It’s something of a custom around here to use this week of American Turkey Day to shine a spotlight on underappreciated artists. To that end, let’s talk about Let’s Players: folks who record themselves playing video games in whole or in part for the enjoyment of others. It’s often not a highly respected art, derided as riding on the coattails of other creative endeavors by people who don’t understand the time and effort of play time, editing, and presenting one’s own persona as part of the experience that all go into a well-made Let’s Play.
Not to mention that video games (before we even touch problems with the community mentality) are the most exclusionary art form out there aside from, perhaps, Broadway. Certainly it’s the only art form that deliberately plans its own obsolescence and correspondingly wrings potential consumers for every penny of disposable income they have, backed up by an emphasis on modernity that demands being able to put down those large sums regularly at launch in order to find the factor of community involvement even slightly surmountable. And never mind if you come late to the party and find yourself interested in a game that’s four or five years old. Good luck finding it and potentially a system to play it on (if indeed it existed as physical media and was not ghosted a la the infamous PT). And so Let’s Plays can come to serve not just as entertainment but as historical documents for curious viewers who lack the means, equipment, skill, or time to tackle a game themselves.
And while I am quite the fan of well-known individuals like Jim Sterling, Laura Kate, and Markiplier (an example of how modern Players have shaded into the realm of sketch comedy, but certainly a kind and generous individual with some enjoyable longform LPs), today I wanted to focus on two channels who’ve been consistently talented and entertaining and deserve far, far more recognition than they get – one old, one new.
Longtime readers of this blog may recognize this gentleman – his LPs of the classic Silent Hill quartet head up each of my corresponding Consulting Analyst posts on the series, and he also appeared briefly the last time I talked about Let’s Plays in the very first year of this blog. His channel was inactive at the time, the demands of real life being inescapable for all of us, though in that time he continued to stream games on Twitch. The streams continue nearly every Saturday, incidentally, and are wonderful affairs attended by a small, friendly group.
JR’s channel hails from the period of LPs between the initial text and screenshot based model found on forums like Something Awful and the modern monetized version that the industry is now so desperate to get control over. In other words, his videos are largely longform LPs of games played in their entirely with voice-only commentary, at least partially chosen because of the player’s familiarity with the game in question and edited just enough to cut out repetitive deaths or time-consuming player error while keeping the integrity of how the game was (sometimes stupidly) designed. This style of play isn’t necessarily inherently “better” than more modern short form or highly edited LPs (or the also then-popular “blind run”), but there is an elegance to it that I personally find appealing. It comes the closest to mimicking the style of sitting next to a friend on the couch while they go through a new game, mostly casual and occasionally impassioned. There’s a pleasant illusion of camaraderie.
In line with that, it helps that JR himself comes across as an extremely laidback fellow, and his running commentary is often as soothing as it is entertaining. Because he largely chooses games that he likes, there’s a genuine enthusiasm to the way that he talks about things and a willingness to poke fun at what’s going on onscreen without seeming overly dismissive – thus allowing the viewer to get invested in the gameplay as well as what he’s saying about it. And in cases where he is disappointed there’s likewise an honesty to it – there is something of a pressure to downplay flaws or complaints for gamers in the public eye, the sort of opposite pendulum swing of THIS SUCKS AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD on various forums – that can be a relief (after all, one can acknowledge something’s flaws and still enjoy it, and it can get frustrating to pretend egregious flaws aren’t there) without going overboard and derailing the video.
While the content of JR’s channel has grown more eclectic since he began posting the archived video of his weekly streams, the channel-only videos tend toward horror games and indie platformers, most all of them either old (and thus out of print) or freeware games that viewers not entrenched in the indie community might not have heard of. Regardless of genre, JR’s videos are a uniformly quality affair, and a welcome treat for curious horror fans looking to get away from the popular trend of overreaction.
There’s already a list of suggested playlists for newcomers, including his LP of the first Silent Hill as well as OFF. To that recommendation I would also add the marvelous indie game Iji and the strange, adorable An Untitled Story.
I’ve listed the channel name above, but this channel actually features a duo: the titular Genghis, who plays and records the gameplay footage; and Shaw, who co-comments and draws the excellent cover art for each LP. This is a relatively new channel with only about half a dozen finished LPs under its belt, but that’s more than made up for by the incredible out of the gate quality on display.
Pre-recording gameplay footage and commenting over it later is becoming increasingly popular with integration like the PS4 “share” button, though the commenting-while-playing model remains the predominant one for single players as a means of preserving in the moment reactions. In this case, the pre-recorded footage lets Genghis and Shaw set up a sort of Holmes and Watson dynamic, wherein Shaw is seeing the footage for the first time (and thus gets to react as an outsider and in the moment) and Genghis is there to explain what’s going on in terms of what playing it was like, how the story is playing out, and any hiccups that occurred during recording. The pair are clearly longstanding friends, and that translates into an instant ease in their conversation that’s also welcoming to the incoming viewer.
Watching after the fact also allows for a lot of discussion on the game’s history, supplementary material, or plain old suppositions on why certain elements did or didn’t work – sometimes devolving into whole verbal rewrites of failed plot threads. It’s analytical while remaining playful and fond, a winning combination that provides the substantive content of something like an essay while simultaneously showing the gameplay itself in full. A very have your cake and eat it too situation, for anyone who’s become curious about a game beyond watching the content in a vacuum.
The channel is new, as I mentioned, so it’s unclear what the pair’s longterm focus will be as far as genre. For now, they’ve completed the four games in the Clock Tower series, an enormously formative game in the horror genre that codified the helpless protagonist and relentless stalker formula going all the way back to the SNES. The three LPs since then (including the one that’s currently in progress) are horror/mystery themed adventure games – Sierra’s Laura Bow duology and a very odd little game called Return of the Phantom (yes, of the opera). The latter day ones feel particularly like triumphs, given that adventure games are a notoriously talky genre that don’t necessarily meld well with passive involvement. Genghis and Shaw have solved this by talking (and mocking) relentlessly in regards to the onscreen action, and then including a quick roundup of plot points at the end of the video to ensure that the viewer can stay in on the joke. It’s an enormously promising channel that I can’t urge you enough to check out. They deserve all the best.
To all of you, in America and throughout the world, may you be safe and surrounded by pleasant company of your own choosing. See you next time.