Are you finally living on your own, but desperate to recreate the experience of listening to a drunken roommate or sibling scream at bundles of code, as interpreted through a low quality microphone? Then you can only be suffering from a lethal case of nostalgia poisoning, and should seek help immediately – the heady aroma of old socks and cheetos should snap you out of it (okay, that’s my one gamer slob joke, just to get the stereotype out of the way). If, on the other hand, you’re one of the many people with an interest in videogames but without the ailing and befuddled millionaire spouse or back pocket oil field necessary to support the hobby, I have good news.
On this newfangled series of tubes there’s a whole genre known as the “Let’s Play,” or LP. They can range from screenshot-with-commentary (a familiar format around these parts), to silent video walkthroughs, to highlight reels. But the most popular use is to show off a game in its entirety with player commentary over top, either “blind” to create the experience of an average player or experienced to show off the ‘ideal’ experience.
WHAT?! I hear you saying, running several blocks to flip the nearest table while screaming about the importance of the interactive experience. Behind the noise are those arching one kempt eyebrow, wondering what the point would be in watching someone else play insert-stereotypical-casual-game-here when you could be downloading for free. The thing is, at their very best LPs are like the ultimate fancy tv sports package – the players are engaging and knowledgeable about the game, talented enough to keep the viewer from suffering through repeated failures but easygoing enough to endear themselves. Some of them even offer that delicious bonus known as context, show off things the average gamer couldn’t find for themselves, or suffer for the sake of your so-bad-it’s-unbelievable curiosity.
Since I’m forever harping on the ‘good stories can come in any form’ chestnut, I thought I’d offer five of my favorites from this glorious internet born oddity, each with a different type of appeal to scratch that co-gamer itch. Because I just got tired of tying people up to sit next to me when I booted up the game machine.
Know a great specimen I missed? I’d love to hear about it down in the comments.
The Game: Persona 3 is a 2007 JRPG, released by ATLUS on the PS2. It’s a dungeon crawler with (unforgiving) turn based combat by night and a high school social sim by day. The story centers around a strange occurrence called the Dark Hour, a time between midnight and 12:01 when time freezes, water turns to blood, normal humans are encased in coffins, and monstrous shadows come out. Those who are aware of the Dark Hour better hope they can summon Jungian shadows called Personas, or they’re gonna get dead real quick. Meanwhile, at the heart of this are 12 enormous shadows, and the fact that the main characters’ school turns into an enormous hell tower called Tartarus. So you’d better get climbing.
The LP: Born out of the Something Awful forums, this LP is a bit brilliant in its approach. While P3 is readily available (and was even remade for the PSP with a gender flipped campaign), it’s also a) unbelievably long, b) sometimes repetitive and plagued by rock-stupid AI, and c) made by ATLUS, and therefore challenging at best and cheap at worst. It’s the kind of game where you want to know what you’re signing up for before you plunge in.
Schildkrote presents the game as a found document, telling the events of the game as a series of diary entries written by the nameless protagonist. It’s a clever move that gives a lot of charm to a tough concept – the MC is named by the player, and his responses are chosen by them as well – and for a party once removed, that’s not exactly engaging. The diaries instead paint the MC as his own character, a sort of snarky borderline-depressive case who keeps getting dragged into peoples’ lives despite his determination not to give a damn. It does, in a way, feel like reading a story. Reading an LP rather than watching it also cuts out the grinding and boss battles, leaving just the plot-important and simulation events (for reference, my first playthrough clocked over 70 hours). It’s like the best sampler platter ever: want more? It doesn’t touch on all the game’s events, leaving you new things to discover alongside the play aspects. Not feeling it? You get a full sense of the story from the LP, and it’s even legitimately touching at the end. Give it a read, and remember all the diaries you thought it best to burn, but with more metaphorical suicide.
4. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
By Achievement Hunter
The Game: A Machine for Pigs is a survival horror game that’s the 2013 sequel (though not continuation) of the smash indie hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A protagonist with the titular issue is looking for his children, and a voice from nowhere is telling him that he can find them if only he’d be so kind as to turn on the monstrous meat-machine adjacent to the creepy haunted mansion. Nothing suspicious there, no sir (yeah, Yahtzee said it better than I ever could’ve). Oh, and there’s horrible pig men wandering about, so that’s fun.
The LP: Sometimes it’s not about the game so much as the trauma, and watching someone else go through it instead of you. The Amnesia series is infamous for scaring a legion of players within an inch of their lives. When it’s you? Terrifying. When it’s someone else? Hilarious, and more than a little bit cathartic. The Achievement Hunter video is a one-shot, way more focused on the experience of the player than the details of the game – you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want plot details or even the whole game. But to get a feel for it, this is the place to be. Michael and Gavin are a great comedic team, half screaming at the game and half at each other, and well experienced at editing and comedy to boot (not that you need to be familiar with their usual work to enjoy this particular video). It’s a bit hard to sell, since they’ve done it so well themselves. 45 minutes of cosmic abominations and hilarious idiots? Good times.
3. Superman 64
by Proton Jon
The Game: This isn’t just one of the worst licensed games made, it’s one of the worst games ever. Ugly, unbelievably glitchy, poorly optimized, teeth-grindingly un-fun. It mimics the excitement of the big blue boy scout with the thrilling experience of flying through rings in a fog, if you don’t fly into the negative zone first. It’s Manos, the Hands of Fate for videogames. Quick word of warning – for those of you sensitive to motion sickness, a lot of the glitches cause the screen to spin like crazy, so take it in small doses.
The LP: This is a pro-grade LP – it doesn’t just show off the game and its many eye-popping glitches and oddities, but it starts every video with a few minutes of history related to the game and its production. And believe you-me, this isn’t a game you’d play yourself for anything more than bile fascination. It’s like every bad design choice a game could make concentrated into one place, and Proton Jon’s a real treat as the narrator. He’s not so much angry at the game as he is perplexed and entranced by its awfulness, the same as us. It makes it a sort of endearing experience that’s distinct from your Angry Video Game Nerd type review.
The LP isn’t finished (he’s been at it since 2010, and has only finished half the game), but there’s not anything like a story or particular connectivity to the game, so each video functions as a pretty neat little standalone – variations on a theme, if you will. One episode he might play for as many glitches as he can get in a stage, in another he’ll play split screen with another terrible Superman game. He’s articulate, with good quality sound, and the videos are edited to keep the failures in but not to make the repetition an irritation. And who doesn’t want to watch a really good train wreck?
The Game: Off is a 2008 French freeware game made by Mortis Ghost. It’s a turn-based RPG that sees you (yes, you, the game would like you to remember your role in all of this) controlling The Batter on his mission to purify the world. A strange, uncanny world that’s (to say the least) not what it seems. Fountains of meat? Rivers of plastic? Metal farmed from cows? Sounds like Tuesday.
The LP: AgentJR posts a link to an English patch of the game in his introduction video, and even encourages the viewer to play it themselves before watching the video. It’d be worth putting this LP on the list just to recommend the game itself – an unsettling, fascinating exercise in player agency, alienation, and understated horror that sticks with you long after you finish it. Think of it as a tiny, SNES graphic style Spec Ops or Silent Hill 2 (for those of you playing the drinking game at home, ready your shots).
And if you’re not inclined to play it yourself, this is the way to do it – Agent is my personal favorite LP creator, with a video library that highlights great indie games like Off, Iji, and An Untold Story, as well as hands down the best playthroughs of the first four Silent Hill games. He’s a calm, Canadian sort, affable and well-versed in the games he shows off. He’s also adept at playing dumb without being obnoxious – he’s too good not to know what’s coming, but he feels genuine as he reacts with the viewer to what’s happening on screen. It’s just pleasant and chill, friendly while still laid back enough to actually make most of the horror (his genre of choice) come through effective. He also doesn’t talk through the cut scenes, for which I give him all of the credit. He’s been on hiatus as of late, but he’s done enough work over the last four years to keep you busy for months with quality games.
The Game: The Chzo Mythos is a series of freeware adventure games created by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (yup, the Zero Punctuation guy). The loosely connected plot follows the summoning of a Lovecraftian god of pain hundreds of years ago, and all of the terror that rolls down onto the successive generations, particularly a gentleman thief by the name of Trilby. It’s got a sort of Eternal Darkness meets Silent Hill sort of feeling, at its best tense and about as disturbing as the format can allow for. They can be downloaded for free from Yahtzee’s website, fullyramblomatic.
The LP: To my mind, this is the perfect example of an LP. Quovak knows this series like the back of his hand, and while he’s got no shortage of critiques for the design and writing flaws, he’s also quick to point out what the games do well. He also trims down the occasionally purple and extremely plentiful prose down to the bits that give the best punch while summarizing the rest. For those who have my particular brand of Stockholm Syndrome for horror, it also gets across the cosmic horror while minimizing the whole sleepless nights thing (for those looking for a music and all playthrough, DeceasedCrab has a pretty good one). He’s got a good, punchy talent for writing that examines not only the game’s issues but makes for strong critique and analysis, with a side sprinkling of science for the more future-y installment of the series.
But that’s all aside of the very best part – pretty shortly into the thread Yahtzee himself joined in, giving commentary and insight on the games he made when he was a wee 20 year old. It’s dead fascinating to see a creative type look back on past projects from a more experienced place, and to handle the Mystery Science Theater experience with such grace. It’s like the best possibility born from the magic of the internet. It’s a little bit of everything: gameplay, criticism, fan flailing, author interactivity, audience interactivity (in the form of some pretty amusing art prompts), and that bizarrely warped nostalgia where we pick apart the thing that gives us joy. Because falling in love with something flawed from the great ending backward is totally a thing.