I posted recently on Twitter that my mental health has taken a bit of a dive. I’ve found that during this time of low motivation, I’m spending virtually no time gaming and instead watching other people play games through sites like Twitch and YouTube. At the end of a long day when my mood is low, it’s easier to just sit in bed or on the couch with my eyes glazed over watching a Let’s Play than it is to pick up a controller and dive into a game. So since I haven’t been playing any games in order to talk about them here on Adventure Rules, I thought I’d change things up a bit and talk about what I’m watching.
When it comes to video game content, Let’s Plays are typically on the bottom of the totem pole for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those folks who says things like “why would you watch someone else play a video game when you could be playing a video game?” I get the appeal of the medium and as we’ll get in to later, there are specific types that appeal to me. But much more often I find myself “watching” YouTube videos that I can listen to, things like podcasts or discussions about the latest games. I spend a lot of time on channels like GameXplain or Easy Allies trying to keep up with the latest news, seeing if the views of other gamers match my own as well as seeing if I missed any secrets during trailers and the like. Since I spend most of my time with those shows I don’t end up watching that much Let’s Play content on a regular basis, only occasionally dipping into them when there’s not much going on in the news cycle.
When I do watch people play games on YouTube or Twitch VODs, I have a pretty specific set of criteria that I look for. Over the years I’ve refined that criteria as I’ve watched series that check all of my boxes – and series that left me wondering what I’m doing with my life. Rather than dragging the stuff I don’t like, I think it’d be more interesting to focus in on the three main types of videos that I truly enjoy, and talk about some of the personalities that share that content.
ODDLY SPECIFIC CATEGORY #1: BLIND LET’S PLAYS OF GAMES I LOVED AS A KID
Who doesn’t love a bit of nostalgia? For folks like me who grew up playing games and have over 20 years of consoles under our belts, a huge number of games have come and gone. And while I can easily load up a copy of Breath of the Wild and jump right back into that game if I want to, many of the games I once owned on Nintendo 64 or SNES are no longer in my life. The best way for me to revisit those titles is to do so through video content, and when I do I want to see the game through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have the same context as me.
For those who might be unfamiliar with the terminology, “blind” is the term typically chosen to describe a let’s play experience where the player hasn’t experienced the game before. They don’t know what’s going to happen, so everything they experience in the game is through a pair of fresh eyes. Now the audience can be “blind” as well if they haven’t played the game, but for me there isn’t a ton of appeal to that approach. If I’m watching a game I’ve never played, I can’t anticipate the moments when the player might be surprised, angry, confused, or scared. But when I know the game like the back of my hand, I can anticipate the big moments and wonder how the player is going to react. Watching someone else experiencing the iconic moments from my favorite older games and seeing how their perspective differs allows me to feel nostalgic while also adding a new layer of understanding to how others view it.
So who do I watch for blind let’s plays of many games that I myself have played? The main person I’ve been watching for this sort of content lately is Lucahjin, whose entire hook for her channel is “play games with me for the first time!” Luca’s sense of humor doesn’t exactly gel with mine – I find her to be a bit crude – but when it comes to having a huge backlog of games that I’ve enjoyed in the past she can’t be beat. I’ve been able to revisit a variety of games through Luca’s perspective from Phoenix Wright to Paper Mario to Banjo-Kazooie. I’ll recommend that particular series as a great one to check out because it’s probably one of the safer ones I’ve watched as far as potentially offensive humor, but also because she has her husband with her and he’s a Banjo veteran. As such, you get both the perspective of a new player alongside that of someone who played the game as a kid all in one go!
ODDLY SPECIFIC CATEGORY #2: LET’S PLAYS FOCUSED ON ANALYZING THE NARRATIVE AND DESIGN OF THE GAME
Over the course of maybe the last year, I’ve been discovering that I can geek out pretty hard about game design. I’m not someone who has ever really had the desire to be a game designer, and I still don’t. But what I have learned is that an understanding of what is going on behind the scenes actually enhances my appreciation of the product. Knowing the kinds of sacrifices that the developers had to make in order for their game to excel, understanding the technological struggles they overcame, or even learning the little tricks they use to make a certain game mechanism feel a certain way – all of these things help me to look at the games I am playing with a deeper appreciation for all of the layers and it enhances my enjoyment quite a bit.
Now there is certainly some value to learning about these kinds of things from the developers directly, or from channels like Did You Know Gaming that grab these bits of background info from other articles and interviews and the like. But there’s something really special to be in being able to recognize good or bad design in the moment, of being able to stop the gameplay for a minute and say “let’s take a second to talk about how this is effective or ineffective design.” I sometimes have these moments when playing games myself, but I can’t play every game out there and there are plenty of titles that open up opportunities for game design discussions that are worth checking out.
When it comes to this style of let’s play, I rely primarily on Adam Koebel, who is not only a streamer but also the co-creator of my favorite tabletop roleplaying game Dungeon World. He is a game designer (albeit in a different medium) so that perspective gives him an ability to really dig into this side of the hobby with a solid understanding. I find Adam’s sense of humor gels really well with my own and his almost teacher-like approach to his gameplay videos fits exactly what I want when breaking down design. Whether you have or have not played Persona 5, for example, I think there’s a lot to like in his coverage of the game as he analyzes everything from the aesthetics to the game mechanics to the compelling story of teens struggling with their identities.
ODDLY SPECIFIC CATEGORY #3: TABLETOP LET’S PLAYS OF NEW PLAYERS LEARNING THE MECHANICS OF A GAME FOR THE FIRST TIME
Tabletop roleplaying games are a huge hobby of mine that I simply don’t get to play often enough for my tastes. My work schedule combined with my status as a parent makes it so that I don’t have a lot of time to carve out for tabletops. Awhile back, I decided to handle that by filling my time with tabletops played by other people, and I began looking for let’s plays or Twitch streams that allowed me to hear the roll of the dice even when I wasn’t able to play for myself.
I quickly discovered that I don’t like most tabletop shows, particularly the most popular one, Critical Role. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the talent of those voice actors, and Matt Mercer is both an excellent GM and a stand-up human being. But Critical Role is a game of Dungeon & Dragons where everyone at the table is deeply familiar with the rules, and so those rules get very little screen time. For me as a tabletop enthusiast, the appeal of the game lies in those core mechanisms that drive it. I want to see them given attention, I want to understand why things are happening the way that they are; I’m not particularly interested in the funny voices or in the GM’s clever story. I’m there for the game, so I want the video to be about the game.
I’ve not necessarily found one single channel that does this well consistently – and I’ve never found a game of Dungeons & Dragons that scratches this itch – but there are some channels where games other than D&D are played and they are given the kind of attention that appeals to me in the videos. There’s a show called Rollplay on itmeJP where all kinds of different tabletop roleplaying games are explored, and often the players aren’t familiar with the rules when indie titles are featured. During these shows, the game’s mechanisms are explored to the depths that I enjoy as the players are learning the rules for the first time. This is where I first got to see Blades in the Dark in action and I realized that this game needed to be in my home library; the players are all excellent cast members and getting to see John Harper run the game as he intended is a great lesson for future Blades GMs.
The great thing about our hobby is that there are so many interesting ways to experience it. Whether you want to watch a comedian take a few cracks at a game you hate or you want to watch someone find every glitch and break in order to finish a game as quickly as possible, whether you love watching a group of friends play together or you love experiencing the story of deep single player experiences, there’s something for everyone to find and watch. While the types of videos I like to watch may be hard to search on YouTube or Twitch, even my weird tastes have folks out there to satisfy them. If you’re an avid watcher of Let’s Plays, I’d love to hear about the kinds of content you watch in the comments below – particularly if you have any recommendations!