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On the Nature of Let's Plays

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I know it’s a bad habit due to its general low quality content, but I’ve started watching a lot of YouTube videos lately. A lot of them were Let’s Plays to replace traditional reviews, as I found most of review sites either too forgiving, or just flat-out ads. On the other end of the spectrum there are bashings camouflaged as reviews which only focus on negative aspects and not on the experience as a whole. So I decided I know better, and there is no way better to learn than to experience yourself – enter Let’s Plays.


I quickly learned there were 2 mainstream approaches to Let’s Plays: (1) Talk about the game as you’re playing it, and (2) Do a podcast with the game there as something to react to, with varying amounts of attention being paid to it. While the first kind is more of what I leaned towards, the second kind also deserves mentioning as it has spawned the very successful Game Grumps and all of its derivatives and knock offs – so I’m going to start with it.


The general idea of a podcast has always been weird to me, as it has evolved from something almost universally looked down upon – radio talk shows. But it has fans, even though the topic of a particular podcast doesn’t appeal to most of the fanbase. So what’s the selling point? The personality of those starring in it. I think it’s determined by if you find their opinions, life experience and way of thought interesting and unique. But the thing is that it isn’t tied to the game – it’s only a Let’s Play because the game provides a background and a spotlight for the players. In that way, that type of Let’s Play could’ve been done with a film in its backdrop (if it weren’t taken down by a DMCA notice) – it isn’t uniquely game oriented, it’s just something animated to put on the screen while you talk.


The other type is where things get complicated. You can talk about a game in many ways – how it makes you feel, how it makes you think, how every part was created from a designer’s perspective, which tricks the coder did to make the game actually work the way it does, etc. But it always puts the game in the foreground – it is the focus of that video. And that creates Let’s Players who are have channels that are specialized for specific types of games, because those are the things that attract the most viewers:

1. New or rare games – I group those together because they give the watcher a taste of something unseen or unknown until now.

2. Popular games – games that appeal to a large fanbase of that game, and who cannot play the game at that moment.

3. “Exclusive Experience” games – games that offer a unique experience for each player, and that may include multiplayer games, RNG-dependent games (such as Rogue-lites), or games that have way too much content (such as Super Mario Maker), in which case you’re expecting to see a cherry-picked videos of that experience. The watcher is trusting the Let’s Player to waste their time and only present the best that game can ever be, or typical gameplay, or edge cases such as ultra-hard levels. This is most often not the case, but since it’s random – they are likely to hook viewers by chance.


These all have a certain common ground – by talking about their thought process while playing, they make you sympathize with them and more prone to agreeing with them, allowing their analysis to be more legitimate as you’re also witnessing proof of their claims as they happen – whether right or wrong, because you as a watcher have no direct input and control of the game. Despite all of the inherent legitimacy the Let’s Player has, it’s still expected he’ll be on-point and in-depth in order to hook the watcher. Since it needs to happen all of the time, most of the Let’s Players start talking about completely unrelated things as the Let’s Play progresses, or deal with responding to chat, leading to the Let’s Play coming off as unfocused and to the Let’s Player as bored. For what it’s worth, though, it’s generally better than most reviews – at least when something monotonous, you can see it as it happens instead of finding out that a game is boring only after you bought it – but I don’t think we’ve reached the absolute pinnacle of game reviews just yet.


They are also appealing to a more massive audience by lowering the skill floor to the absolute minimum, which is why Let’s Plays have become more appealing to most. By lowering the skill floor of difficult yet popular games, such as the Soulsbourne series, they make a unique experience more common, which I don’t think is necessarily bad – but it cheapens and dilutes the experience and essentially robs the player of it. Horror games Let’s Plays are a peculiar in particular, as it seems like anyone watching them doesn’t want to be afraid but does want to experience those games? It just misses the point for me.


On the other end of the spectrum, there are Let’s Plays that are essentially a skill showcase – games with an unusually high skill floor, or a specific run of those games that necessitates it – speedruns, bug showcases/breaking the game runs, and the weird runs of Final Fantasy with only 1 white mage and no items all fall under that term. I feel like those are the truly “exclusive experience” Let’s Plays, as it stretches both the game and the player to their limits. Aside from the inherent entertainment value of watching how things work under extreme conditions or watching a record being broken, those also provide info on how the game works of a fundamental level – and thus are essential for every review. By showing you how the game works and even breaking it, but not imparting the skills to do it, they are essentially prodding the watcher to try and do those things on their own. They can still ruin a game for me if done badly.


To summarize, putting aside the podcasts-in-disguise – I feel like seeing multiple Let’s Plays of the same game is the closest thing we have to honest game reviews on a large scale, with specific elements, issues and features being acknowledged and analyzed as they come up from different perspectives. Being the best method available, means it’s also going to be more successful. I also feel like certain Let’s Plays are inherently fun to watch due to amazing skill, uniqueness and education value.

However, I feel like this format is still developing – watching an entire Let’s Play (as intended) essentially destroys a game for me (not as intended). A lot of the content out there isn’t focused even within the same Let’s Play, or done out of obligation to the watchers, with the Let’s Player and the game simply not being compatible.

It’s a brave new world, and by not analyzing it and defining what makes it tick and work for large audiences we cannot make it better, not to mention more profitable for both the Let’s Players and their watchers. Does anyone have another take on why Let’s Plays have caught on? Or another dissection of that kind of videos?


Or how to make Moon Gaming work?

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I personally have to agree with you on the reviews aspect of things. I find myself looking towards LPers at times to see how games are before I buy them alongside reviewers. They can show what (funnily enough), most reviewers cannot, which is a "live" and "real" experience of playing a game often for the first time. And with their own unique personalities and tastes, they can be varied in terms of what they think of a game.


I mostly use them as a resource at times in conjunction with reviewers on games I'm unsure of (but then the Reviewers I trust and watch can be listed on one hand: Totalbiscuit, Yahtzee, AngryJoe, Ross Scott, and Jim Sterling). Though, there have been cases where I have bought games solely based on what I've seen of LPers, like with Until Dawn where I bought it almost immediately after I made it half way through the first episode of Markiplier's playthrough, or Enter the Gungeon where I bought it immediately after I watched Baertaffy's first episode. They simply feel more informative since not only is the LPer seeing and commenting on all the stuff as they go through it "live", but so can you.


I usually never watch a full playthrough of a game (those with endings) unless one of two things is true: 1) That I'm not likely to ever play the game because its not my type of game, or in the near future to the point where I'd remember, or 2) The first impressions of a game left me unsure or distasteful as to what it was trying to be.


I believe LPs caught on mostly because of the personalities of the people who created them, and their ability to catch on to a big audience. Otherwise people would have just watched silent playthroughs. I've heard Markiplier describe it as being incredibly hard now to break out as an LPer as a business because of how consolidated fanbases are and how hard it is to give a unique spin to games that audiences actually want to see and enjoy and how much work it would involve just to break out and get noticed.

Long is the way; and hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light-Paradise Lost

By the power of truth, while I live, I have conquered the universe-Faust

The only absolute is that there are no absolutes, except that one

Vae Victus-Brennus

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Speaking for my own personal taste, I prefer let's play/playthrough videos of a more comedic bent. If I'm ever invested enough in the idea of a specific game then I'm more than likely to play it myself and reach my own conclusions. Apart from a couple of individual instances when I acquired a game because of a review I've seen, I don't want the experience marred or details revealed to me effectively "spoilt" by someone else's experience. The beauty of something in the vein of Jim Sterling's Squirty Plays or AlChestbreach's "reviews" (say that with a nudge and a wink and a pinch of salt) of Fallout: New Vegas mods and indie games, is that I'm watching something that I my myself aren't enormously likely to purchase or even want to play. Combine this unavoidable fact with either the cheeky yet weary snarkiness of Jim or Al's cartoon-like character-conjuring irreverence and in my humble opinion you've got yourself a very entertaining and successful let's play video.

When close friends speak ill of close friends

they pass their abuse from ear to ear

in dying whispers -

even now, when prayers are no longer prayed.

What sounds like violent coughing

turns out to be laughter.

Shuntarō Tanikawa

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