I live alone and, at the behest of my dad, I recently bought a bigger television. It oddly irritated my dad that, for the best part of a year since moving away, I had to settle for a T.V. that was only a sliver larger than my laptop screen. He’s the kind of guy who thinks every house should come with its own IMAX screen. So, with some money saved up, I upgraded to a more acceptable sized device. It’s perfect for the kind of lush coloured films I love to watch, as well as the increasingly cinematic approach taken by most television shows these days. But mostly, I use my T.V. to watch Let’s Plays on YouTube.
I work best with background noise that isn’t music, and watching other people play video games is practically tailor-made for the experience. I should specify that when I look for Let’s Plays to watch, I am far more inclined to go for those without the screeching vlogger commentary that has come to define the medium. I’m not interested in the performative honking of people like PewDiePie, nor am I especially thrilled by their casual slurs and ‘humour’ that failed to age beyond pre-adolescence. For me, the ideal commentator is someone who is more focused on the game itself than entertaining their audience. If they don’t speak at all, it’s even better, but there’s an almost ASMR quality to a quiet streamer who answers simple questions and explains their tactics for speed-running. Any time the player overshadows what is being played, I typically tap out unless they’re truly charismatic enough to warrant my attention.
For a lot of people, the idea of watching other people play video games is an incomprehensible form of entertainment. Why on earth would you spend hours watching some stranger work their way through Super Mario Odyssey when you could just play it yourself? Isn’t the whole point of video games in their interactivity, the thing that makes it wholly unique when compared to the mere spectatorship required of film, television, and so on? Everyone remembers being a kid and having to wait that agonizingly long time before they could take over from playing the game their sibling (or parent, in my case) was hogging for hours. Being the watcher in that circumstance was about as much fun as push-ups. Yet, for a whole generation of teens, this is not only their default mode of entertainment but it’s one that’s become a mighty industry in just a few short years.
And I totally get it.
First of all, the most instinctive appeal lies in the economic logistics. I don’t currently own a games console of any kind and my current laptop does not possess the required capabilities to play the games I own on my Steam account. Believe me, I tried. It wasn’t pretty. There are tons of games coming out every year I will probably never play, not only because of money but time. The freelance hustle is unforgiving when it comes to the commitment needed for something as expansive as, for example, Red Dead Redemption 2. But I can still have the Let’s Play on while I do other things, and I don’t really lose anything, especially if it’s a game I’ve either already played or am very familiar with. For new games, watching a thorough playthrough that catches all the in-jokes, all the Easter eggs and extra quests and stuff you typically power through on your first visit, is like a soap opera, only this one comes with a guaranteed conclusion. As someone who has always had fantasies of being a completionist but completely lacked the skills and commitment required, such Let’s Plays are a great way to live vicariously.
It’s also just satisfying as all hell to see people who are very good at something do it to the best of their abilities. I’m not bad at video games but I’m impatient and get bored of the repetition needed to get better. I love point and click adventure titles by Lucasarts and Tim Schafer but I’m not someone who thinks in the abstract moon logic terms that those games are built upon. I love horror games but I’m also a massive chicken. Let’s Plays may be something of an easy way out for me as a video game commitment-phobe, but when they’re played so well by others, who cares?
Let’s Plays also reveal new ways to play games. All the secrets are revealed, the glitches are exploited, and the glory of speed-running opens up whole new worlds. The very first game I 100% completed as a kid was Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (or Ripto’s Rage, if you’re American). It took me somewhere between 18 months and two years of on and off playing to finish those aggravating side-quests, to find every jewel and do everything required to get the final power-up. The current 100% world record for the game is 1 hour and 37 minutes. The any % record is 8 ½ minutes. When you figure out how to break the implicit rules of a game, there are new possibilities to explore and they’re often just as satisfying as playing it straight. All that and it’s educational too. I would never call myself an expert but Let’s Plays and speedruns have been more instructive in teaching me the basics of game design than any computer class I took in high school. If video games are to be understood as an artform then it’s crucial to see their basic building blocks in action. Recently, video game developers have invited speedrunners to show them how their games can be exploited for such purposes, and the results have been gloriously cringe-inducing.
Watching other people play video games will forever lack that crucial appeal for many fans. Why watch when you can do? I get that. My love of spectatorship in this field isn’t equally applied. I would rather play certain games myself, like low-key indie titles such as Gone Home, where the thrill comes from the deeply personal build-up of mood and theme. But video games are like any other form of entertainment. They can inspire, thrill, provide catharsis, tell complex stories or allow you to leave your brain at the door to enjoy the carnage. Truth be told, I’d rather watch most of that than do it these days.
Header Image Source: Activision