The Intimate as Public Display: On Let’s Plays

Note: We just posted a full list of all of our current videos with some summaries over on this page here. I decided to take the opportunity to talk about why I’m doing let’s plays in the first place.  

So if you’ve been listening to the most recent few podcasts, I’ve been talking in the early segments about the acquisition of a new computer, and how I’ve been using that as a means to get me into making more videos. It’s been a long time coming—my last computer was a middle of the road gaming PC when I built it five years ago. All it was meant to do was to replace my even more ancient and rickety laptop and to run the one game I was interested in five years ago: Star Trek Online. Hilarious, that lasted about three weeks (most of which, if I remember correctly, was taken up with the early access to pre-orderers), because MMOs and my tastes don’t mix.

But the computer served long past its usefulness date, even as it chugged increasingly. It was where I discovered Mass Effect and Dragon Age, where I built my first game and recorded my first podcasts, it was where I created more than one website and lived whole internet lifetimes. And now it’s gone, and I’m onto the newer, better thing. Capitalism, technological Darwinism, and the slow march of time and death are all the victors here. I love having new technology, but I can’t help but consider the whole parade of acquisition and excitement sad at the same time I invest in it.

That said, I’m most excited because it allows me to really start doing the thing I’ve wanted to do for some time: let’s plays. Those ubiquitous video nuggets of cultural errata, let’s plays are something of a nadir in modern video game critical culture. They’re endlessly entertaining to wide audiences as games-as-performance, but they’ve so far been mostly mired in discussions of journalistic integrity, monetization and copyright nightmares, and the general socioeconomic class war between games critics and games players, who seem in an average body to be drifting ever apart in terms of tastes and habits. Let’s plays are the new populism, and as such receive a lot of hostility (especially since many of the biggest names in the form are … divisive, to say the least). It is, to understate the complex issues of the day, a bit of a clustercuss.

I love let’s plays, though. I remember when video games on the internet were just intricate FAQs and message board threads, and the idea of a lengthy video series on anything was impossible. Then, seemingly overnight, you could find video about anything in the world, and for intrepid netizens with more than a little curiosity about those little curiosities, it was easy to get lost looking at video of games you’d only heard in rumor or never felt capable of approaching yourself. For me, it was a mixture of Silent Hill let’s plays, speedruns of Metroid games, and trying to figure out just how the hell that strange sandbox game called Minecraft worked that led me into the world of watching people video games on the internet.

My fondest feelings are very specific to let’s plays, though. I can watch and enjoy a stream, for sure. And I spent many years finding weird new games through Quick Looks and the like. But it’s the simple act of one person talking over one game in a singular moment in time that I’ve really cottoned to. There’s plenty of reasons for that, among which is my general distaste of chats in general and the focus on personalities and crowd interaction. So streaming is out. Quick Looks are, by their nature, trying to be entertaining and informative first, an infomercial run by buffoons that’s meant to tell you enough to get your foot in the door on understanding. It’s entertaining, but that audience is being served. Let’s plays, though, when done well, are the condensed crystal of the diffuse experience of what it means to interact with a game. There’s a person, there’s what they bring to the table, and there’s how the game and they interact to form an experience and impressions.

And I’m not talking about playing a character into a webcam, I’m talking about a person giving you the unaltered feed of their own insight as they interact with a form of media. Video games, more than any other form of this, are the only real type of art that has the rhythms and quiet spaces that allow someone to fill it with their own experience as it’s happening and not step completely on the art itself. Because games are systemic loops, and because so much of games is built on the foundation of giving you challenges and signposts to process and overcome and analyze, the very act of playing a game is one of constructing an internal schema associated with the game and trying to fit the two together again and again as you attempt to bring them into alignment to not only progress, but to enjoy the game at all.

The interactive nature of games isn’t just about making you force along a series of events, but instead it’s about forcing the player to nudge their own default state into new configurations in order to connect with the games at all. In a simple instance, a puzzle game such as Portal asks you to reconsider your knowledge of physics in order to solve challenges. More abstractly, Hate Plus is a game that offers no actual challenges, but asks that you use the rough edges and open questions of the world you’re interacting with to snag on the parts of your own internal bubble of awareness, stretching what you consider and filling new exciting spaces and maybe even opening a few psychic wounds in an effort to increase your experiential awareness if you’re cognizant of how it is poking at your state of being as you play it. All games, deep down, are incomplete jigsaw puzzles, frames asking a player to come along and fill the missing pieces with themselves, and whether or not its an ill fit or a perfect fit, the actual artistic merit of any game is in how that fit does or doesn’t happen when you try to marry the game and the player.

What does this have to do with let’s plays? Well, if that’s what games inherently are, then providing a record of that is how we can respond to the medium. Games are almost always a performative piece of art—it won’t actually do anything unless someone is playing it. Thus, it’s only through the act of witnessing someone engaging with the game itself that we can see a game as a true living work of art. A game without a player is half-complete, and playing is more than just achieving the goals needed to progress in most games. It’s a much more complicated activity, as I said above, full of ambiguities and nuance unique to each player that comes across the game’s framework and begins to meld with it in their own unique way. Let’s plays just add a single layer of formalization to the process, far less than the several layers of a review or a critical piece of writing: the player is giving you live stream of consciousness as the interaction is taking place, and hopefully bringing honesty and earnestness and a sense of their own self into the work to create criticism as an act of emotion and instinct as much as it is an act of intellectualism. It happens right there, in the space where you play something and respond to it and then have to talk about how you feel and why because the microphone is rolling.

That’s why I’m making way more videos than I am writing words these days. I’m not quite where I want to be, and it’s certainly a skill that has to be learned and worked on, but to me let’s plays are in many ways the only true distillation of a person’s experience with a game. Writing is one thing, a thing I enjoy and appreciate, but the let’s play form is something much more vulnerable. In recording the actual moments of interaction, you get everything: the good and bad, the enthralling and the dull, the silly and the painful. You’re brought into someone’s inner world as they expose that often hidden mental landscape to the possibility of change and influence that games in their systemic complexity demand we do to really engage with them. Documenting that process, without a chat and without an explicit character to inhabit or a ‘show’ one is putting on, is a performance art in its own right. Let’s plays are video games. If done right, they can be the most honest reflection of what it means to care about and experience this medium. And that’s why I’m trying to create more let’s plays.

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