Let’s Play: Interactivity by Proxy in a Web 2.0 Culture (Part 2)

This week we continue unpacking the details of my recent conference paper on Let’s Plays, multimedia videogame walkthroughs, presented earlier this month for Rutgers. Last week offered an overview of the two main motivators behind game watching, creating types I called the Spectator and the Passenger. Today we look to Let’s Plays themselves to start drawing connections between performance and viewership behaviors as well as fan practices.

A standard text for this series in understanding the role of Web 2.0 in media sharing is Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture (New York University Press, 2006). I would also recommend Sports Fans (Daniel L. Wann, et al, New York: Routledge, 2001) for more about spectatorship theory as it pertains to both competitive and non-competitive sports, a connection direly critical to understanding certain aspects of online and offline game spectatorship.

To begin with, we’ll be creating an overview of four types of Let’s Plays before focusing this article specifically on two of them. It’s helpful to keep in mind that although I’m describing these as separate categories, in truth most Let’s Play walkthroughs represent a blend of two or more of these types. Nevertheless, it’s useful to think of these in terms of a taxonomy in order to isolate some of the prevailing motivations for crafting Lets Plays.

And, because it’s easier to break them down this way, let’s use Pokemon references.

Fire: The Expert

Fire-types love to show off. No one can play this game as well as they can, and it’s down to them to demonstrate just what is so spectacular about it.

Water: The Chronicler

Water-types revel in subtlety. Or maybe just freezing things in place. Chroniclers are also often completists, aimed at documenting the entire game in all of the ways that it can possibly be played.

Plant: The Comedian

Actually I don’t know why comedians are plant type . . . It seems an odd fit, but that’s one of the starter types, so there you go. Er. Anyway, Comedians are entertainers. They may or may not be experts and may or may not be about showing the viewer the entire scope of the game, but they do aim to please.

Electric: The Counter-Historiographer

Unpredictable. That’s the electric-type in a nutshell. Whether it’s a giant yellow rodent or a revisionist video series for Grim Fandango, counter-histories are about doing things differently than whatever’s come before them.

Read on, as today we’ll be looking specifically at the first two of these breeds, the Expert and the Chronicler.

The Expert

(Subtypes: the showman, the tutor, the achievement hunter)

Let’s Play Archive administrator Baldur Karlsson opens his video LP with a casual greeting reminiscent of a fireside chat: “Hi guys and welcome back to Max Payne” (“Part I Chapter 2: Live from the Crime Scene”, Baldurdash). He remains silent while the graphic novel cutscene plays out and upon assuming control of his character informs the viewer, “Our first enemies of the level are waiting for us just around this corner. They’re fairly easy to dispatch seeing as you got plenty of cover with these boxes . . . “

And so it goes. Karlsson’s voiceover serves the most obvious purpose of being a conventional walkthrough, demonstrating how a player can navigate the levels with skill. As an approach, it may be the most self-evident type: expert playthroughs have the most in common with how-to videos and strategy guides, the use of which has become so ubiquitous it’s hardly a shameful thing to admit anymore. On the internet, there is always someone who can play it better than you, so Karlsson’s demystifying narration acts not just as a supplemental footnote but integrates the walkthrough as a video manual.

Max Payne’s existential quandry

But mastery implies passion for a game, something Karlsson notes was integral to the emergence of Let’s Plays on the Something Awful Forums: “people were posting up screenshots of themselves playing various old fondly-remembered videogames (such as Oregon Trail and Pokemon) and including their own humorous commentary” (“The History of the Let’s Play Archive: An internet essay document by baldurk (tyrant), the incumbent LP janitor”, Let’s Play Archive).

As the practice evolved, coinciding with the proliferation of video streaming services, player skill became a prominent component — in some cases superceding concerns of comprehensive storytelling. “Watching a gamer play a video game is like watching athletes play sports,” says Maxwell Adams, leader of the Let’s Play collective Freelance Astronauts, “You can understand the body language out there, and read the intent behind every action. […] Sometimes the appeal from an LP comes from rooting for the player to win” (email interview, 25 Mar 2011). The sentiment is one shared by Ed Cunningham, producer of King of Kong (Picturehouse, 2007) and a former player for the NFL: “At the highest levels, we tend to be mesmerized by the skill of someone who can accomplish a physical feat much better than we can, [but] we can only be truly interested in watching a sport if we know how hard what we’re watching is to do” (email interview, 16 April 2008). In short, the esotericism of gaming “athleticism” is a significant element to what viewers of expert Let’s Plays find exciting: “There are tons of videos out there where someone plays a very difficult game or some kind of sadistic rom hack that is nearly impossible to win. People love this stuff” (Maxwell Adams).

The Chronicler

(Subtypes: the completist, the storyteller, the interpreter)

Contrasted with The Expert, The Chronicler is interested in creating comprehensive texts. This may be for the purpose of illuminating a long interactive narrative or revealing all the secondary text, side missions, and obscure locations within a game, but the prevailing sentiment is to show the viewer everything. Chroniclers may also be experts, of course, considering that games can change dramatically based on how well they’re played, but showing off ludic ability is not the focal point.

Two vastly different LPs can be looked at to help illustrate this spectrum of showmanship and comprehensiveness. First, consider Luisfe’s Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga Let’s Play, a screenshot and hypertext document intended to elucidate a fairly obscure Playstation2 RPG. We see elements of Baldur Karlsson’s attention to skill and tactics but moreover Luisfe’s walkthrough functions as a reference guide. As a game with a boatload of cryptic references to Hinduism, Luisfe uses outside links to relevant articles to help parse their significance, something we can see being far better suited to a textual walkthrough as opposed to voice commentary (“Cannibal Hinduism in Digital Devil Saga, Let’s Play Archive, 10 Mar, 2010).

A screencapture from Luisfe’s “Cannibalism in Digital Devil Saga” demonstrating its hypertextuality.

Secondly, Chip Cheezum and General Ironicus’s stellar Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence Let’s Play, which I will also discuss further when talking about comedic walkthroughs, goes some distance in detailing the immense complexity of the game’s text through its little Easter eggs but then admits, “We won’t be doing that, ’cause it’s hard” (“MGS3: Cruelty to animals is a sign of serious behavioral problems”, Let’s Play Archive, 14 Nov 2009). Nevertheless, Chip Cheezum and General Ironicus’s commentary is sprinkled liberally with gameplay tips and little facts about the game, demonstrating the extent to which attention to detail is significant even in humorous LPs.

A Wild Comparison Has Appeared!

We can see already how the ludological versus narratological concerns of Showman and Chronicler Let’s Players can differ substantially, but neither type is completely free from attending to both elements of the play experience. Baldur Karlsson’s Max Payne walkthrough may focus strongly on skillful play but still uses developer tool techniques to enhance his play’s cinematic feel (email interview, 15 Mar 2011). Luisfe’s Digital Devil Saga LP may not be as overtly humorous as Chip Cheezum and General Ironicus’s Metal Gear Solid 3 commentary, but each go to some length to deepen the viewer’s understanding of the game world. In both chronicles and how-to guides, performance of some nature is critical to accessibility.

Next week we’ll be looking at the remaining major Let’s Play types and start working toward the bigger questions that concern the practice’s growing popularity. In the meantime, I encourage you all to pop over to the Let’s Play Archive to take a look at some other great walkthroughs of all possible stripes.

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