There’s a rather vast and inherent flaw with my job, and the jobs of many professional game journalists, that results in all of us suffering sleepless nights in fear of our editors figuring it out. As respected authorities on gaming as a culture (shut up, we are) we have to play all the games, I myself only being able to devote a week to each one, and even then only a few hours in the afternoon and evening, less if I want to follow the advice they keep giving in game manuals to take a fifteen minute break every hour (which nobody does.) But there are a lot of games that require a lot more commitment, and many that considerably benefit from analysis after long term play.
Obviously there’re massive RPGs like Two Worlds 2 or Fallout: New Vegas and indeed most MMOs that have an awful lot of content that you need to set aside quite a few gaming sessions to get the most out of, but even a simpler game can gain new depths if it’s the only one you play for months on end. The average, non-game-reviewing player gains new games on a rare basis, especially kids, their acquisitions often restricted to Christmas, birthdays or whenever they’ve saved up enough paper route money. Many will have inordinately positive memories of merely average games that were all they had to play.
I lived unemployed for a while waiting for my Australian permanent residence to be cleared with a small collection of games including Silent Hill 2 and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time on PS2 and Zelda Wind Waker and Spiderman 2 on Gamecube, and I’m often haunted by the thought that perhaps my high esteem for these titles lie merely in having played them all over and over again. Then again, I also had Red Faction at the time.
But what’s the solution? I definitely can’t conjure myself more free time. What I need to do is find a way to view games through the perspective of someone who did have enough time to put the hours in. But that would require, say, watching them play the entire game giving a running commentary throughout, and nobody does that. Well, actually, people do. Quite a few people do. It’s called Let’s Play.
Graham and Paul of Unskippable have a feature on this very website called Let’s Play Legends of Legaia, but the concept of Let’s Play (or LP) goes back quite a few years. Unskippable‘s take on it sums up the concept pretty well – it’s commentary over games and gameplay, not just cinematics, delivered by the player and optionally one or more co-commentators to keep the banter flowing. Basically they play the game, record the entire experience in video (or screenshots if the game is less animated and text-heavy) and post the videos serial-style. And I’ve got to admit, I am a certified Let’s Play addict. I like to have them on in the background while I work. Even as I write this I have on a video of someone playing American McGee’s Scrapland. It actually seems like it might have been quite fun with a little more design discipline.
Now, I want to make it perfectly clear that watching someone play a game is absolutely no substitute for playing it yourself, since the essence of games are in the playing. I wouldn’t dream of reviewing or giving any kind of in-depth analysis of a game I’d only seen ‘ed. What it’s useful for is gaining context. It fills in the blanks of games I didn’t get around to completely finishing, or gives necessary backstory for franchises of which I’ve only played the other installments. Crucially, though, it’s a frank dissection of a game by a party with no vested interest in making it look good, resulting in an honest warts-and-all portrayal. It might make you see the interesting points in a game previously you considered mediocre, or it can be a hilarious MST3K-style roast if the game’s just plain bad. At other times, it can give exposure to hidden gems that didn’t have enough mass appeal to get around. I’ve sought out quite a few games after watching them LP’ed.
The origin and still best source of Let’s Play is the Something Awful forums, which now has a dedicated subforum for it. The SA forums quite notoriously charge 10 dollars to register, which is about as effective a shithead filtration system as you could ask for, really. But after LPs are completed there, many of them get hosted offsite in an archive rather predictably named the Let’s Play Archive. Just to throw out some recommendations, the Dead Rising LP was particularly good for filling in the blanks on an extremely unforgiving game my patience wouldn’t let me hold out for. If you’re in it just for the funny ones, though, there’s the spectacle of two incredibly white guys playing 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand or the infamous Daikatana being tackled by a very angry chap and his easy-going friend. And on the subject of exposing hidden gems, there’s a rather excellent thread currently still running in the subforum for Deadly Premonition, a game that word of mouth seemed to make out as incredibly polarizing, but which I now see has the kind of lovable Japanese quirkiness that strikes a chord with me (after all, I champion Suda51’s utterly bizarre Killer7, which has also been LP’ed by the 50 Cent guys.
The quality of LPs on Something Awful tends to be high because the subforum has very strict rules for posting, and their insistence on good technical quality might seem a little restrictive, but it’s a damn sight better than the alternative, which is the Let’s Play community on YouTube. As is always the case with YouTube, and perhaps the internet in general, its biggest detriment is its complete lack of quality control and community of yes-men who are prepared to give mindless praise to anything that doesn’t make their monitors explode and embed white-hot shards of plastic in their faces. So Youtube is quite infested with people recording their CRT TVs with their webcams, or droning monotonously over SNES emulator footage watermarked by unregistered screen capture software.
But I think the problem with YouTube LPs is that most of them seem to think LP should be about the person commentating rather than the game. They all seem to play the same titles (honestly, how many times can anyone watch Super Mario World being played), have little editing and effect desperate attempts at hilarious personas in order to attract more subscribers, the most valuable currency of YouTube. SA, I find, encourages its users to see LP more as a hobbyist’s roundtable discussion about the games themselves.
It’s not the kind of thing that would appeal to everyone, but I just thought it would be nice to talk about it, for the benefit of people, like me, who feel that there’s no need to stop exposing oneself to video games just because you’re more in the mood to sit passively and watch rather than play something. You can only see the Super Mario Bros. movie so many times.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.