The Joy Of Playing Video Games Without Actually Playing Them

The Joy Of Playing Video Games Without Actually Playing Them

Playing video games can be wonderful. Sometimes not playing them can be even better. See, games are often time-devouring. Tedious. Difficult. Annoying. You might not want to spend hours of your life grinding for experience points to kill a dragon or shooting up bloody clouds of soldiers en route to some submarine. (There’s always a submarine.) And sometimes you don’t want to activate that part of your brain that has to actually do things; you want to sit back with a latte and let your mind relax as your eyes absorb polygon-packed renders of buff space marines and gorgeous anime princesses.

So why not let someone else play for you?

There’s a forum on Something Awful called Let’s Play, a wonderful place where dedicated gamers devote roughly bazillions of hours to the noble task of playing games for other peoples’ amusement, then record the experience in detailed walkthroughs. They can be video recordings, screenshot-stuffed play-by-plays, or some sort of blend of the two. And they’re usually presented with some sort of snarky or interesting commentary for our entertainment.

Although the idea of vicarious gaming certainly didn’t originate on Something Awful — gaming play-by-plays are as much an Internet tradition as fanfiction, porn, and fanfiction porn — the Let’s Play forum has become a nexus for those who enjoy watching other people play through games. Go ahead and flip through this archive of Let’s Play threads. There are quite a few out there. Some are smart, educational, hilarious. Almost all of them are fun to read.

In many ways they’re even more pleasant than actually playing games.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on that forum over the years, thumbing through Let’s Plays of games both new and old to read everything there is to read about the hidden secrets of Saga Frontier or the endless plot twists of Metal Gear Solid. When crafted and presented well, these threads are both addictive and delightful. In many ways they’re even more pleasant than actually playing games.

“Blasphemy!” you might be screaming at your computer screen, ready to scroll down to Kinja and type something nasty before the drool can even evaporate from your bottom lip. “Do you even like video games? Get fired! Asshole!”

Back up a second there. I certainly love playing games — I probably wouldn’t work for Kotaku if I didn’t — but I also believe that life is short. My tolerance for tedium grows lower with every passing day. When I feel like a video game is throwing useless tasks at me in an attempt to hit that vaunted “8-10 hours of gameplay” marketing bullet point, I just want to turn it off. Or watch someone else do that shit for me.

Here’s an example: For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, a role-playing game that is not very fun at all. (Check tomorrow’s Random Encounters for more thoughts on that abomination of a sequel.) After spending some 20 hours with Square Enix’s unpolished turd, I finally gave up and hit the Let’s Play archive just to read what would happen next. And after seeing the answer, I’m really glad I did.

(You might be wondering why I spent 20 hours with a game I didn’t enjoy playing. This is because I am crazy.)

It’s not just the bad games that are fun to play vicariously. What if you feel like replaying a game? What if you want to experience something you haven’t played in a decade but you just don’t have the hours to tread ground you’ve already tread? It’s much easier to spend an evening reading someone else’s playthrough than to spend a week firing up the old PlayStation just to see if Resident Evil is as scary as your nostalgia says it is.

What if a game isn’t as awesome as you remember it? Or as awesome as other people remember it?

And, hey, what if a game isn’t as awesome as you remember it? Or as awesome as other people remember it? What if you missed a classic like Deus Ex or Final Fantasy VII and you’re worried that everyone else’s imaginations have aged much better than the actual experiences? Let’s Plays can help plug in those gaming knowledge gaps that you’ve never had the time or energy to fill.

They can also teach you how to break a game. Or walk you through English versions of games that have never been released in America, in case you’re one of those people who refuses to use emulators.

So here’s the big question: can a Let’s Play really replace the experience of interactive entertainment? On one hand, you’re still getting a bulk of the experience; watching or reading someone else play through at least the majority of a given video game does far more to stimulate your brain than, say, reading its summary on Wikipedia. But without the feeling of a controller in your hand, are you really getting much out of a video game?

I think the answer is no, but it’s a tough no. Think back to some of the games you’ve played over the years: are there any you’d rather have sat down and watched with a bucket of popcorn? Or read on your iPad before bed? Wouldn’t you rather have let someone else battle through all of those random encounters? Or navigate those awful water levels?

Granted, if a video game’s quality is based on the meaningful choices it offers, you’re limiting yourself by not experiencing them on your own. But for games that put you through way too much busywork, games you’ve always wanted to check out but just never had the time to try, games that don’t seem rewarding enough to deserve 10-20 hours of your precious time, Let’s Plays can be a valuable alternative.

Not that you should ever stop playing video games, of course. But if your backlog is getting out of hand or you just want to know what all of your friends are talking about when they quote BioShock or rave about Skyrim, there’s nothing wrong with letting someone else do all of the hard work.

Photo: Milos Stojanovic/Shutterstock


  • I love Let’s Plays, if only so I can see how someone might do something differently to me. A good writer can provide some really interesting insight on a game I hadn’t considered – it’s the same reason I loved reading the exhaustive movie recaps over at before they switched to doing only videos for advertising reasons. Why watch a bad movie when I can read a scene by scene description with colour commentary?!

    You play a game or watch a movie to entertain yourself. Watching someone else dissect it for you is a different kind of fun. I’ve found writing up a recap or Let’s Play yourself can even make you more aware of things you didn’t think of the first time round, and teach you a lot about story telling and design decisions.

    • But of all the major storytelling mediums, games are by far the worst. Books, movies, comics and TV all have better, more well-told stories than games. What’s good about games is that you’re in control of them, so if the core gameplay mechanics are fun, the game is good regardless of why my character is shooting aliens. Oh, he’s trying to resolve his mother issues while at the same time fighting to stop the alien queen before she sets off the Omega bomb and turns all humans into cybernetic lizards? I don’t know, I skipped the cutscenes. I’m shooting aliens because it’s cathartic and they’ll kill me if I don’t.

      So as you can see, the way you play games is conclusively wrong, and you should start enjoying them the same way I do or stop entirely.

      • Oh ho ho, you nearly got me. I was nearly going to write a big long post in favour of the beautifully crafted stories that have been told by games, that could ONLY be told by games because of the interactive and immersive nature of the experience, but then I realised this is surely flamebait.

        Well played, sir and/or ma’am.

        • Well yeah, the part where I dismissed Mr. Yield’s view was merely a jolly jape, but I do believe everything else I wrote. A minority of games’ stories are decent, an even smaller amount are well-told, and I’ve never come across one I would call beautiful. I don’t recall ever feeling saddened by a character’s death, or angered by the villain’s villainy, or surprised by any startling plot developments.

          It’s not that I wouldn’t like to be engaged on that level, but I play games to play games and as such have no patience for non-interactive parts, which tend to be the parts where the game tries to tell me why I’m doing what I’m doing. Good gameplay completely compensates for a bad or non-existent story (to suggest otherwise would be dismissing the vast majority of arcade games, racers, sports games, simulations, and just about anything released pre-1990), but I’ve never seen a case where a good story has persuaded me to slog through un-fun gameplay.

          But that’s just me, and I’m only 100% irrefutably correct.

  • The only time I watch other people play games on the internet is when I’m watching speed runs, or if I’m watching professional Starcraft 2 matches. Other than that, I play them myself!

  • I love let’s play and watch them constantly, I also watch let’s plays on games I;ve played and plan to play.

    The worry I have with people watching let’s plays is not the act itself, but the reason behind the act.

    Are we watching because of the commentary? because we have a lack of time and therefore can’t PLAY the games, or because we feel we don’t have the time to be good at, or complete the game, so we don’t bother even starting it…….

    • I LP games where i’m interested in the story, but not the mechanics. For instance, I really don’t like playing point-and-click adventure games, so I LP the ones that I hear are good (Machinarium, Botanicula, Beneath A Steel Sky, THE DIG, etc.). Recently i’ve started LP’ing FPS’s, like Spec Ops: The Line, as they’re really not bringing anything new to the table, mechanics wise, but the story is supposedly very good.

      • I read a good Let’s Play of The Dig at lparchive, I loved the indignance about what they considered the stupidest puzzle ever and the goddamned turtle puzzle. I finished that game years and years ago but reading through the LP was great!

  • I can agree with the grinding. I’ve been playing Max Payne 3 occasionally due to some parts just being ridiculously repetitive. I can’t bring myself to lower the difficulty just to pass those bits that turn me off the game.

    I hate being stuck in a section with no ammo and just having to repeat for that one perfect run against all the section baddies to progress. That’s why Max Payne has been an on/off affair for me.

    It’s not the only game I’ve done that with either. So watching someone else play could highlight some things I’m not aware of or tactics that would avoid such game pitfalls.

  • The only time i’ve watched videos of someone else playing was watching DayZ, i dont have a PC capable of playing it but something about watching the struggles and often hilarious moments in that game keep me glued to YouTube.

    Oh and Achievement Hunter lets play videos are the funniest by far.

  • I was wondering when Kotaku would get around to looking at Let’s Plays! I’ve dug them for ages and am constantly surprised at the level of time and effort some people put into their work. There’s a great one on Dark Souls currently going on at Something Awful and the Chip and Ironicus Metal Gear Solid series are fantastic.

    • Is that Dark Souls one from the same guy that did the brilliant Demon’s Souls one a little while ago?

      • Nah it’s a different guy, this guy is doing a blind run. However, he’s played Demon’s Souls and is actually pretty decent – and he has someone else there giving him some rough guidance (but not very much). He beat the bridge demon thing first go…I was in utter shock.

  • I love this. I sit at work daydreaming all day long about replaying games I’ve played through for nostalgia’s sake – but when I get home I’m finding increasingly that I could not be F’d actually firing up my console. Definitely gonna give this a look!!

  • I love watching LPs. I usually watch them for games I’m interested enough to see but not interested to buy for myself.

    As mentioned above Two Best Friends are hilarious to watch. On their own personal channel, they have full play through’s of some games as well as their usual 10-20 minute funny moment compilations.

  • I find !!(MOST)!! Let’s Plays reealllly difficult to watch actually, they tend to be slow, tedious, and frankly I’m better at games than a majority of those that do Let’s Play vids. I usually find myself criticising their play, being frustrated that I can’t just take over, or at least help them out, and uncomfortable with the players attempts at small talk while they miss a jump for the 15th time This does tend to be worse with games or even just genres I’m overly familiar with, and as i said most, not all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a few.

    If I really don’t feel like playing a game but am in a gaming mood I go to speed demos archives, if Let’s Play makes me feel like a gaming god, SDA slams me back down to feeling like a child fumbling with a controller, truly entertaining stuff and some of the commentaries are really interesting.

    • Also I heartily disagree that watching a ‘Let’s Play’ is an acceptable alternative to actually playing the game in most cases. (Games like Uncharted are an exception to this, it’s essentially a shooting gallery with custscenes) Watching and playing, mastering, feeling the feedback are completely different experiences. Interactivity is what makes games games, it doesn’t bother me if someone watches instead of plays, but implying that one can substitute the other for the same basic experience is, I think, false. It’s more accurate to say you get two different experiences that share the common elements of plot and visual stimuli.

    • About time someone mentioned the SDA! If I want to watch a game being played (Starcraft commentary and Yogscast MC vids excepted) I pretty much head there and watch in awe as someone awesomesauces their way through a game.

  • As a little kid I used to love watching my older brother play games. Especially zelda!
    I was too young to know how to play myself, but I always found it so interesting to watch my brother and cousins play games.. I kinda miss it

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