Let’s Play: Interactivity by Proxy in a Web 2.0 Culture (Part 3)

Today marks the third of four articles dedicated to fully unpacking my recent paper for Rutgers School of Communication, presented earlier this month at the Game Behind the Video Game conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Our previous articles focused on vectors for audience engagement and two of the four major taxonomic categories of Let’s Play walkthroughs, the Expert and the Chronicler. We continue our taxonomies today with discussion of the third major LP type, the Comedian, before concluding next week with our final type and an overarching discussion of Let’s Plays as a fan practice.

Returning to our Pokemon analogy of last week, let’s revisit our preliminary description of major Let’s Play types.

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. Last week, I cited the work of Baldur Karlsson as being located in this category.

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, as much as can possibly be played. I pointed to the screencap Let’s Plays of Luisfe as being emblematic of this type.

Plant: The Comedian

Forgetting the failed analogy of comparing any group of Let’s Players to sedentary flora, the important thing is that 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

Finally, the Counter-Historiographer is defined by his or her conscious, stated intention of doing things differently. As a result, this is the most varied type of Let’s Player. The Counter-Historiographer puts a personal or unique touch on whatever game is at hand, be it by revisiting a previously covered title or using other tools, official or not, to personalize the record.

Today, we will be focusing on the third of these, the comic Let’s Play.

The Comedian

(Subtypes: satirist, slapstick comedian, MSTer, machinimator)

This will be the Let’s Play group of greatest interest to most readers. Comedy is a peculiar thing to locate within interactive performance, particularly when a great deal of video game comedy depends on the viewer’s previous understanding of games. We can understand what’s funny about Maxwell Adams and the Freelance Astronauts’ New Super Mario Bros Wii play even from very little formal contextualization, as the ideas that frame the interpersonal dynamics that they display are identifiable even from minimal multiplayer experience. From the systems of signs that allow us to interpret things as essential as left-to-right movement to air control, power-ups, and obstacles, the Freelance Astronauts’ Super Mario play is performed like a three-legged race in which the participants continually sabotage each other. The fact that amusement can be derived from these activities — watching the execution of mechanics, struggling with bugs and balance issues, competing for powerups — paves the way for more complex shared experiences involving narrative and visuality as well as gameplay.

Being a Sega orphan, this image makes no sense to me at all.

In furthering our understanding in how humor in Let’s Plays goes from slapstick (“physical” comedy), we can look to the role of genre in shaping and subverting expectations. Some Let’s Plays derive their comedy from genre awareness, such as VoidBurger’s Silent Hill Let’s Plays (“Huh. LP. What’s going on with this LP? Let’s Play Silent Hill 1!”, Let’s Play Archive, 8 Feb 2011). Others thrive on sheer genre obliviousness, the latter particularly when the game in question is not easily classified or has been made deliberately opaque for the conventional player, such as Schildkrote’s group Let’s Play of Desert Bus (“Satan’s Accountants and Friends Ride the Desert Bus, Let’s Play Archive, 14 Dec 2007). Thirdly and less commonly, some also allow the madcap absurdity or eccentricity of a title to stand without commentary, but as one of the key characteristics of Let’s Plays is providing the role of a guide, it’s easy to see why this takes a back seat to more personality-driven approaches.

We can also further bifurcate the humor in comedic Let’s Plays into supportive and resistant or subversive styles of comedy. As an example of the first variety, Chip Cheezum and General Ironicus’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence Let’s Play (which we discussed last week in reference to chronicle and expert LPs), if anything, enhances the underlying comedy of the game by taking its obsessively detailed systems of acquisition and collection to their hyperactive conclusion:

Chip: Wait, another animal! I have to murder it! Now! You must die, frog!

Ironicus: (laughing) Why are you so violent?

Chip: I have to eat every thing. Every edible thing I must have in my mouth. And you can shoot more fruit off the trees.

Ironicus: But, but you could just pick up the fruit. You don’t have to punch the fruit!

Chip: Well, I could have stabbed it too.

Ironicus: You don’t have to kick the mushroom across the map!

Chip: –I could have shot it–

Ironicus: –Pick it up. Just pick it up!

As to the second kind of commonly-seen LP humor, the resistant or subversive sort, this would be the recognizably parodic form that renders the comedic Let’s Play as the spiritual cousin of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show unquestionably near and dear to many within the same cultures of geekiness where Let’s Plays find their audience. We see this again with VoidBurger’s subtitle commentary and her gonzo musical interjections. It is also this sort of subversiveness that edges Let’s Plays closer to another form of creative videogame remixing, machinima.

Machinima are animated works created using game engines, the most popular being the Halo machinima Red vs Blue, on which I’ve also written previously. More closely, I’d like to draw attention to another popular web series, Freeman’s Mind, which in many ways is much like a typical video walkthrough with a fanfictional twist: the voiceover commentary is written in character as Gordon Freeman’s thoughts and as he reacts to the increasingly dire and absurd circumstances of the original Half-Life in real time as the director/actor/gamer plays through it.

Obviously, Freeman’s Mind and something like Chip Cheezum’s manic in-game gluttony are created out of separate intentions. There is no pretense that Chip Cheezum’s commentary is a stand in for Naked Snake the character, but the parodic way that Ross Scott exaggerates Freeman’s reactions (or in some ways, doesn’t) makes both works operate on a level recognizably similar for many gamers. This is especially so given the more fluid nature of character association and immersion found in games — in fact, this is one of the more intrinsic qualities qualities that separate Let’s Plays from other media. On some level, we know that Ross Scott is just roleplaying the character of Gordon Freeman, just as we acknowledge that Chip Cheezum and VoidBurger are participating in the roles of Naked Snake and Harry Mason, respectively. Ultimately, the line between Let’s Plays and machinima has the potential to become quite blurry.

“Man, if only I hadn’t gone into work today.”

We’ll conclude next week by looking at the fourth and final of our important Let’s Play types, the counter-historiographer, as well as its implications on the practice of Let’s Playing as a whole. As should be evident from the material covered already, these multimedia web documents serve functions as far reaching as the performance of fan cultural identity, explorations of games as both texts and systems, and oppositional interpretations — all elements that come to a head with the counter-historiographer. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion.