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There's no right way to write a best-of list

For anyone who writes, drafting a year-end list triggers a bundle of external pressure. There are rules to a year-end Top 10.

You know them even if you've never actually read them. They're the tacit terms-of-service contracts we blindly agree to the first time we speak in superlatives. The first rule is not to write the rules, so I will begin by breaking that one. I plan on ignoring them all anyway.

Now, I'm speaking about games here, but the given medium can be interchanged with anything, really: movies, music, installation art, salt shakers, gaping head wounds. With that, I humbly present the rules of annual best-of list making:

  • The video games on your list must have been released for the first time within the calendar year
  • The video games on your list must be finished products, preferably cast in carbon or another element with a comparably long half-life
  • The video games on your list must be true video games as defined by the current communal agreement on what a true video game is

There was a time in which these rules were the bedrock of my critical thinking, that I'd proudly argue on their behalf over Christmas drinks with equally inflamed colleagues arguing for the same thing. The rules are practical in their restraint, serving the purpose of rigidly contextualizing a group of games to a time, a place and a style.

One rule is not to write the rules

But each year, the thought of obeying any sort of rules while compiling something both as personal and as silly as a best-of list — which, let's remember, is just a frivolously limited collection of things that most affected someone over an arbitrary set of days — has rapidly deflated my enthusiasm. Today, that enthusiasm is like a grounded balloon on New Year's Day.

After all, when it comes to having an opinion, rules are party poopers. In the external world, we spend most of our time bowing at the throne of rules. But in our minds we are free to do whatever we want. Creative thought is strongest unrestrained. Like a video game, our imagination is a safe arena for testing ideas, theories and mechanisms.

That I'm making a point about the ownership of opinion in relation to a year-end list shows how over-serious we've become about these stupid, self-satisfying things.

So, no rules this year. Some of the games I've chosen this year were available in some form last year. Others, like Kentucky Route Zero, are unfinished. One is a user-made modification of a video game. And one game isn't a video game. How I engage with games, how they're delivered to me, how creators evolve their art in real time is changing so rapidly and so comprehensively and so unpredictably that things like a 12-month release calendar or a definitive creative conclusion sound like quaint, old-fashioned conceits.

We like to think of lists as definitive statements, but they're anything but. So why write a list? Our brains love to compare tastes, to rank whatever is placed in front of us, to contrast anything: apples and oranges, salt and pepper, the oeuvres of Woody Allen and Will Smith. We make lists because it's fun to make lists and because we hope, deep down, our opinion is validated at least or adopted at best.

When it comes to having an opinion, rules are party poopers

There's one other reason. If we write a list just right — which is to write it however we want — we might just glean some perspective. When we put together a list of our top 10, we're actually — intentionally or not — shouting in all-caps what we believe is attractive, progressive, intelligent, elegant, funny, bold and important enough to warrant discussion. When people look back at this year, says the list, they better remember these things above all else, because they define the time, the place, the people and most importantly, the writer.

We write lists so our tastes — and ourselves — are considered and, just maybe, remembered.

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