FORMULATE OUR JUDGEMENTS? And anyway, since most people are not familiar with such complicated words as "criteria", "judgements", or "formulation", let me bring the level of the discussion down to more manageable, internet levels, by asking the following question: Do these lists ever even include ANY lightgun shooters at all? -- And when they do, I have no doubt it's always a Time Crisis or a House of the Dead. You will never see a World Combat, or a Cobra: The Arcade, or a 2 Spicy in those lists, because, hey, who the fuck has heard of these games? In a similar vein, if they include a 2D fighter it will be 3rd Strike; if they include a 2D shooter it will be a Treasure game; if they include an RTS it will be StarCraft -- that's how these lists are manufactured: by feeding the public's perceived opinion back to them, in an endlessly self-validating, self-referential loop.

To return to the case of Action Button -- listen here: It's quite obvious to anyone who's paid the least attention to Tim's game-related writings (not to mention his frothrum posts) that the man's favorite genre is JRPGs. Apart from that he is into the big US/Japanese blockbusters (mainly 3D action games and FPSes then), and occasionally the odd Japan-only obscurity. Meanwhile, he knows nothing about arcade games (all arcade games reviewed on his site so far have been panned regardless of genre or age: Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, Arcana Heart, Senko no Ronde, Tekken 6 -- each review more terrible than the last, and all of them betraying a complete lack of understanding of some of the oldest, most cherished and highly-developed genres we have). He knows nothing about strategy games, whether turn-based or real-time. He has never, to my knowledge, written a single word about any kind of serious simulation game (flight, tank, submarine, racing, or whatever). Likewise about adventure games, or MMORPGs, or Western CRPGs. He doesn't seem to care much about the doujin/indie scenes either.

And now I have to ask: How the hell could anyone expect such a person to ever come up with any all-genre list worth anything? Way I see it, about the ONLY decent list he could construct is a dedicated JRPG list. Now THAT is something I wouldn't mind seeing. As regards JRPGs he is certainly an expert, and moreover he has a great advantage over all other experts in this genre in that he is not a complete and total braindead retard as the rest of them. His list therefore would have some value! Even I would use it as a starting point if I ever decided for whatever reason to really get into JRPGs (perhaps after a sports accident that left me comatose for life...).

But no. He HAS to make an all-genre list, because -- and this, again, is what this all comes down to -- that's what film critics do. It's the pitiful, pathetic, tiresome "I wanna be a film critic but lack the cojones to go for it, so I am just going to pretend games are films" complex again.

You see serious film critics never bother with dedicated-genre lists, and there's a good reason for this. The reason is that, in the world of serious film criticism, GENRES ARE REGARDED WITH DISDAIN. If a genre movie does end up in film critic's top ten list, it's always because, in the critic's view, it has somehow managed to transcend its genre. This, of course, presupposes that there exists a dimension towards which a genre can be transcended, and in the case of films (as of plays and books), this is of course the human dimension. As I will have occasion to explain in more detail in an upcoming article, what serious film critics look for in a movie is depth of insight into the lives of human beings, and such insight can come not just from straight drama, but also, on occasion, from exceedingly well-done genre films -- even a martial arts movie, or a summer action film, or a romantic comedy can pass over to this dimension if its material is rich enough and handled skillfully.

All of this of course HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE WORLD OF VIDEOGAMES. FPSes do not have "human dimensions", nor JRPGs, nor shooters, fighters, strategy or adventure games -- and hence there exists no solemnly sovereign dimension into which exceptional titles from every genre could be inducted, and on the basis of which they would acquire a claim to be included in a "best games ever" list irrespective of genre.

In videogames, then -- as in all kinds of games -- it's all about genre: games have nothing to do with "depth of insight into the lives of human beings" or any such other artfagottry bullshit. Games are about driving cars, beating up punks, managing history-spanning empires, solving riddles, etc. etc. Is solving riddles a better thing to do than driving cars? Fuck no, dude. It depends on what you feel like doing. And guess what: as uncanny as this little fact may at first seem, there just happen to be many people in this world who just don't give a fuck about driving cars in videogames. Why? Fuck knows why. Perhaps they flat-out hate cars; perhaps they prefer driving real ones. And there are other people who don't give a fuck about managing history-spanning empires. Again, fuck knows why. Perhaps they lack the necessary intelligence. The point is that I've never met anyone who enjoyed playing all videogame genres equally; indeed, most people seem to like only a handful of them, though I also know of many who pretty much devote their full gaming time to a single genre. Nothing wrong with that -- it's the same thing that happens with real-life games. Some people are just not into team sports, for example. Others do not care for board games or card games. Whatever. My best friend pretty much only plays Civilization-type games. He is a brilliant guy, began teaching University-level Computer Systems Engineering at 24 and now works as a designer of speech recognition/synthesis software -- he's one of the smartest people I've so far met in person. Who the fuck will dare go up to him and tell him that Banjo Kazooie or fucking Chrono Trigger or whatever the fuck other retarded childish bullshit game is supposed to be "better" than Civilization?

Well, these guys, I guess:


'Nough said?