I like playing games.1 I also like watching friends play games I know and love, sometimes with me, sometimes not. I also, it seems, like watching complete strangers play games I may or may not know intimately while having all sorts of wacky adventures and fun times.
The Let’s Play formula owes its existence to YouTube, a most fertile field of online content creation. With its ease of uploading and limitless potential for fame, YouTube’s open nature facilitates the creation and development of an infinite number of entertainment formulae. Naturally, of course, some of those forms involve video games, and it is the Let’s Play format that has been making notable headway recently. Along with Let’s Plays, YouTube has encouraged the growth of such performance-based media as speed runs, reviews, and machinima (More on those in a minute).
The formula for a Let’s Play itself is fairly simple: A video game, a camera (or another sort of recording device), a player, and a personality. Mash ‘em all together, put the resulting product on YouTube, and you’ve got a part of an Internet sensation!
Fellow traveler Ben Milton has before meditated on the rise of the medium of Let’s Plays, speculating that, at the very least, we’ve got a burgeoning art form on our hands. Ben theorizes that a game is not a game until the player experiences it, but merely a potential experience. By playing through the game, the player’s experience of the game is realized, and the game as a work is “completed.” If a game is incomplete until the player completes it, then the Let’s Play movement, so Milton holds, is a crystallization of the art inherent within the game, much as a sculptor reveals the statue that was all the while buried within a mere block of marble.
I like the idea of gaming-as-exhibition-as-art. If the entertainer is particularly creative (say, gifted in improv or animation), the final product is all the more excellent, much as the confluence of a beautiful piece of music played upon a masterpiece of a violin in the hands of a virtuoso soars to artistic heights greater than the sum of its parts.
Currently, a few such formulae have risen to prominence. These formulae, speed runs, reviews, machinima and Let’s Plays, all arise from the point where product meets player. These videos, these creations, are not the games themselves – indeed, their existence is derived entirely from games – but can be just as entertaining or otherwise edifying, if not more so, than playing the game itself. Speed runs are by their very definition a perfect execution of the game in question. This in itself is a thing of beauty, and by virtue of its excellence is art. Reviews generally are just that, but are really engaging only if the reviewer adopts some sort of character (like the Angry Video Game Nerd). The art of the review, then, is in the performance of the reviewer rather than the review itself. Machinima is perhaps the most artistic user-generated medium, and its impact on gaming is by far the most profound. The folks at Rooster Teeth, creators of the still-going series Red vs. Blue, have frequently collaborated with Bungie Studios, and later Microsoft, on the Halo series, and their contributions can be seen even today.
But what’s so special about a person sitting down and playing the game? Let’s Plays don’t show you the optimal strategy for beating the game the Best Possible Way (like speed runs), nor do they necessarily go into great depth on all the game’s attributes (as reviews), nor even do they create movies or stories out of the game (like machinima). So then what could possibly be the edification derived from sitting at a screen and watching someone sitting at a screen and watching a game that we ourselves are not playing?
Did you, reader, ever also read Nintendo Power? Do you remember how you were able to read about the hot new game you desperately wanted but couldn’t get, given your (probable) status as a jobless minor, and thereby derive a great deal of enjoyment from the game by reading about it? Nintendo Power offered a unique way to experience games you didn’t actually have through vicarious enjoyment. I personally looked forward to NP’s monthly write-ups of the coolest new games (such as Jet Force Gemini and Super Smash Bros.), with their detailed walkthroughs of the introductory sections and in-depth explanations of the setting, characters, and the cetera.
Let’s Plays are so popular, I believe, because they give us the same sort of Nintendo Power-ian entertainment. But they are more than just that. The niche Let’s Plays fills is that of hanging out with your friends around a game and having a laugh. As this is the internet, where we are all about replacing real life with virtual interaction, it only seems natural to try to recreate experiencing a virtual game virtually. Let’s Plays give you the chance to enjoy a new, refreshing kind of comedy situation, where you enjoy people very much like yourself having experiences very much like ones you would have. We as gamers are naturally familiar with the sort of frustration, giddiness, camaraderie and general sense of wonder Let’s Players experience in the course of play, and are able to relate to these entertainers as though we were watching a sitcom about our gaming experiences, or our lives, which is essentially what we’re doing. Thus, rather than outsourcing our gaming, Let’s Plays give us the opportunity to actually enjoy our games in a new, powerful way.
I suppose it would do to name a few of my favorite Let’s Players. Tobuscus, a YouTuber of many hats and channels, plays a lot of games and puts them up daily on what must be a herculean production schedule. Tobuscus’ incredible improvisation skills and formidable vocal range, as well as his forays into internet flash games, make his videos a wacky treat. Game Grumps, a project undertaken by JonTron and Egoraptor, is something of the new hotness in the Let’s Play phenomenon. The Grumps have a large following because they strive to recreate the buddy-aesthetic described above. Both channels promise a great deal of vicarious fun, though the Grumps are decidedly unsafe for work.
Slender: The Eight Pages is a great game, one of my favorite recent indie titles. I will one day write in depth about my love of the Slender Man phenomenon, but right now let’s just say that the significance of a user-created bit of folklore is an inspiring sign of things to come. In the same way that Slender Man is a Big Deal for the Internet, acts of game-appropriation, such as Let’s Plays, represent an important step forward in terms of what it means to be a content creator.
By taking established games and applying their own performances to them, gamers are giving themselves agency and creative ability where before we were the ones games were created for (making us the creat-ees, I suppose). This development serves to lower the gulf between creator and audience, spreading the creativity all around. Gamers have been able to modify the games they play since Doom, but those modifications have always been internal, directly connected to the game itself.
Let’s Plays, and the other forms of user-generated content we’ve discussed, don’t modify the games per se, but rather how we experience them. Minecraft exists, but my personal experience playing it and my experience watching it are radically different; I derive much more enjoyment from watching someone else mine for hours for Schrodinger’s diamonds, complaining all the while as ze does how hard they are to find, than I do mining for them myself. Conversely, I take greater delight designing and building my own things than I do watching others at work. Watching Let’s Plays gives me and my fellow watchers an expanded appreciation of the games we love.
- I know, you’re all surprised. [↩]