Another planet, another firefight. Shortly after our meeting with the crime boss had begun, my squad and I found ourselves in the third shootout of the day. I quickly ordered my teammates to take cover as red-hot ammunition ricocheted off our kinetic barriers and crashed into the walls around us. I took cover behind a large crate and lobbed a disk-like grenade into the fray, detonating it within range of an amateur goon who crumpled to the floor.
After recharging my shields, I peered out at the field and watched as five heavily armed soldiers, including the boss himself, closed in on our position. I made a quick gesture to our biotic specialist, who created a massive gravity swell that caught all five of the oncoming gunners and lifted them helpless into the air. I gave the signal and my squad let loose, unloading a dozen shotgun shells and entire clips of pistol rounds into the enemies. When the swell dissipated they, too, fell motionless to the ground.
“Nice,” said my brother, who had been sitting next to me on the couch the whole time. We traded confident smiles as I moved on to the next mission.
Looking back over our experiences in single-player games, I’m sure that most of us can recall similar instances of one person rocking a game as the other looks on, especially in cases where we couldn’t complete something ourselves. I remember watching my dad playing Rollercoaster Tycoon when I was young and beating levels neither my brother nor I could complete. While just watching him play a videogame, which he rarely did, was naturally entertaining, I actually learned new techniques for playing the game which allowed me to go on to complete more difficult levels on my own.
But nowadays, there are plenty more reasons why gamers and non-gamers alike are watching others play videogames. Sitting back while someone else plays lets you enjoy the story and gameplay from a different perspective than if you held the controller, and it gives you the chance to add your own running commentary over the action. All of this adds up to a simple truth: When it comes to games, you don’t have to be holding the controller to enjoy the experience.
Second Verse, Not the Same as the First
Moral choice has become a mainstay of modern action games and RPGs. These games don’t just provide gamers the chance to decide their protagonists’ path – they also encourage players to replay the game from a different alignment to see how the experience changes. But what if playing the game one way or the other just isn’t in your nature?
The first game I played that took great advantage of a morality system was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which allowed you to choose between becoming a beacon of light or a feared scion of malice. I opted to follow the path of the light, aiding refugees living in squalor beneath the rich and saving those falsely accused of wrongdoing from morally deprived mercenaries.
Upon completing the game, I started over with the intent of falling sway to the dark side of the Force. But as I continued playing, I found myself falling into my old do-gooder habits. I still wanted to see how the story progressed down that path, but I just couldn’t bring myself to play as the bad guy.
Fortunately, my brother has no such hang ups. He’s the kind of gamer who hides aces up his sleeves in poker games and steals oversized lollipops from babies. So I handed the controller off to him and let him act on those evil impulses. I was able to see how the story and gameplay changed, and my brother gained a captive audience for his misdeeds.
While many gamers will play back through a game just to see different endings, there’s more to it than that. In many cases, modern games provide an objective to complete and a variety of tools to use, then let players figure the rest out for themselves. This allows for many different play-styles and offers another reason to observe how your buddy responds differently to the same challenges. Watching your buddy play through a mission with guns blazing where you stayed quietly in the shadows always provides entertainment – especially when he fails where you succeeded.
The Backseat Gamer
Sometimes it’s fun to sit back and watch how others play differently than you. Other times, it’s a matter of necessity: If you simply can’t get used to the way a game handles, but you’re still intrigued by the gameplay and story, playing the game by proxy is better than not playing it at all.
A few years ago, my pastor and his family came over for dinner. After we finished our meal, my brother and I took the kids into our game room to show them our collection. None of them had played very many videogames other than football sims, but one of the girls noticed Beyond Good and Evil on our PC and wanted to give it a shot. I started it up for her and stayed close by in case she needed help.
She didn’t have much trouble understanding what she had to do in the game. The problem was the control scheme: The only games she had played up to that point were on a console or a handheld, and she just couldn’t get the hang of playing with a mouse and keyboard. But the opening sequence of the game was so dramatic and exciting that she needed to know what happened next. So instead of struggling, she asked me to take the controls. She sat back and gave commands, which I dutifully executed. As we journeyed through the game together, she enjoyed the story and puzzles for the first time while I played the game with fresh eyes.
Single-player games are often best experienced with more people than necessary. Watching someone else play a game provides us the chance to learn new techniques, see the game from a new perspective and bear witness to things that we couldn’t achieve on our own. In this way, the game becomes more than just a solo adventure and turns into a shared experience.
Joshua Hilley is an aspiring freelance writer and incurable optimist living in the state of South Carolina.